Tip: Build Your Shoulders. Don't Destroy Them.

Stop doing lateral raises and upright rows wrong. It could be what's wrecking your shoulder health.

"Abnormal" Pain Is A Red Flag

It's not uncommon to have aches and pains here and there. Muscles are sore. Joints may ache. Overuse injuries can occur. The early sign of things going awry is pain, but lifters and athletes have high tolerances for pain.

The smart ones know how to differentiate normal pain from abnormal pain. But many choose to ignore the abnormal and keep pushing through it, in hopes that it'll fix itself. It doesn't. And one of the most common sites for pain in lifters is the shoulder.

They can if you do them wrong. Let's look at the science first.

Subacromial impingement syndrome (SIS) of the shoulder occurs when the supraspinatus muscle rubs against the acromion process causing pain. So the muscle gets pinched between the top of humerus and the acromion process (bone protuberance of the scapula that reaches out over the top of the shoulder).

In a study by Kolber et al. researchers found that with a sample population of 46 recreational lifters, a little over a quarter of them experienced shoulder pain in the past three days, and about three-fourths of them had some sort of shoulder pain in the last year.

When combining the results for those who tested positive for two different shoulder impingement tests (Hawkins Kennedy and Painful Arc) 20% of those in the lifting group displayed SIS compared to only 4.8% in the control group.

After surveying the subjects, they ran a bunch of statistics and found that there was a significant association between shoulder pain and performing lateral raises above 90 degrees and upright rows above 90 degrees.

Lateral Raise
Upright Row

They also found a significant inverse-association between strengthening your external rotators and shoulder pain. So pain went down when people did exercises emphasizing external rotation (moving a joint away from the midline of the body).

First, if you've been doing lateral raises and letting your elbows rise above your shoulders, or you've been doing upright rows and your elbows come up past the shoulders, STOP THAT. This is probably the easiest step you can take to protect your shoulder health. Then start strengthening your external rotators.

If the shoulder pain persists, find a physical therapist who lifts. Have them help you figure out the source of the problem. Then take corrective action before that slight irritation in your shoulder grows into a problem that inhibits almost all other exercises. Be proactive.

  1. Kolber MJ et al. Characteristics of shoulder impingement in the recreational weight-training population. J Strength Cond Res
    . 2014 Apr;28(4):1081-9. PubMed.
Shawn Wayland studied exercise science and human performance in an academic setting. He is a nationally ranked cyclist, with hands-on experience in strength and endurance training. Shawn is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, located in Southern California. Follow Shawn Wayland on Facebook