5 Reasons Your Shoulder Is Jacked Up and Not Jacked Part I

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We work with a lot of overhead athletes at Cressey Performance – in particular baseball players – and it’s no coincidence that we deal with, address, work around, and (hopefully) fix a lot of shoulder issues ranging from the acute like AC joint issues and external/internal impingement to the more “oh shit factor” scenarios like shoulder separations and post surgery situations.

And using the word “acute” in this instance isn’t to downplay things like impingement (as anyone who’s had to deal with a chronic case will think otherwise), but rather it’s just to put things into perspective that some shoulder pathologies take a little more attention to detail and TLC compared to others.

As an example I can’t tell you how many times someone’s walked into the facility complaining of consistent shoulder pain preparing for the worst, only to demonstrate to them that their push-up technique is god-awful.

I didn’t need to resort to bells, whistles, and smoke machines or take a page out of Professor Dumbledore’s Magic Book of Bedazzling Hexes and Awesome Shoulder Remedies (on sale now through Amazon!) to show them how to perform a push-up correctly and to not piss their shoulder off further.

Unfortunately, it’s not always so cut and dry.  For many people out there – average Joe’s and meat heads in particular – living their day to day life with shoulder pain or discomfort is sometimes second nature.  Analogous to riding a bike, putting your left sock on before the right, or reaching for that second cup of coffee. Or fifth, don’t worry I won’t judge.

What’s more, some view it as a proverbial right of passage or badge of honor, as if living with daily pain comes with the territory for those who spend their free time lifting heavy things.

While true, there is some semblance of “risk” involved, and many will undoubtedly have a few bumps and bruises along the way (we’re lifting weights here not doing origami), just “dealing” with pain  and sucking it up isn’t an option in my book.

That said, not many things can derail one’s progress in the gym like a banged up shoulder.  Okay, a Zombie apocalypse or a raging case of explosive diarrhea rank fairly high on the list for sure.  But a nagging shoulder injury bites the big one, too.

Below, while not an exhaustive list, are some of the more common “reasons” why your shoulder may be hating you.

1.  No, Seriously, Your Technique Is Horrible

I won’t beat a dead horse here, but it stands to reason that half the reason your shoulder hurts all the time is because your exercise technique is less than exemplary.

I know, I know:  you’ve been lifting weights since stone washed jeans were considered a cool fashion trend, and there’s no conceivable way you’re doing something incorrectly.

Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise!

Taking the time to actually learn how to perform a push-up correctly or how to bench press correctly – or at the very least tweak things to make them more “shoulder friendly” – will go long ways in keeping your shoulders healthy.

It’s akin to lightly tapping your thumb with a hammer.  While seemingly not a big deal at first, before long, it’s excruciating.

Constantly performing your exercises with shitty technique day after day, week after week, and month after month will eventually lead to some bad things happening.  Namely a shoulder ouchie.

And this goes for rowing variations, too.  You’d be surprised as to how many people butcher these on a day to day basis.

A perfect example would be something as innocuous as a face pull.

* Video courtesy of the one and only Mike Robertson

I was training at a commercial gym not too long ago and watched a gentleman perform this exercise with the exact opposite form Mike demonstrates above.

For starters, he held the rope with a pronated (overhand grip) which locks you into more internal rotation and thus compromises the acromion space.

Secondly, he’d allow his scapulae to go into posterior tilt with each rep, and worse he’d substitute scapular retraction with an excessive forward head posture.

While I’m sure he had good intentions for including the exercise in his program, the execution was less than to be desired and was probably causing more harm than good.

And this goes for just about every rowing variation out there.  You’d be surprised as to how many people butcher technique and aren’t even close to performing them correctly.

Take the time do things right, and your shoulder will thank you.

 2.  Your Program Kinda Sucks

More to the point: it’s the structure of the program thats sucks. It’s common in the strength and conditioning community to talk about programming imbalances, especially as it pertains to the upper body.

Dissecting most training programs, it’s not uncommon to see significant favoritism or preponderance towards pushing exercises compared to pulling.  It’s no secret:  guys like to bench press.  And as such, many develop muscular imbalances (overactive/stiff pecs and weak/inhibited upper back musculature) which results in a less than happy shoulder.

To counteract this, many fitness professionals will advocate more pulling motions compared to pushing – oftentimes to the tube of a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio.

In other words: for every pushing exercise prescribed, they’ll “counteract” it with two to three pulling exercises.

This is sound advice, and definitely a step in the right direction for many trainees.  But we’re omitting another less obvious (yet equally as important) component, and it’s something Eric highlighted last year and that we’ve been addressing at Cressey Performance for a while now.

And that is:

While anterior/posterior imbalances are important to address, not many people give any credence to superior/inferior imbalances.

Translated into English, we also have to be cognizant of the interplay between upward and downward rotation.  More and more (especially with our baseball guys, but even in the general population as well) we’re seeing guys walk in with overly depressed shoulders. For visual reference, cue picture to the right.

Most baller t-shirt, ever ================>

This can spell trouble for those whose livelihood revolve around the ability to get their arms over their head (baseball players) as the downward rotators of the scapulae (levator, rhomboids, and especially the lats) are kicking into overdrive and really messing with the congruency and synergy between the scapulae, humeral head, glenoid fossa, and acromion process.

And this doesn’t just pertain to overhead athletes either.  We’re seeing this quite a bit in the general population as well, as we as fitness professionals have been shoving down their throat  “shoulder blades together and down, shoulder blades together and down” for years now.

In this case, some dedicated upper trap work would be advisable so as to encourage more scapular UPWARD rotation.  And no, relax, I’m NOT referring to barbell shrugs.

These wouldn’t be useful because there’s no “real” scapular upward rotation involved, and you’re doing nothing but encouraging more depression anyways.

Instead drills like Forearm Wall Slides with Shrug;

And Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion will work wonders.

Too, it may come down to toning down things like heavy deadlifts, farmer carries, and anything that entails holding onto heavy dumbbells (since all will pull the shoulder girdle down promote significant shoulder depression) in favor of more overhead/waiter carries, Goblet variations (squats, reverse lunges, etc), and barbell related work.

Just some food for thought anyways.

And that’s it for today. Be sure to check back tomorrow for some more insight and conversation on why your shoulder is jacked up and not jacked.

SPOILER ALERT: your shoulder may not be the issue in the first place!

*Smoke bomb, smoke bomb.  Exit stage left*

Also, as an a side (and giving credit where it’s due):  Title inspiration came from THIS article I read a while back on Elitefts.com.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Steve Bergeron

    Awesome stuff dude. You and Eric's posts and articles have shaped my career. It is unreal how much I have learned from you both over the past couple years. You need to transform your blog into a book and have it published. Srsly. Thanks.

    January 31, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sam Shepler

    Re: ”shoulder blades together and down" being an flawed instruction... Can you suggest a more accurate and correct cue perhaps?

    February 1, 2013 at 1:47 am | Reply to this comment

  • Michael Thompson

    Tony, Thanks for the Awesome post man! I for one live in serious scapular depression, which is trouble for me because of a separated AC and an unstable SC joint (it pops really really loud) on my right side. One thing I did not know was that by doing deadlifts I was actually causing myself more pain! Thanks for that dude my shoulder will thank you! On the other hand I know that Back Squats are not that health for my shoulder, front squats piss off my AC joint, and now (F! NOT DL's...) What do I have left to lift heavy? Seriously?

    February 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, at least for the time being, it might be advantageous to nix the deadlifting for a bit and focus on things like Goblet variations (or anything where you don't have to hold DBs), GHRs, glute bridges, etc. As well as hammer those upper trap drills I talked about.

      February 3, 2013 at 9:32 am | Reply to this comment

  • Blake

    Great article! I'm a beginner with a lot of questions. I've had a clicking in my shoulder during OHP and last workout I had to stop before my last set of incline press due to pain in the same shoulder. My plan is to rest the shoulder for a couple weeks to give it time to heal. Could you elaborate on how i could incorporate these exercises (Forearm Wall Slides with Shrug, Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion, Quadruped Extension-Rotation, Bench T-Spine Mobilization, Side Laying Windmill) into my routine? Are they done in a 3x10? Should I be doing these before or after compound lifts? Are these only used until the problem is corrected or are they more of a maintenance to help keep the problem from coming back? In the video about row technique it showed that moving the elbow posterior to the midline was harmful due to the head of the humerus shifting anterior. I recently swapped out bent over rows for inverted rows because i didn't feel comfortable with the form. On an inverted row would i stop when the elbow is even with the midline as opposed to stopping when my sternum hits the bar? At the beginning of the linked article (Tips For a Badass Bench Press) you mention your 3RM on chin-ups, is that in addition to body weight? should i have a weighted chin-up of my body weight plus my benches 1RM? How does the 3RM for chin-ups relate to pull-up 3RM? should those be close to each other? After my shoulder heals, would you recommend just maintaining my bench weight until i catch up with chin-ups? Thanks for taking the time to read this, I think this is going to really help protect my shoulder from further injuries.

    February 5, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Blake - Just perform those drills as part of a dynamic warm-up and/or as fillers between your main movements. I think you should take a grenade approach now and do them every day, but once symptoms subside, maybe just do them on days you train. WIth Inverted rows, much of the same idea applies. I still try to get people to pull until their chest touches the bar. 3RM chin-up = bodyweight + external load (but for some it may only be bodyweight). I don't think you need to wait until your bench catches up to your chin-up. I just think it comes down to appropriate programming. You can still bench, but try to perform more pulling movements to keep the shoulder healthy.

      February 6, 2013 at 8:25 am | Reply to this comment

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  • JR

    Thanks for this article! a) regarding the rows: do these tipps also apply to standing barbell rows? It seems to me that due to the fixed hand positions there is not a huge humerus head movement. Also, should I pull the bar more to the stomach or more to the chest (as you recommend in the vid)? b) In the back-to-wall shoulder flexion: Are the scapulae "tucked in" or rested flat against the wall or do you keep them loose, meaning not fixed at all by the wall? c) Which exercises would you recommend, if I have already shoulder pain / rotator cuff problems? Thank you very much! JR

    February 12, 2013 at 3:58 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      With the standing rows, you still want to make sure that you're not going into excessive GH extension (which, admittedly, will be harder with this variations). And I often tell people to pull to their sternum. With the back to wall shoulder flexion, the main point(s) to consider it making sure the lumbar spine stays flat against the wall the entire time. And for some, there will be a slight "shrug" towards the top end of the movement. If you're experiencing shoulder pain, I'd recommend seeking out a reputable manual therapist to get it checked out. Hard for me to make any recommendations without seeing you in person.

      February 12, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jake

    With the Forearm Wall Slides with Shrug and Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion, how often and what kind of rep/set range would you recommend? My right shoulder also rolls forward more than my left (years of playing bass guitar for long hours and having needed to do this) has led to a permanent change that I'm trying to fix. Thanks for this article.

    February 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      You may just need to perform things like scapular wall slides, more rowing variations, bench t-spine mobilizations at the like. I'd try to include all as part of a general warm-up prior to training and maybe shoot for 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps for a few weeks to see if you notice any improvements.

      February 13, 2013 at 8:48 am | Reply to this comment

      • Jake

        Thanks for the reply. I will start on these tomorrow before my workout.

        February 13, 2013 at 9:11 am | Reply to this comment

      • Jake

        I just tried the scapular wall slides and I can't get either my hands or elbows to touch the wall, they're about 1-2 inches away. Should I persist with these anyway or try something else? Thanks again.

        February 13, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          You can modify by stepping away from the wall a bit so that your feet are 12+ inches away. I'd like for your lumbar spine to be flat against the wall. It's okay if your shoulders and elbows don't touch. While not ideal, the important point is that you work on the scapular movement. Hopefully within time things will improve.

          February 14, 2013 at 7:46 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    If I ever saw some perform a Face Pull like that I would slap them. Seriously. Nice post Tony.

    December 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply to this comment

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