With enough everyday issues pressing us throughout our hectic lives, the last thing we need is an injury.
Unfortunately, however, that’s exactly what we get when we press too much in the gym, literally. Of all the aches and pains regular gym rats and bunnies complain about, the shoulders have to rank among the very highest and too much bench pressing or press-related exercises are usually the culprits.
The good news is that most shoulder injuries can be easily avoided, and today we will find out just how.
Why is the shoulder so susceptible to injury? Whatever we design always incorporates trade-offs depending on our priorities. A sports car can sacrifice comfort for performance, for example, or a home sacrifice function for style.
When it comes to the human shoulder, mobility is the key. It is one of the most mobile joints in the body, capable of great ranges of motion and carrying out a great array of tasks.
From threading a needle to opening jam jars or carrying six-packs of big water bottles, the muscles of the shoulders and arms must continuously accommodate and adjust to our every need.
When compared to other major joints like the hips, it is clear that in the case of our shoulders, stability has been sacrificed in favour of this mobility. The hips can’t move quite as freely, but are highly stable and virtually impossible to dislocate in healthy young adults.
Shoulder dislocations, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen. Since the shoulder lacks structural skeletal support like the hips do, it must rely instead on the muscles that surround it.
The major muscles of the upper body all cross over the shoulder joint at some point, so there is a lot of soft tissue there just waiting to be aggravated by any abuse we may inflict upon it.
The rotator cuff muscles in particular are a set of deep muscles that help support and stabilise the shoulder joint, which lie particularly susceptible to injury.
Injuries can be acute, which means they are a result of some sudden episode or impact, or they can be overuse injuries which develop gradually over time as a result of sustained poor technique or simply too much training.
If you practise any sport involving throwing, like waterpolo or handball, or even sports involving racquet implements like tennis or squash, poor technique and bad habits can also lead to serious shoulder problems.
If you are playing recreationally, a couple of sessions with a qualified coach will do wonders for your game, as well as help hone your technique with a view to avoiding injuries.
Minor adjustments can sometimes make all the difference, like shooting in handball or water polo with the elbow higher than shoulder level. Failing to satisfy this basic technique has spelt disaster for many athletes.
For the rest of us, gym users in particular, shoulder injuries generally rear their ugly heads when our exercise programme lacks thoughtful design. Programmes involving too many pressing exercises can strain the shoulders heavily without allowing adequate time for recovery.
The major mistakes here are failing to acknowledge that certain exercises stress the shoulders in the same way, and performing other exercises in a way which puts the shoulders into positions they don’t really want to be in.
Remember that shoulder presses, incline presses, bench presses, decline presses and dips all stress the shoulders in a similar fashion.
Performing all of these exercises heavily and to a point of muscular failure, week in and week out, is simply asking for trouble.
You might be able to keep it up for a while, but it’s only a matter of time until you find yourself looking for an uninjured shoulder to cry on.
If you would like to perform multiple pressing movements throughout any given training week, focus on just one for the purposes of lifting heavy, and go easy on the rest, or omit them altogether.
So if you have worked hard and heavy on the barbell bench press for example, avoid heavy shoulder presses in the same week.
Both exercises stress the front deltoid shoulder muscle heavily.
Also remember that barbell, dumbbell, or machine variations of any single exercise still affect the same joints and muscles.
Performing a chest workout consisting exclusively, for example, of chest presses performed first with a barbell, then with dumbbells, and finally on a machine will result in far too much pressing.
Pick just one pressing exercise, and limit your remaining chest and shoulder work to alternative exercises like flyes with dumbbells or cables, and upright rows or lateral raises in good form for the shoulders.
Also, when performing exercises like lateral pulldowns for the back or shoulder presses with a barbell, avoid lowering the handles or bar back behind your neck, as this is your first class express ticket to a condition known as shoulder impingement.
This happens when the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles become inflamed, resulting in severe pain and loss of mobility.
If you take all the necessary precautions yet still find yourself shouldering an injury, rest completely. It is difficult to work around a shoulder injury so just cease all resistance training for a whole week.
If that doesn’t work, or if you find yourself in severe pain for up to three days then it’s time to seek medical help.