10 Ways to Avoid a Shoulder Injury or Surgery


kaz-benchIn 2006 I went up to Boston to do a seminar at Total Performance Sports with some friends and colleagues of mine. The Friday night before it went down we all trained at TPS.

I was going toe to toe with my buddy Smitty of Diesel Strength & Conditioning while Alwyn Cosgrove looked on in amusement.

We went back and forth, constantly one upping each other and exchanging good-natured insults between sets.

Over the previous few months my shoulder had been getting worse and worse from years of stupidity in the gym and several crash landings on dirt bikes, ATV’s and an ill advised jump off my buddy Ed’s roof.

In those days I never listened to my body, though. And I always trained “hard,” with no thought given to training “smart.”

By the time I landed in Boston twenty years of bad decisions had caught up with me and my shoulder was hanging on by a thread.

But with Slayer cranking and some of the top powerlifters in the world all going at right in the same thousand square foot area we were in I had no choice but to go balls to the wall. That’s just the way I was back then.

So when Smitty pressed the 120’s I had to grab the 130’s…

We battled to the death that night then went out for grub and some good laughs later on. When I woke up the next morning I knew my shoulder was gone. There wasn’t much left in it anyway and I provided the stimulus to off it for good.

The next week I was told that I needed surgery. But like so many people I know I decided to put it off for another ten months. I worked around it and did what I could in the gym. Somehow I managed to only lose about 15 pounds during those ten months of crappy training.

Finally, I got the surgery and was unable to train for three months. I had to sleep sitting up with a huge cast on every night, popping pain pills every few hours. It was beyond depressing.

During this time I dropped another twenty pounds and looked even worse than I felt.

To this day there’s a huge gap of missing muscle on my right upper pec, shoulder and trap. It’s never going to look or perform the way it once did.

And to think I could have avoided all that.

Knowing what I know now I could have completely avoided shoulder surgery and probably the majority of injuries I suffered.

What’s done is done, however. I can’t go back and change the past, but you can prevent having the same thing happen to you with smarter training.

Here Are 10 Things You Can do to Avoid Shoulder Injuries

1) Warm up Properly

This is obviously a no-brainer for most, yet every time I’m in a public gym I see 99% of the people just walk in and start training. We can all take 5-10 minutes to go through some mobility and activation drills, and get some blood flowing before hitting the heavy stuff.

Scapular wall slides, shoulder dislocations, YTWL’s, and all that kind of stuff should be done as part of your regular upper body warm up.

2) Don’t Back Squat the Day After You Press Heavy

If your shoulder is a bit troublesome now a great way to make it worse is to bench Monday and squat on Tuesday. You’d be better off resting a day and waiting until Wednesday.

3) Use Dumbbell & Bodyweight Exercises Often

Bodyweight variations allow you to move freely and naturally through space. Most people only know a few different types of pushups but there are quite a few good ones that can be made into a 5-8 rep max if you know how to do them properly.

In addition to bodyweight exercises you should also use dumbbells for pressing as often as possible. Not necessarily in place of barbells but in addition to or for some variety. Doing nothing but barbell pressing will wear your shoulder out pretty quickly.

4) Do More Pulling Than Pushing

If you’re going to press heavy weights you’ve to to balance it out by doing a shit load of pulling. Chin ups don’t help in this matter. Only rowing variations and Olympic lifts. Strengthen the upper back and traps and you’ll reduce your chance of shoulder injuries.

5) Don’t Do Low Rep, Heavy Rows or Chins

When the subject of balancing out your training comes up many people get confused and think that they should be able to chin what they military press or row what they bench. This is not what we mean by balance. Your training will be in balance if you do enough volume on pulling exercises in relation to pushing. When you try match the loading you run into issues.

Heavy weighted chins are probably more dangerous than heavy bench presses. And rows done for triples aren’t that smart either.

6) Don’t Do Low Rep, Heavy Curls

Curls are a pump exercise. You want to swell up the guns and stretch your shirt sleeves. There are no curls in most lifting meets. Going heavy on this exercise is not only asking for wrist and elbow problems but it can also aggravate the biceps tendon and lead to shoulder problems. Stick with moderate weights, controlled tempos and low rest periods when training the pythons.

7) Use a Lacrosse Ball on Your Pecs and Upper Back

The tissue in those areas gets pretty gnarly and can contribute to injuries if you don’t get in there and break some of that crap up once in a while. Yes, it sucks and is brutally painful but you need to do it regularly.

8) Watch Out For The Upper Body Stuff on Your Lower Body Days

The following exercises are almost always done on a lower body day:

  • Turkish Get Ups
  • Ab Rollouts
  • Snatches
  • High Pulls
  • Overhead Squats
  • Cleans

The problem, of course, is that each of these greatly involve the upper body and thus, the shoulder joint. If you’re young and healthy this is no problem. If you’re not and you feel like you need to take better care of your shoulders then you need to take this stuff into consideration.

9) Change Your Exercises Every Few Weeks

Overuse injuries develop from doing the same thing over and over. Louie Simmons has gone to great lengths explaining the benefits of the conjugate system of rotating exercises to prevent burnout and overuse injuries. This is a critical component to staying healthy.

I love the message of simplicity, especially in The Age of Distraction, and believe you should focus on a few movements and their variations. Just not the exact same thing 52 weeks a year. There has to be some variety or you will inevitably get hurt. Of all the mistakes I made in my youth this was one that I didn’t, since I was influenced very early on by Louie and always varied my training.

10) Listen to Your Body

You’d think this would be obvious but that’s not always the case for meatheads like us.

Here’s what I used to do when my shoulder was bothering me during my warm up:

  • Grab a bottle of Blue Heat horse liniment and rub it on
  • Put on an extra layer of clothing so the sweating tricked me into feeling better
  • Drank some more coffee to sweat even more and because caffeine can mask pain
  • Turned the music up even louder. Because if I can’t hear myself think then I can’t feel pain either. Obviously…
  • Banged my head against the wall. Because if I feel pain in my head I won’t be able to think about the pain in my shoulder. Duh…
  • Put another board on my chest. “Shit, I can’t bench, let’s do two boards. Na, that hurts, get the three. Screw it, tape the two and three together and I’ll do a five board press.”

When something is bothering you don’t do it. Sticking to your program and fighting through pain is stupid. Just switch to something that doesn’t hurt. It’s either that or you’ll be emailing me for my surgeons number.

PS. Shoulder injury expert, Rick Kaselj, MS has just released Fix My Shoulder Pain and it’s on sale today. He’s got full details on all the exercises you should avoid and the inside track on why some of the stuff you’re doing right now may be ruining your shoulder without you even knowing it.

Don’t end up like I did.

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19 Responses to 10 Ways to Avoid a Shoulder Injury or Surgery

  1. Jorge October 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Great tips.

    I recently started doing handstand holds before pressing as you recommended recently and I feel much more secure when pressing the bigger weights – my shoulder girdle just feels more prepared to handle the stress.

    Quick question: how often is too often to change up exercises ?

    • Jason Ferruggia October 19, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      Glad to hear it, Jorge. With my guys who have a year of proper training experience we switch them up every 3-4 weeks. More advanced guys get more frequent changes. If you haven’t trained properly for a year and made some good progress I’d keep some big lifts in for 12 weeks and change assistance exercises every month. That’s what we do in MGS 2.0

  2. Jorge October 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Let me rephrase my above question a bit better: how often is too often to change the big compound lifts ?

  3. Nate October 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    I also just started doing the static handstand holds before benching. That’s an amazing tip, I have never felt better when doing presses. I’ll send the money I was saving for my shoulder surgery your way.

  4. Alex October 18, 2012 at 3:02 am #

    Good article !!
    I have a question.. i do weight training and MMA, plus a bit of cardio (swimming, bike riding), my weight training program is balanced, i do as much pulling as pressing, but my MMA training is all about pressing (a lot pushups,a ton of ab work), how much more pulling volume should i do in order to balance all the pressing of MMA training ?
    I allready do hyperextensions on every workout but i dont think that is enough, and i dont want to end up with rounded shoulders and back like most fighters do..
    I use a 3 day powerlifting split (mon, wed, fri) and 2 days MMA (tue, thu), should i fit in an extra day on saturday for pulling (deadlifts, rows, shrugs, pull ups and rotators for example) or will that be too much ? im over 35 and i squat fridays so i can have fresh legs for MMA..
    Would really appreciate your oppinion..
    Thx
    Alex

    • Jason Ferruggia October 19, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Alex- start by just adding more band pull aparts and face pulls to your workouts and even do them with bands on your off days.

  5. Shawn October 18, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    What is the issue with weighted pull ups in regards to shoulder health?

    • Derrick Blanton October 20, 2012 at 11:16 pm #

      As I see it, the issue is that the lats are generally stronger than their support network, and can often pull more than the traps can stabilize, and biceps can finish.

      If the traps give up the scapula, then the load at some point is going to be borne by the bi’s, or more accurately the long head of the biceps tendon. This is less likely with pronated grip, more likely with neutral grip, and even more likely with supinated (chin up) grip.

      I can firsthand confirm what Jason is saying on this one. This is the exact mechanism that caused me several months of pain and irritation in my anterior shoulder. Bicipital tendinitis wrecks almost every upper, and many lower body lifts. Don’t get it!

      In a general sense, this is analogous to the mixed grip while DL’ing, there is a risk to the supinated arm.

  6. Robbie J October 18, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    I gotta show my pops this.

    Great article Jay, as always.

  7. Ben October 18, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Great Article Jason. Wish I would’ve read this years ago. I am scheduled for shoulder surgery next month to have a Slap tear repaired and possible biceps tenodesis. What kind of Labral tear did you have?

  8. James October 19, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    I do some TGU in addition on all days (currently doing your Uncaged program). Heavier ones on day 1. Light and easy on day 2. Weight ladder on day 3 and light again on sled day. The heavy let me know how much I can try to go for it for the top end sets and the light just for grease. Too much?

  9. Ollie Chapman October 25, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    Nice Jason. I’ve recently been doing more soft tissue release on my pecs and upper back. I’ve started doing more release on my lats as well, that does hurt like hell, but i’ve found it definitely helps, i’ll give the other tips ago.

    I definitely agree with higher rep bicep work, I’ve also found doing more of my curl work with thick grip stuff seems to put less stress through the shoulder and elbow and of course, gives me more manly forearms, win win!

  10. MANMOHAN TAGORE October 25, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Jason,
    what are your thoughts on plasma rich platelet injections? i read Tom Kurz and on his blog one time he stated had had it done to repair his shoulder. He is 56 and when you see the things that he can do with his body, it’s pretty damn impressive!
    Regards from Scotland,
    Manmohan.

  11. Shahrukh October 26, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    This is the article I’ve been waiting for thanks a bunch! I injured my shoulder when I was 15 and went for surgery in 2010 and training had always been tricky since. Funny enough I’m sure Jason that you started your career in 1994? It’s when I was born so maybe you’d consider me the new generation of Renegade training haha

  12. Dan Clay October 26, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Keep up the energy

  13. juan November 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Hi, i’m a physical therapist and this topic is very interesting. about plasma rich platelet injections it’s worth it if you are a professional athlete and you NEED it quickly, it’s too experimental yet. if not just go to the regular method: positional release, streching, and not pushing far beyond your limits.

  14. Seth June 10, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Yoga 2 times a week has pretty much cured all my shoulder issues. Maybe but not the toughest thing to talk about here on here but it works better than anything I have tried.

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