10 Ways to Avoid a Shoulder Injury or Surgery

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

In 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.