Two dates that will always be etched into my mind are August 14, 2018 (The day before my birthday) and May 14, 2022.
These two days were when I separated my AC Joint, once on the right and once on the left (gotta spread that love around), coincidentally both grade-3 separations… Hooray!
Very quickly if you don’t know, the AC Joint is the Acromioclavicular Joint, which is where your clavicle (collarbone) meets your shoulder (scapula).
These were the first major injuries I’ve ever suffered, so dealing with the rehab process was a whole new world for me. As a Personal Trainer and Professional Wrestler, you could imagine times were tough.
Eventually when the pain had subsided, the strength was coming back, and I was finally able to add some non-banded resistance training back into my routine, I was elated. However, I noticed there were certain movements that just didn’t feel right or hurt to perform.
As these were movements that I enjoyed and needed to strengthen post injury, I wanted to find for some alternatives to keep my shoulder pain-free.
After playing around with different movements (and chatting with my physio in Edmonton), I found exercises that felt exponentially better for my shoulder – and today I wanted to share those with you.
Try these 3 exercise swaps for pain-free shoulders.
As you could imagine with a shoulder injury, bringing your hand above your head might prove to be a bit difficult let alone adding weight.
The traditional set up to the shoulder press isn’t the most joint friendly for most people anyways. Traditionally you’d have your arms up with your elbows directly in line with the shoulders in a 90-degree position.
However, your scapula has a small “hood” over the ball and socket that makes up your shoulder, making this a difficult position to maintain.
Alternatively, having your elbows slightly in front of the body can be a less painful way to perform the shoulder press, but it can still feel rough with a nagging shoulder injury.
Pain-Free Swap: Landmine Shoulder Press
The Landmine Shoulder Press allows us to perform a pressing movement but instead of the weight travelling straight overhead, we push the weight upwards in front of us which is an easier position for our shoulder joint.
This can be a way to improve our overhead mobility too. At the top of the press, we can slightly lean forward to stretch get a stretch through the Pec and Lat muscles while loading the position overhead.
Eccentric Overloads can also be a great way to strengthen our pressing movement. These are done by assisting the injured shoulder with the opposite arm to the top position of the press, then slowly lower the weight back into the starting position with just the affected side.
Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns
Very similar to the Shoulder Press, the Wide Grip Lat Pulldown can be bothersome when returning from injury due to the position of the shoulder. It can be difficult to get into the overhead positioning alone, but as we pulldown the wide grip makes it more difficult to prevent the shoulders from rounding forward during the movement. Our Chest, Lats, Traps, and Rotator Cuff muscles are all likely tight due to our injury, which presents problems for this movement.
This can be the same issue for wide grip pull-ups.
Pain-Free Swap: Neutral Grip Pulldowns
Hand positioning is everything for this movement, and reducing the pain in the shoulder. The neutral position prevents the shoulder from rounding forward while we do the exercise. This neutral position also places our elbows slightly in front of our body, which once again affects the joint angle for the shoulder favourably. This variation of the pulldown will also include a bit more assistance from the biceps to relieve a bit of the tension on the muscles of the back as well.
Try to load this movement with a long stretch at the top of each rep. This loaded stretch will allow us to lengthen the Lats. As we pulldown, we want to remember to depress our shoulder blades (pull them down) as we perform the exercise to engage more of the lower traps, which are commonly weak and underused.
Other great alternatives would include Reverse Grip Pulldowns. Using Chin-Ups or Parallel Grip Pull-Ups would be a good alternative to traditional Pull-Ups to prevent pain.
Barbell Bench Press
One of the areas you’ll find impacted the most by most shoulder injuries is through the chest. This makes movements that require adduction (bringing the arm towards the mid-line of the body) extremely difficult and downright excruciating to perform.
While I doubt anyone would attempt a Barbell Bench Press while first recovering from a shoulder injury, I know a lot of gym goers (*cough* bro’s) will want to get back to benching way too soon.
Unfortunately, the fixed position of the barbell, and the tightness in the chest and rotator cuffs can make it very difficult to perform the movement without pain. This can be true for Dips as well, as they place a heavy load onto the anterior part of our shoulder as we work our chest.
Pain-Free Swap: Dumbbell Bench Press
The freedom of movement that dumbbells allow us is extremely beneficial if we want to perform a bench press. Because of this freedom, we can position our shoulders into a more comfortable pain-free position.
I’ve found that keeping the elbows at about roughly 45-60 degrees beside our body rather than the roughly 90 degrees position a barbell restricts us to, can greatly relieve a lot of pain. From this joint angle we can get more range of motion, and create a loaded stretch at the bottom of each rep.
As a quick trainer tip – always remember to engage your back muscles while performing the bench press to get the most out of it. Think about trying to squeeze the bench between your shoulder blades at all times.
Swap your Barbell Squats for A Safety Bar or Belt Squats
You may not notice it pre-injury, but post-injury it’s easy to feel how important our shoulder’s ability to external rotate is to get into a back squat position.
(I think it goes without saying that Front Squats will be a no-go as well)
To avoid this – if available in your gym – using a safety bar can be beneficial as it sits more comfortably along the shoulders (almost like a roller coaster but less fun). Another great alternative is the Belt Squat as it loads the movements around the hips rather than the shoulders. Belt Squats are also a great tool to use to stay active and lift heavy when dealing with a Shoulder Injury.
If you struggle with back pain when you squat, make sure to take a look at my article about The SI Joint & How To Relieve Pain
Just because the exercise causes you pain now, doesn’t mean it will forever.
We ideally want to get back to a point where we can perform any exercise and movement pain-free, so don’t completely close the book on above exercises. There are plenty of corrective exercises, ways to build up strength, and increase mobility back to the pre-injured shoulder ability – it takes patience, consistent work, and a bit of time to get there.
If you’re struggling with the pain, see your physiotherapist to get the recovery process started.
From there – if you’re looking for a workable plan to take you from pain to getting back into the game, this is where I come in. Contact Me Directly to set up a consultation call to see if training together would be a good fit for you (both online & in-person options available).
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Live Life To The Fullest With RK Athletics
Rich, RK Athletics Owner
CSEP – Certified Personal Trainer