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3 Ways to Work Around Shoulder Pain

3 Ways to Work Around Shoulder Pain
In This Article

If cranky shoulders limit your workouts, there are ways to adjust your exercises to work around the pain. So, don’t give up on your shoulder too soon, chances are you can figure out a way to exercise that doesn’t make your shoulder feel worse.


The shoulder joint has a large range of motion compared to most other joints. There are a few bones that make up the joint: the scapula (shoulder blade), the humerus (arm bone) and the clavicle (collar bone). Combined, these three bones make up the anchors of the shoulder joint.

The humerus, the big bone in your upper arm, has a ball at the top. This ball sits in a socket created by the collar bone and scapula. It’s important to note the bones of the shoulder joint are only connected by tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. There aren’t any bone-on-bone connections.

This is important because it gives the shoulder a lot of freedom to move. A normal, healthy shoulder can have up to 200 degrees of motion to work with. That’s a lot compared to most of your other joints.


If your shoulder is bothering you, there are a few common problems that could be causing it. Rather than trying to self-diagnose, it’s best to consult a doctor or physical therapist. A licensed professional can help you figure out what’s wrong.

Some common shoulder injuries, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, are:

  • Sprains and strains (injuries to the tendons or ligaments)
  • Dislocations
  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis
  • Torn Rotator Cuff
  • Frozen Shoulder
  • Fractures

These injuries can limit your shoulders range of motion and cause pain, which could disrupt your workouts. Instead of stopping your upper-body routine, you should work around the injury and find exercises you can still do. Try these tips to work around your pain:



Overhead pressing movements worsen many shoulder problems. Exercises like the overhead dumbbell press, barbell military press or resistance band overhead press can be risky. The bones of the shoulder joint are already pressed tight together, and pressing overhead compresses them even more, squeezing the joint. The tendons, ligaments and nerves that run through the joint can all get compressed.

If your shoulder is injured, particularly the front or the top, chances are it’s already inflamed. Overhead pressing can cause more inflammation and should be avoided. Instead, try an incline dumbbell bench press.


Dumbbell Bench Press

The move: Set up a bench so it’s on a high incline. It shouldn’t be completely vertical, but one notch below that. Sit down and lean back, holding light-to-moderate dumbbells up to your shoulders. With your head relaxed, leaning against the bench, press the dumbbells overhead. Press straight up until your elbows are locked out, then bring them back down.



The shoulder joint can perform many movements, but it’s common to use only a few of them. Many training programs and even sports tend to be push-dominant, meaning there’s more pushing movements than pulling.

The bench press and pushups are examples of pushing exercises you do in the gym. Basketball, tennis and boxing are all examples of sports that use pushing movements instead of pulling. Constantly doing pushing movements can cause an imbalance in your shoulders.

If you experience pain in your shoulder during pressing movements, try limiting your upper-body workouts to pulling only. Pulling movements activate a different set of muscles and put very little stress on the front of the shoulder joint.

Use exercises like dumbbell rows, TRX rows, lat pulldowns and band-assisted chin-ups. These exercises work the pulling muscles in your back, most of which attach to your scapula and humerus. The exercises can also improve your posture over time, because the back muscles pull your shoulders back and pull you upright. Improper posture can make your shoulder injury worse, according to an article from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.




There are many exercises you can do for the shoulder, so don’t get frustrated if you feel like nothing’s working. The first thing you should do when you feel pain is cease any exercise that causes discomfort. Even tightness or instability counts as discomfort and should be avoided. Carefully try a few movements to see what hurts and what doesn’t.

If you notice a theme, such as all pressing or pulling movements hurt, try doing an exercise that goes in the opposite direction. For example, if the bench press hurts, try doing rows. If overhead presses hurt, try doing pulldowns.


Completely stopping all shoulder exercises can cause more harm than good. It’s important to keep your shoulder joint moving, even if you use light weights or no weight at all. Movement helps protect and rehabilitate your joints. Synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant for your joints, is increased the more you move. Movement increases blood flow around the shoulder joint and the extra blood helps carry nutrients that heal damaged tendons, bones and ligaments. A study published in April 2016 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found exercises could help rehabilitate partial and even some full rotator cuff tears.

The researchers note that exercise is becoming increasingly common as a treatment for rotator cuff injuries. Keep moving the shoulder as long as the exercises you’re doing aren’t painful. Movement helps heal and strengthen the joint.

Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.

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