This post is an excerpt from the book I’m writing, called Training Around Injuries.

A lot of people walk through our doors at Custom Strength because their health care practioner recommended us to help them get back to exercising after an injury. Sometimes they come after they’ve “graduated” from physio, and other times, they see us while they’re still doing physio. In other words, we have coached a lot of people at various stages of having injuries.

If the person has or had a shoulder injury that developed over time, they often experienced pain during their workouts, making them apprehensive about getting back to it. Understandably! If you go to the gym and your shoulder hurts more after, not going to the gym is a logical conclusion. It’s fun to be able to share with them the good news that, even if their shoulder isn’t 100% healed, there are a lot of exercises they can do without pain. I suspect it’s going to be just as fun to share that in this post. So without further ado, here are our top 5 gym exercises for people with shoulder injuries:

#1 Single-arm cable row

Cable rows are almost always a great choice if you have a shoulder injury, as long as you don’t let your shoulder roll forward as you do them (think shoulders back). When done with this cue in mind, rows work many of the muscles that support your shoulder without putting the shoulder in any positions that might irritate it. If you try single-arm cable rows and they don’t feel great, try reducing the range of motion by not letting your elbow move behind your back as you pull. There are other great rowing exercises, but we like to start with this one because we’ve found it to be a great choice more often than other versions.

If you don’t have access to a gym, you can do the same exercise using a band. You just need somewhere to attach the band safely. If you don’t have good quality bands at home, I use this band set when I’m doing exercises at home.

#2 Deadlifts

You might be thinking “wait a minute, a deadlift is not a shoulder exercise.” While it’s not primarily a shoulder exercise, it is a great exercise for your shoulders. Good deadlift form requires you to engage the muscles in your upper back and behind your shoulder, and these muscles are important for supporting your shoulder. 

If you’ve never been coached in how to do deadlifts, I encourage you to check out this article about deadlifts that I wrote for Girls Gone Strong.

Kettlebell deadlift

#3 Kettlebell (or dumbbell) halo

This looks like an exercise that would hurt if you have a shoulder issue, and yet, for most people, it doesn’t. It’s great because it gets you moving your shoulders, but there’s something about holding on with both hands that allows pain-free movement. That said, start with a small range of motion as in the video and gradually increase the size of the circles until you find your range. That is go full range if you can do so without pain; and otherwise, go as small as you need to stay pain-free.

#4 Wall slide with foam roll

This is not a hard exercise, but it is often a great one, because you get support moving into a range (overhead) that might otherwise be painful. Press lightly into the foam roll as you lift your arms overhead; only going as far as you can without pain. We often see people able to get more overhead than they realized they could. Two coaching points for this one: keep your ribcage down (as in don’t arch your low back as you lift your arms), and stand as close to the wall as you can such that you can lift your arms up while keeping the ribcage down.

#5 Foam roll (Thoracic spine and lats)

This is actualy two exercises. The first one, foam rolling the thoracic spine (aka upper back), is probably going to feel great. Like you’re going to want to do it allll day. The second one, foam rolling the lats, well, it’s kind of the opposite. In fact you probably want to foam roll the lats first to get that out of the way and then reward yourself with foam rolling the upper back.

The goal of both these exercises is to improve movement in the areas around your shoulder. The concept here is that, if the stuff around your shoulders is moving well, then the shoulders won’t have to move as much to do whatever it is you want them to do. Put another way, if the stuff around your shoulders is restricted, your shoulders will have to do more than their fair share of the the work, and when they’re already cranky, they’re probably not going to appreciate that.  

Foam roll (lats)
Foam roll (upper back)

Give these a try, but be strict about pain. If the movement is painful, it’s probably not a good choice.

I’ll be posting more excerpts from this book, including exercises that typically don’t feel great with a shoulder as well as exercises that often need some tweaking to work well in the presence of a shoulder injury.

Want to make sure you don’t miss any of those posts?

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