5 ways to self-manage shoulder pain

Overload is the most common cause of shoulder pain.

“Overload-related” shoulder pain is just one of four main culprits, however it’s probably the most common and relatable cause. If you’d like a recap on the four most common causes of shoulder pain you can read our previous blog here.

As mentioned in the above blog, overload falls under the “weak” shoulder category and covers a variety of different conditions such as tendinopathy, bursitis, impingement or even muscle strains and tears.

Despite the varying diagnoses they’re often the result of doing “too much, too soon”. 

In other words… We are not prepared for whatever activities we are trying to take part in.

When we overload certain tissues they get upset / grumpy / cranky (insert other descriptor) and they become sensitive to certain movement or positions they’re uncomfortable with.

I would always suggest seeing a health professional if you’re experiencing shoulder pain that is impacting your day-to-day activities. However, if you’re currently experiencing some pain in the gym or during certain movements here’s five strategies to test out on your own:

1 - Reduce the weight

This is for the people that might feel completely comfortable during some warm-up sets but when they increase the weight to higher-intensity loads they start to notice some pain. 

Firstly, it’s not meant to be comfortable when we’re pushing our bodies outside the comfort zone (obviously). If you’re not incredibly experienced in the gym environment it can often be hard to tell the difference between acceptable levels of discomfort and the appropriate level of intensity needed to actually make progress.

If you’re convinced it is pain that you’re feeling, I would argue that unless you’re a competitive powerlifter there is no real reason for you to focus so heavily on the max number on the lift (at any cost). 

A short-term reduction in weight while we focus on technique and give our body the chance to adapt is a drop in the ocean when we consider our goal is to stay strong and active for life.

2 - Reduce the volume

Volume covers the “how much total activity you’re doing” side of things. If you can only manage 3 out of 5 sets pain-free, or your first 5 out of 7km is pain-free, then that’s your current limitation.

The term “volume” accounts for how much activity you’re doing in total (typically over a week-long period of time). Perhaps the sheer amount of training you’re doing at the moment is not allowing you enough time to recover properly.

A simple way to calculate your training volume:

4 sets X 10 reps X 50kg = 40 x 50 = 2,000kg

You could try and implement a “de-load” week to reduce the total amount of volume you’re doing on the exercise that’s currently causing some pain. Use it as an opportunity to slow down and focus on the technique.

Example 1: Decreasing # of sets
2 sets X 10 reps X 50kg = 20 x 50 = 1,000kg 

Example 2: Decreasing # of reps
4 sets X 5 reps x 50kg = 20 x 50 = 1,000kg 

Aside from the options above, tip #1 of decreasing the weight will also cause a reduction in overall volume and is another way you can implement a de-load. 

3 - Reduce the range of motion

The most common positions of discomfort during shoulder exercises are the overhead position and shoulder extension. Extension includes any time your elbow moves behind the line of your body ie. end position of a row or bottom position of a bench press.

You can self-implement some smaller ranges of motion and see if this reduces your level of pain during the exercise. Whilst we should always promote strength through a full range of motion, a short-term reduction to allow proper adaptations is a small price to pay for healthy shoulder longevity.

If you’re struggling with the overhead position, try performing an incline press instead of direct overhead work. When benching or performing rowing movements, stop your elbow in line with your body.

4 - Try alternate exercise

If you’re serious about consistently staying active and training throughout life it’s inevitable you’ll experience some discomfort. During times like this it’s important to remember what you’re actually performing the exercise for!

Unless you’re a professional powerlifter who needs to perform specific exercises as it’s their chosen sport, think back to ultimately what you’re trying to achieve with the exercises.

For example… if a barbell overhead press is causing some irritation right now, remember that the goal is not to achieve a barbell overhead press, the goals is to strengthen the shoulders.

When we remember this, we can try:

• Using dumbbells instead to allow various forearm angles
• Swap to an incline press to remove direct overhead position
• Swap to a pin-loaded machine decreasing the stability demands

5 - See a Health Professional

If you’re ever in doubt, book in to see a qualified health professional. That’s why we exist!

Remember that these are temporary solutions that you can implement yourself to see if they work for you. Patience is a virtue. Gradually increase over a number of weeks to make sure you avoid ending up in the exact same position (too much too soon!).

Currently struggling with shoulder pain?

Stop missing out on life. Book an appointment with Dr Matt Corbin at Six Core Outcomes to help strengthen your body through movement to redefine your limits.

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