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“How do I protect the rotator cuff muscles when lifting. I’m worried about getting a shoulder injury.” – Rob Wehling

You have a right to be concerned because shoulder injuries are very common in the gym. If you have been lifting for a while, you’ve probably had a shoulder injury at some point in time. ‘Tweaking’ your shoulder from getting out of position when benching, or extending your shoulders too far doing pull-ups is pretty common, especially if you try and push the intensity in your workouts.

Sometimes these are acute injuries that just happen because fatigue set in and your technique failed, or you were just trying an exercise or lifting a weight that was beyond your current capabilities. Sometimes, the injuries are the result of something bad you’ve been doing for a long time and your body just couldn’t buffer the problem anymore.

Save Your Shoulders to Boost Your Bench


To ensure a muscle group or group of muscles such as the rotator cuff complex – supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis – is working optimally, a few things have to be considered.  Muscles work at the right time and at the right intensity when the joints they surround and support are optimally positioned – or centrated – and can move unrestricted through their intended range of motion. For the rotator cuff muscles that means the humeral head and the scapula are in the right positions. 

On the following pages we’ll see what affects the position of the humeral head and scapula, and how you can modify certain exercises to keep your shoulders injury-free or to work around a current shoulder injury.

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Imbalanced Programs  

Imbalanced programs where the movement patterns are not balanced – typically setup a non-optimal (force couple) functioning of opposing muscle groups.  For example, too much bench pressing and not enough upper back work will drive the shoulders forward into internal rotation, which will also negatively affect the resting position of the shoulder blades.  Your workouts and programs should try and balance the volume of opposing movement patterns. 

Poor Posture  

Losing neutral alignment (and centration) at any joint will affect how well the muscle groups that surround and support that joint do their jobs.  As discussed, while too much volume of certain exercises without working the opposing movement pattern can affect posture, so too can poor soft-tissue quality and inefficient breathing patterns. 

Specifically for the shoulders, every time you step into the gym you should be foam rolling (or using a Lacrosse ball or medicine ball) the lats, pecs, traps, and upper back.  These muscle groups are typically really tight and really short on everyone – and this can also lead to a shoulder injury. 

Learning how to breathe deeper into the abdominal – called diaphragmatic breathing – will work with the soft-tissue massage of the foam roller to relax chronically tight areas of the body.  Simple deep breathing drills done on your back while on the floor will pay off big time for relieving stress and relaxing the body.

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Shoulder-Friendly Tips and Tricks

Adjusting Deadlift Grip: Deadlifting with slumped shoulders that are internally rotated can lead to a shoulder issue if you use an alternating grip.  Because the position of the shoulder is already compromised with poor posture, deadlifting with one palm up (as in the open hand of an alternating grip on the bar) can put stress and strain on not only the shoulder but also the bicep.  Switch to a double-overhand grip for as long as you can during your ramp up sets.

Changing the Bar or Hand Position for Squats: Tight shoulders and squatting with a straight bar don’t mix.  The amount of external rotation at the shoulders required to hold and lock onto a straight bar is pretty extreme for someone who has tight shoulders, pecs, and lats.  Try widening your grip on the bar, placing the bar higher on your traps, or changing the straight barbell to a specialty bar like the safety squat bar or giant cambered bar.

Poor Bench Technique:  Stop benching with your elbows flared outward.  This will definitely lead to shoulder injuries and pain for days after benching.  The elbows should be tucked at approximately 45 degrees out from the torso when lowering the barbell.  Use push-ups to drill this technique.


Meet the Lift Doctor

Jim Smith is a highly respected strength and conditioning coach and Fitness Advisory Board member for and numerous national publications.  Owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning, Jim has been called one of the most “innovative strength coaches” in the fitness industry. Jim’s FREE gift – The Mass Report – has been used by thousands of lifters and athletes to build muscle faster and break through training plateaus.