You do an exercise, feel a twinge in your shoulder and power through the remaining reps because, well, you think you’re weak if you don’t. However, your shoulders simply are not designed to perform many common exercises. And grinding through a set in pain does more harm than good; it can eventually lead to an injury that takes you off the field.
We spoke with several elite experts on shoulder health to learn what exercises you should avoid to stay injury-free.
OK, CrossFit fans—don’t get upset. But according to Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10, the man who helped rehab Drew Brees after his shoulder injury, the Kipping Pull-Up can cause serious shoulder damage. “Even though kipping seems easier because you use your momentum, it’s actually a more dangerous movement on the shoulder joint,” he explains. “Many people don’t have the shoulder stability or strength to do this ballistic action. Therefore, they end up getting injured.”
Ideally, stay away from Kipping Pull-Ups altogether. But if you’re determined to perform the exercise, make sure to start slow. Durkin recommends mastering strict eccentric Pull-Ups and regular Pull-Ups before attempting the kipping variation. Also, try these Pull-Up variations if you need some variety in your workouts.
According to Dr. John Rusin, strength coach, physical therapist and owner of John Rusin Fitness Systems, the Upright Row is a potent exercise for bodybuilders interested in developing the middle and front portion of their deltoids—i.e, the round muscles on the sides of their shoulders.
But outside of bodybuilding, the exercise doesn’t have much of a purpose. In fact, Rusin says he’s never had a client perform Upright Rows in his entire time in the industry. Rusin says that as you bring your arms up, the upper arm rotates internally in the shoulder. This isn’t too problematic if you have healthy shoulders, perfect posture and perfect technique, but very few people have all three. “A vast majority of people don’t have those requisites, so it becomes an injurious motion for them,” Rusin adds. Doing this exercise might cause you to feel a twinge of pain during a rep that goes away after you finish, or you could exacerbate a pre-existing issue that can lead to a more serious injury.
Barbell Upright Rows are typically the most problematic variation because your hands are locked into position, which is more likely to cause a shoulder problem. Using dumbbells or kettlebells can alleviate this problem, because your hands are free to move, but the exercise still isn’t an ideal motion for shoulder health.
Behind-the-Neck Military Press
If you care about your shoulders, you should avoid this old-school bodybuilding lift. “It’s a really vulnerable position for the shoulder girdle, because the rotator cuff is at a mechanical disadvantage,” says Eric Cressey, co-founder of Cressey Performance (Hudson, Massachusetts). “Plus, it doesn’t afford any benefit over pressing from the front.” If you see this move in a workout program or a fellow gym-goer suggests it, always say “no.”
Behind-the-Neck Lat Pulldowns or Pull-Ups
You don’t hold heavyweight overhead when performing these moves, but according to Dr. Ricardo Colberg of the renowned Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center, behind-the-neck variations are still dangerous. He says, “The exercises take your shoulders into full external rotation, which pushes the head of your humerus forward. This is the weakest point of the shoulder and has a high risk of dislocation, which may cause tears of the tendons, cartilage or ligaments, as well as a fracture of the bone.”
Again, traditional Lat Pulldown and Pull-Up variations provide more than enough challenge to build back strength effectively.
Anything Behind the Neck
Mike Boyle, one of the nation’s most respected strength coaches, reiterates that athletes should avoid any exercise that’s performed behind the neck. He says, “Extremes of abduction and external rotation can be really stressful on the shoulder joint.”
To make matters worse, many people have difficulty getting their arms overhead in the first place. As you raise your arms overhead, does your back arch and ribs flare out? If so, you fall into this group. “Most people have difficulty getting their hands overhead without compensating,” says Boyle. “Combine this with a lack of external rotation and you have a recipe for disaster.”
Bench and Weighted Dips
Dips are a popular exercise for increasing triceps strength. Conventional Dips are great. But things get a bit dicey when you start looking at the variations.
Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance and owner of CORE training studio, says, “Bench Dips cause maximal internal rotation and glenohumeral extension, which is a recipe for disaster.” This is particularly problematic for athletes who have a history of shoulder problems or who play an overhead sport such as tennis or baseball.
Dr. Colberg adds that Weighted Dips present similar problems, because your arms ultimately travel behind your body. “This puts an incredible force through the ligaments in the anterior shoulder, and it pinches the rotator cuff and long head of the biceps tendon,” he says. “Doing this motion repetitively may lead to tears of the tendons or ligaments.”
Olympic lifts are not inherently dangerous if you use proper form. But if you’ve ever performed them without dropping the weights to the floor, you know that lowering the weight can be jarring. “The shoulders can take a beating from decelerating a heavy load as it’s brought down,” says Mark Roozen, owner of Coach Rozy Performance.
If you’re using heavy weight, Roozen suggests using bumper plates so you can simply drop the bar to the floor. If bumper plates are not available, bend your hips and knees as you lower the weight to absorb the impact—similar to what you do when you land from a jump.