Shoulder Pain? These Upper-Body Exercises Won’t Hurt Your Shoulders

Nothing derails plans to do more upper-body exercises quite like shoulder pain. Enabling every movement from throwing to pushing to pulling, the shoulder joint is one of the most mobile in the body. This also means it’s one of the most prone to injury, which is pretty evident by the conversations you hear at the gym.

What’s really frustrating is many of the lifts designed to strengthen shoulders can be the most harmful, forcing the joints into awkward positions or stressing them with too much weight. The upright row is a classic example. The rotation involved shifts far too much load to your shoulders and stresses one of the tendons, even when performed correctly.

Forgoing strength training definitely isn’t the best idea, so it’s time to get a little bit savvier about lifting before hitting the gym. By switching to some safer moves and modifying some of the classics, you can get a great upper-body workout without the ouch factor.

1. Incline bench press

man doing bench press exercise on an incline bench

The incline bench press is great for your shoulders. | iStock.com

The bench press is one of the most popular lifts at the gym and also one of the riskiest. Unless your form is picture perfect, it stresses the shoulder joint too much. According to Muscle & Fitness, the real issue is that most of us just don’t have the range of motion required to properly perform a standard bench press. By adjusting the bench to an incline position, you can get nearly the same chest-building benefits while relieving the stress on your shoulders.

Get set up as you normally would with a barbell and bench, but adjust the bench so it’s at a 30-degree angle. Place your hands about shoulder-width apart on the bar, then press it straight up toward the ceiling. Lower the bar until it’s an inch or so above your chest, then repeat for your desired number of repetitions. You can see a before and after by heading over to Healthline.

2. Straight-arm plank to side plank

woman doing a side plank on a yoga mat

See how long you can hold this side plank. | iStock.com

It probably comes as no surprise to hear your rotator cuff muscles are responsible for movements that rotate your shoulder. Because this particular muscle group is so prone to injury, particularly for athletes, keeping it strong is critical. Very often you can do this without any weights, as is the case for this two-in-one move.

Begin in a regular plank with your arms fully extended, hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet close together and your body in a straight line. Shape said to hold this position for 10 seconds, then carefully shift all of your weight onto your right arm and the side of your right foot as you bring your left arm straight toward the sky, ending with your body facing to the left. Hold the move for several seconds, then return to the starting position, and repeat on the other side.

3. Triceps dips on parallel bars

woman performing dips on a set of parallel bars at a park

Not many people can support their entire weight with just their arms. | iStock.com

Right up there with the bench press in popularity, triceps dips are equally as risky for your shoulders. This especially true for dips performed on the side of a bench because the hand position forces the joint into a dangerous internal rotation, Men’s Fitness explained. By transferring this move to parallel bars, your hands will be in a neutral position, which reduces shoulder strain.

Get into position on a set of parallel bars by grasping one bar in each hand and elevating your body so your arms are fully extended. From here, carefully lower yourself until your arms are at 90-degree angles, less if you start to feel pain, making sure to keep your elbows tucked in during the movement. Then press straight back to the starting position. You can see the move in action over at Bodybuilding.com.

4. Seated cable rows

close-up of a man performing a row exercise

The seated row will also help you torch a ton of calories. | iStock.com

As a general rule, lifts that involve pulling are safer for your shoulders than ones that involve pushing. This means seated cable rows are a great option. Breaking Muscle explained they’re perfect for building the back strength needed to keep your shoulders stable. Just be sure to use a grip attachment that doesn’t force your hands too close together. Ideally, go for something that allows a neutral hand position where your palms face each other.

Begin sitting on the bench with your feet braced and your knees slightly bent. Grasp the bar and use your back muscles to pull it toward your chest, keeping your back flat and your core tight. In a controlled motion, extend your arms out in front of you, then repeat the move. Verywell shared a more detailed tutorial if you’d like some pointers.

5. Neutral-grip overhead press

muscular man holding dumbbells to get ready to lift

Be mindful of your head while doing this exercise. | iStock.com

Using a neutral grip is definitely a recurring theme, and for good reason. Positioning your hands with your palms facing each other minimizes the amount of inward shoulder rotation, which means less pain. STACK said it even allows you to train your delts with an overhead press without experiencing shoulder pain.

To perform this move, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and position the weights so they’re elevated just above your shoulders, palms facing inward. Press straight up, then carefully lower your hands back to the starting position.

6. Wall crawl with external rotation

close-up of a resistance band on the floor

Go back to your first form is mobility by trying a crawling exercise. | iStock.com

Because your rotator cuff muscles are so crucial to maintaining healthy shoulders, we’ll close with one more exercise that targets them. BuiltLean shared a bunch of great moves to strengthen these muscles, but wall crawls are great because they require minimal equipment. This means you can build more stable shoulders at home, at the office, or while on vacation.

Loop a short resistance band around both forearms, then lean into a wall with your arms shoulder-width apart and your hands pointed straight up the wall. Keeping your arms the same distance apart, crawl your arms up, then down. The article recommended performing this exercise for 30 seconds.

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