One thing you don’t need when you strength train is an injury. In fact, one reason to train with weights, or your own bodyweight, is to make yourself more resistant to injury in your everyday life. But, injuries happen, especially if you use poor technique or over-train. Injuries can come on suddenly or result from repetitive stress to a muscle group. Examples of repetitive stress injuries are golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow. Both types of injury are because of repetitive motion around a single joint. You can get repetitive stress injuries from weight training too, and the injuries can involve the upper or lower body.
Both upper and lower body injuries are inconvenient and something you want to avoid at all costs. Let’s look at which upper body weight training exercises carry a higher risk of injury. We’ll also look at how to modify moves or substitute another exercise that gives similar benefits without the same risk. In terms of upper body injuries, the most common is to the shoulder joint.
Why the shoulder? The ligaments in the shoulder are laxer than the ligaments that surround other joints. Due to this laxity, the rotator cuff muscles have to take up more slack to help stabilize the shoulders during movements. Elbow joints are also at relatively high risk of injury. What exercises are the riskiest to the health of the upper body?
Unless you have access to a cable, this exercise might not be a regular part of your strength-training routine and that might be for the best. Even when you use good form, this exercise places significant stress on the anterior shoulder. There are several reasons this exercise carries risks. There’s a tendency to lean your body forward to do the exercise, and this adds to the stress on the shoulder joint. Plus, you have to extend your head forward to keep the bar from hitting you. This places stress on the muscles that stabilize the shoulders and well as the neck. You can reduce the risk slightly by pulling the bar down in front of your head rather than behind it.
Military presses are risky for the same reason lateral pull-downs are. You’re raising and lowering a bar behind your head, an unsafe position if you value the health of your shoulders and neck. As with the lateral pull-down, placing the bar in front of your body when you do military presses is safer, although it’s still important to use impeccable form and not go too heavy on the weight.
Some fitness experts believe upright rows are an exercise that doesn’t belong in a routine period. That’s because this movement can lead to impingement of the nerves in the shoulder. Impingement is where the rotator cuff muscles are irritated at the place where they connect to the acromion process on the scapula. Often, impingement is corrected only through surgery. Plus, upright rows work the anterior shoulder disproportionally to the medial and posterior aspects of the shoulder and these are usually the parts of the shoulder that need the most work.
A safer alternative is lateral raises and bent-over lateral raises. The two exercises work your shoulders in a more balanced manner. Lateral raises work the anterior and lateral portions of the shoulder and the bent-over targets the posterior shoulder, the part that often gets neglected.
The bench press is the most common exercise bodybuilders do to target their pectoral muscles. If you already have shoulder issues, the bench press can aggravate them. It’s also not uncommon for people to develop repetitive stress injuries from doing the bench press. When you press the bar up and lower it back down, your shoulders have to abduct and rotate, and this places stress on the anterior portion of the shoulder.
You can reduce the stress on your shoulders by using a narrower grip and by keeping your elbows close to your body when you raise and lower the bar. Don’t bring the bar all the way down to your chest as this can further irritate the capsule that surrounds the anterior shoulder. Stop the bar about 2 inches above your chest. Don’t overdo the bench press or use too much weight or you could end up with a repetitive stress injury.
Push-ups are a bodyweight exercise and a standard movement in most fitness routines. However, push-ups place significant stress on the rotator cuff, especially if you do them with poor form. This is compounded by the fact that people do this exercise so often, making repetitive stress injuries a risk. Certain push-up variations stress the shoulders more. An example is decline push-ups where you place your hands lower than your feet. This is an advanced move you should only attempt once you’re comfortable with basic push-ups. The easiest push-up variations on your shoulders is placing your hands on an elevated surface, like a bench or a sturdy, low table. You can even do push-ups with your hands against a wall and push away from the wall.
The Bottom Line
Some of these exercises offer substantial benefits, like the push-up and bench press. But you can modify them to take pressure off your shoulders. If you do lateral pull-downs and military press, shift the exercise to the front of your body rather than behind your head. For upright rows, you might want to substitute lateral raises if this exercise causes you any shoulder discomfort. Also, don’t overdo exercises like these that place lots of stress on your shoulders. The most important tenet of training is to stay safe and avoid injuries. An injury can take months to heal and can sometimes require surgery. Keep working your upper body, including your shoulders, but modify these exercises or do them with caution.
ExRX.net. “Bench Press Analyses”
WebMD.com. “Did I Hurt My Shoulder While Working Out?”
Clin Sports Med. 1991 Jul;10(3):615-21.