Exercises to Avoid with Shoulder Pain


After the finger joints, the shoulder is the most injured joint in climbers. This is because your shoulder has the largest range of motion of all the joints in your arm. Meaning that a lack of mobility in your fingers, hands, and elbow, is compensated in your shoulder.

So, now your shoulder hurts. Which exercises should you avoid?

Exercises to avoid with shoulder pain are bouldering, steep climbing, handstands, campus training, and regular hang board training.

In this blog, I explain why these exercises are a no-go, but how, in the case of hang board training you can continue regardless of your injury.

Let’s dive in!

Why Do You Have Shoulder Pain?

Shoulder pain can be due to structures within your shoulder like the tendons of your rotator cuff, subacromial ligaments, or subacromial bursa being injured. Your capsule could be tight or your shoulder joint unstable. And the muscles around your shoulder can tense up and provoke pain as well.

That’s not to say that this is what’s happening with you. Pain is a complex phenomenon and can or cannot be due to structural damage. I dive deeper into this subject in my blog about shoulder impingement and shoulder instability.

Which Exercises Should You Avoid with Shoulder Pain?

If you have shoulder pain it’s smart to avoid exercises and climbing routes/boulder problems which include explosive moves and rotation. As things go, these activities require lots of strength, nervous system activation, and technique. Do them wrong, and you’re nearly injured. Even if you have no shoulder pain at all.

Bouldering

It’s best to avoid bouldering in general when suffering from shoulder pain. Since boulder problems are short each move is harder. Thus, requiring more strength, more technique, and weirder body positions. Moreover, dynamic moves are common in bouldering which is hard on your shoulder joints since you need to “catch and control” your body in the air.

Even though there might be boulder problems you can do without straining your shoulder, I still recommend you to not do it at all.

Because what happens anyway if you go? You do a couple of easy problems and start to feel good and confident. Whereafter you think: “this next problem isn’t that hard, let me give it a go”. And it goes fine, and the next one too. Until there’s one that hurts your shoulder even more.

You’re not alone though. Everybody who’s addicted to climbing wants to try, try, try, another time. But when you’re injured, it’s better not to (and believe me, been there, done that).

Steep Climbing

Steep climbing might be problematic with shoulder pain because of the force that’s required from your shoulder. More often than not large parts of your bodyweight hang on one arm in straining positions. Therefore, the chance is high that you hurt your shoulder even more.

Otherwise, depending on your climbing level the same issues as with bouldering apply. If you’re in pain, act smart because the sooner you respond to your injury, the faster you’ll return to climbing pain-free.

Hang Boarding

When training your fingers on a hang board you have to keep your arms entirely overhead with your elbows bent. This is usually a painful position when your shoulder hurts. Moreover, since you’re working hard on these edges your shoulders need to work hard too.

Do you still want to do hang boarding? That is possible, with or without shoulder pain.

First of all, I would always keep training the uninjured side on a hang board. Because there’s something called cross-education of strength, which dictates that if you train something on one side of the body the other side benefits as well.1,2 This is a neurological phenomenon.

But the cool thing is, with shoulder pain you don’t even need to stop with your injured side. Just buy (or build yourself) a piece of wood with a couple of edges on it. Then connect it to a rope and hang weights on it. Now you can carry this with your fingertips like carrying a plastic bag after doing groceries. Allowing you to follow the same protocol as with normal hang board training but with your arm hanging beside your body.

Campus Boarding

If bouldering is a no-go with shoulder pain, campusing is even more so.

Campusing is all about training power and explosive moves on small edges and big slopers. All of these are high-risk moves for someone with shoulder pain.

Handstands

Handstands can be a good way to train your shoulders and core. Still, the fact that you have to carry your whole body weight with your arms under head is something you want to avoid with shoulder pain.

After rehabbing your shoulder, handstands are one of the last exercises to put back into your program.

Military Press (and all other Shoulder Presses)

Military presses are similar to handstands, only this time your stand on your feet and press the bar up. Since you can move your shoulders more freely with military presses, you might be able to do them before hand stands when rehabbing your shoulder.

Push-up

Push-ups are popular among climbers as a form of opposition training. To balance out all the pulling you do while climbing.

Should you avoid them with shoulder pain though? In most cases yes. Push-ups are horizontal handstands, so to say, and do require a lot of shoulder strength.

What Are Good Exercises with Shoulder Pain?

Which exercises are good with shoulder pain depends on the severity of your pain on when you start noticing the pain while lifting your arm. This way you can work with your symptoms to decide on the best exercises for each phase of your healing.

If your shoulder hurts when you move your arm below shoulder height it’s best to focus on exercises where you keep your elbow close to the body. Think of rowing movements and innies and outies.

Does your shoulder start hurting once you lift your arm overhead? Then you can do the above exercises plus horizontal pushing movements. Still, if you’re considering for example doing push-ups, start against the wall. This ensures that you’ll not overload your shoulder and allows you to feel if it’s the right exercise for you.

Finally, when your shoulder only starts hurting once you lift your arm entirely overhead you might be able to do vertical pulling exercises like lat pull down, pull-ups, sub-maximal hang boarding, and perhaps some easy climbing.

Do you want to understand how to progress your exercises when rehabbing shoulder pain better? Then read my recent blog about exercises to avoid with shoulder impingement – and the ones you can do. There, I explain in detail how to heal shoulder pain.

Take-Home Messages

In this blog, I discussed the exercises to avoid with shoulder pain.

In general, it’s best to avoid doing horizontal and vertical pushing exercises, vertical pulling, and everything in climbing and bouldering which requires explosion, dynamic moves, twisted body positions, and rotation in the shoulder.

Still, depending on where you are in your healing process it’s important to re-introduce all these exercises to optimally prepare your shoulder for rock climbing.

Citations

1. Manca A, Dragone D, Dvir Z, Deriu F. Cross-education of muscular strength following unilateral resistance training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017;117(11):2335-2354. doi:10.1007/s00421-017-3720-z

2. Green LA, Gabriel DA. The cross-education of strength and skill following unilateral strength training in the upper and lower limbs. J Neurophysiol. 2018;120:468-479. doi:10.1152/jn.00116.2018.-Cross

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël Broersma, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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