Shoulder Injuries and Weight Lifting


Of all the places on your body to be injured,  shoulder injuries in weight lifting will render your upper body strength next to useless.  If your shoulder is badly hurt, you will have a challenging time pulling or pushing anything heavy.

According to a particular study [1] with elite powerlifters, the most commonly injured areas when lifting iron are the shoulders, lower back and knees.   The study also found that if you are older than 40 then you chance of an upper body injury was a lot greater than if you were younger.  All in all, however, powerlifting as a sport has an injury rate “low compared to other sports.”  Olympic weight lifters tend to get more back and knee injuries whereas powerlifters tend to get more shoulder injuries

Anatomy of the Shoulder

The shoulder is a rather complex structure because it is capable of so much mobility.  It is comprised of three bones:  The humerus (upper arm bone), the scapula, (shoulder blade), and the clavicle (collar bone).  The articulations of these three bones make up three main shoulder joints.  There are about a dozen major muscles (such as deltoids) that collaborate in shoulder movement as well with minor muscles and tendons (fibrous tissue connecting muscles to bones).

 The Shoulder’s Rotator Cuff and Bursae

The main shoulder joint is called the glenohumeral joint which is a ball and socket structure where the shoulder blade attaches to the upper arm bone.  A rotator cuff covers this ball and socket joint to keep it tight and in place with a group of 4 muscles and their associated tendons.  The four rotator cuff muscles are called the supraspinatus, the infraspniatus, the teres minor, and the subscapularis; each one serving different functions to move the upper arm bone (humerus) in different directions within the socket (glenoid fossa).

At the top of the shoulder is a bone called the acromion which is actually an extension of the shoulder blade (scapula).  It hooks from around the back to the top.  Between the acromion and the rotator cuff is a synovial fluid filled sac called a bursa that cushions and buffers the acromion from the rotator cuff’s movements.  There are eight such bursae located at different points about the shoulder girdle.

 Shoulder Injuries and Causes

The rotator cuff is the most common source of shoulder pain.  This includes any problem underneath the acromion bone.  A health care professional specializing in sports injuries may be the best one to diagnose the exact cause.  They will check the different movements that give you shoulder pain and test your range of motion.  Whenever you raise your arm, the space between the acromion and the rotator cuff becomes smaller.  This may cause the acromion to push or impinge against the bursa which can swell and become inflamed.   This commonly happens with athletes who use repetitive overhead movements such as baseball pitchers, volleyball players, swimmers and the like.  It can also occur in the workplace with painters, plumbers, electricians or anyone using repetitive movements overhead.  When it comes to a sport such as powerlifting, one study [2] shows there is no correlation between shoulder injuries and any specific exercise.

If the rotator cuff itself is injured then it may be a tear.  There are two types of tears:  Chronic and Acute.  A chronic tear occurs over time because of overuse and usually after a tendon has been rubbing against a bone for awhile.  An acute tear is the result of a sudden movement.  The shoulder is one of those areas of the body where this is little blood circulation.  If an injured tendon sustains microscopic tears and does not get an adequate supply of blood to heal, this could lead to tendon degeneration.  This condition, however, is usually related more to age and overuse than it is a result of a trauma or sports injury.

The shoulder is the most unstable joint in the body.  Many times the cause of a shoulder injury is because there is too much play in the ball and socket joint.  One of the main functions of the shoulder is to provide stability to movements using the arm.  If your shoulder is unstable, you will definitely develop problems.  Be sure you are diagnosed correctly before you start doing a lot of laterals with dumbbells.  Your health care professional will probably give you a few exercises to do for your rotator cuff.

 Treatment for Shoulder Injuries

To get a better look at the possible damage within your shoulder, your doctor may suggest arthroscopic surgery.  This is a minor invasive surgery where a small incision is made in your shoulder and then they look around inside with a very small camera.  Your doctor can see whatever damage there is and help you make a decision about what options are available.

If you suffer an acute trauma to your shoulder perform the first aid procedure known as R.I.C.E. and see a health care professional immediately.

  • Rest – Stop using the afflicted part.
  • Ice – 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off for an hour (or whatever feels comfortable).
  • Compress – Wrap a compression bandage around the injury.  This may keep down the swelling.
  • Elevate – Keep the injured part propped up and elevated above the level of your heart.  This may help keep down the swelling.

Recovery and Continuation After Shoulder Injuries

Recovery usually always begins with plenty of rest.  When continuing with your weight training program, follow some key do’s and don’ts such as warming up with as many sets as it takes in order to get blood circulation going.  The shoulder should feel good before you start a working set.  Start off with lighter weight before you are capable of handling anything heavy.  Do shoulder stretches after a workout.  Know the difference between shoulder soreness discomfort and the pain of an injury.  If you have any doubts about a shoulder injury then go see a doctor.


[1]  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21590644

[2]  http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/30/2/248.short

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