So there you are, going through some deadlifts when all of a sudden your shoulder starts hurting. But wait, deadlifts challenge the legs and back, so why are you getting shoulder pain during a movement in which your shoulders aren’t even moving?
This very question plagues a lot of lifters, and can result in missed deadlifting sessions and otherwise unnecessary setbacks that can oftentimes be easily remedied with just a few key changes being implemented throughout your training regimen.
Shoulder pain from deadlifting tends to be the result of inadequately preparing the shoulders for the lift, inadequate muscle strength across the joint, poor tissue mobility and overuse to specific shoulder tendons based on how you’re gripping the barbell.
So, if you’re noticing shoulder discomfort or pain during your deadlifts, here are my 6 tips to fix::
- Learn the basics of shoulder anatomy
- Make sure you’re adequately preparing the shoulder muscles for the deadlift
- Check your chest mobility
- Check the mobility of your shoulder joints
- Checking the mobility of your shoulder capsule
- Check the health of your rotator cuff tendons
- Hold off on any underhand/alternated grips for the time being
Each one of these initial steps within this article contains a number of specific techniques or steps to help you gain the upper hand on your shoulder pain to the best extent possible.
Read my other article that covers everything you need to know about How to Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
Tip #1: Learn Basic Shoulder Anatomy (And How It Relates To The Deadlift)
What’s important to understand about the shoulder itself is that there are actually a few key joints that exist in order to allow us to produce all of the movements that we are capable of. There are also a lot of muscles that span across or attach near to the joint in order to help the joint achieve stability and produce movement.
The very basics of shoulder anatomy
The shoulder joint is a type of ball and socket joint, and it’s this particular joint that most people think of when they hear the word “shoulder”. In anatomical language, it’s known as the glenohumeral joint.
This glenohumeral joint is a bit of a double-edged sword in that it is extremely mobile, providing all sorts of directional movement with an overall extensive range of motion, but it comes at the cost of sacrificing joint stability or integrity in order to achieve such movement. As a result, we often incur shoulder pain due to this reason.
One other key joint to be aware of in the shoulder region, which makes up what’s known as the shoulder girdle, is the joint where the end of the collar bone (known as the clavicle) meets with the top of the shoulder blade (the top of the blade is known as the acromion). This joint is known as the acromioclavicular joint.
Between the glenohumeral joint and the acromioclavicular joint, there is a lot that can go wrong with the shoulder, which ultimately leads to pain when deadlifting, so being aware of these two particular joints will help you to better understand how and why things can go wrong, as well as how to effectively remedy the situation.
Where things can go wrong
In reference to these two particular joints, the common issues that can arise can include the actual joints themselves getting stiff, the muscles that cross these joints being too tight, being too weak or even unhealthy.
All of these can arise for a variety of reasons including improper shoulder positioning throughout the deadlift, muscle imbalances between the front and back of the shoulder, and even painful conditions that affect the health of these tissues due to factors such as overtraining or highly repetitive and stressful movements.
So with all of these things that can go wrong, it can seem a bit overwhelming as to where to start with troubleshooting as to why your shoulder is acting up when you’re trying to deadlift.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, simply stick to the following progression of steps to go through to start evaluating different components of your shoulders’ overall health. They will help you to hone in on which tissues or structures might be causing your pain as well as what you can do about it if so.
Tip #2: Make Sure You’re Adequately Preparing The Shoulder Muscles For The Deadlift
Sometimes it’s the simplest of changes that make the biggest differences. In the case of shoulder pain when deadlifting, it’s rather surprising just how often shoulder pain is experienced due to inadequate preparation and warming up of the muscles within the shoulder region.
This is largely due to lifters failing to devote proper warm up protocols or time to preparing these muscles before starting to pull weight off the floor. Since many lifting programs place deadlifts at the very start of the lifting session, lifters often spend plenty of time warming up and prepping their lower body while neglecting to prepare their shoulders since “deadlifts aren’t a shoulder exercise”.
The fact of the matter is that all of the muscles that cross the shoulder joint and shoulder girdle undergo sustained, highly intense muscle contractions throughout the deadlift.
These types of contractions are known as isometric muscle contractions, where the muscle doesn’t produce movement of the joint but rather maintains a fixed length in order to create joint stability. When multiple muscles that cross a joint all isometrically contract at once, it’s known a co-contraction of the joint.
The reason why isometric contractions and subsequent co-contraction of the shoulder joint are so integral to deadlifting is that you would literally pull your arms out of their sockets if these muscles stayed inactive/loose as you tried to pull a heavy weight off the floor.
So, it’s the intense, sustained contraction of each shoulder muscle on every rep of your deadlifts that allow you to complete the movement while keeping your upper arm bone connected to the shoulder blade.
But if you’re asking these muscles to sustain repeated maximal or near-maximal contractions without adequately preparing them to do so, it’s kind of like asking someone to start doing sprints immediately after they’ve gotten out of bed and set their feet on the floor – you’ll get lousy performance and quite possibly some pain as well.
How to prepare your shoulder muscles for the deadlift
There’s more than one way to prepare your shoulder muscles for a deadlifting session, however, in my experience with all the lifters that I’ve trained in gyms or treated within the clinic, most of them want something fast but effective – especially on deadlift day. If this is the case for you, I’d have you run through one of Tom House’s rotator cuff warmup protocols.
This protocol will get a number of shoulder muscles online and ready to go before pulling some heavy deadlifts. It will also serve as a great way to assess the overall mobility of your shoulder joint and the subsequent health of your rotator cuff muscles (discussed a bit later on within this article).
Start with the following protocol. Your shoulders should feel awake and responsive by the end of it. And if you’re curious as to who Tom House is, he’s kind of a big deal – he’s routinely sought out by the biggest names and teams in professional sports for improving shoulder health in various athletes.
This routine should take about five minutes to complete and your shoulders should feel thoroughly warmed up by the end of it. Take note along the way if you feel any pain or discomfort when performing the warmup, as it may be a signal that you need to further assess your rotator cuff health.
Looking for a warm up beyond just the shoulders? Check out my full deadlift warm-up guide.
Tip #3: Check Your Chest Mobility
Lifters often times experience shoulder pain with any sort of upper body exercises or full body exertion due to tightness or immobility throughout their pectoral muscles (the chest muscles). This is often times due to an imbalance that exists between the strength of the chest muscles and the back muscles.
I wrote more about this in my article on How To Fix An Uneven Bench Press.
The problem with an imbalance between these two muscle groups is that it can throw off the positioning of the shoulder from its ideal resting position. This is oftentimes referred to a condition known as upper crossed syndrome (1).
If the chest muscles are tight and appropriate upper back strength is lacking, it makes for a pretty brutal combination that restricts the humerus from sitting perfectly centered within the glenoid fossa (socket) of the shoulder. Think of this like having the alignment off on your vehicle’s front tires – it’s very subtle and you can get away with it for a while without really noticing it, but if left unchecked long enough it will start to rear its ugly head in the form of uneven tread wear/shoulder pain.
The fix for poor chest mobility
Traditional static stretching won’t get you far when it comes to improving your pectoral tightness, especially since pectoralis minor (one of the two pectoral/chest muscles) doesn’t even attach onto the humerus bone. Therefore, to get these muscles to relax, doing some fascial rolling with a small ball is your best bet.
You can use any sort of medium-sized ball, just make sure it’s firm while fitting into your pectoral region. It can be a smaller medicine ball, a small basketball or even a dedicated therapy ball of some sorts. I’ve used all of these over the years with solid results.
Simply place the ball on a bench or other same-height surface and drape yourself over top so that the ball presses into your pectoral muscle without pressing on any bony/uncomfortable areas. You can even perform this with placing a ball against the wall and then leaning into it, provided that the wall is a solid one.
You can simply lay like this for a minute or two or you can stir your arm around in circles while the ball pins down your pectoral muscles. It should be a strong but tolerable sensation of stretching/mobilization taking place throughout your chest region.
For best results, do this on the regular and make sure to do it before your deadlifts as well. You’d be surprised what a minute or two on each side can do, especially when done on a regular basis.
NOTE: if you’re experiencing any pins and/or needle-like sensations into your arm or hand, try readjusting the ball or modifying your pressure/technique as you’re likely putting pressure on some of the nerves that cross near the front of the chest and run down into the arm and a hand.
Tip #4: Check The Mobility Of Your Shoulder Joints
Another particularly important aspect of your shoulders that are worth examining is the acromioclavicular joint and the joint capsule of the glenohumeral joint itself. These can both generate pain within the shoulder region if something is awry with them when deadlifting.
The acromioclavicular joint (AC joint, for short) sometimes gets a bit jammed up or stiff on individuals. When the joint undergoes stress (such as with heavy deadlifts), the downward pull of the shoulder blades incurred from the weight can create pain within the shoulder region if the joint is already a bit unhappy.
To check to see if your AC joint is creating your pain, try the following two movements:
Pull the shoulder experiencing the pain horizontally across your chest. Then for the second movement, raise your arm directly above your head and note if any pain is experienced in your “usual area”. If both motions replicated your shoulder pain, there’s a high probability that your AC joint needs some mobilization.
Both of the preceding positions put the joint into what’s known as a closed-packed position, which will irritate the joint if it’s already a bit stiff or jammed up.
How to mobilize your AC joint
If the preceding positions recreated your familiar pain, it may just be that your AC joint is jammed up and needs to be mobilized a bit. This is a bit tricky to do on your own, but if you can’t get a qualified healthcare professional to do it for you, you can try doing the following:
Take the arm on the opposite side of your shoulder pain and place it on the collarbone on the side of your sore shoulder so that the ends of your fingers are sitting directly on top of it. Next, push down on your collarbone with a strong but tolerable force. Release the downward pressure of your hand/fingers and repeat this mobilization for 30 seconds or so and then recheck the two previously mentioned arm movements.
If successful, the pain will be much less noticeable this time or maybe even gone entirely.
Tip #5: Checking The Mobility Of Your Shoulder Capsule
The joint capsule of the shoulder is a thick, leather-like tissue that covers the ball and socket joint, surrounding it in a sort of bag-like fashion. Sometimes this leather-like tissue can get stiff or even slightly fibrotic, which will not only reduce shoulder mobility but also cause pain throughout the generalized shoulder region and down into the arm.
Without a clinical examination ,the best way to check your shoulder capsule mobility all by yourself is to simply perform what’s known as the sleeper stretch for each shoulder and compare the differences from one side to the other in terms of both range of motion and perceived pain discomfort.
If performing this stretch/self-assessment replicates your familiar shoulder pain, you might very well be dealing with a capsular issue for your shoulder.
How to perform the sleeper stretch
To perform the sleeper stretch, lay on your side and position your bottom arm so that your upper arm bone is perpendicular to the rest of your body (at 90 degrees).
The starting position for the sleeper stretch.
Next, place the hand from your top arm across the wrist of your bottom arm (see the picture below). Now use your top hand to rotate your bottom arm down. Go as far as comfortable until you feel you can’t go any further. You should feel a stretch deep throughout the shoulder joint, which is the sensation of the capsule being wound up and stretched.
The finishing position for the sleeper stretch.
Roll over and repeat with the other arm, taking note of any differences experienced along the way.
Try to incorporate this stretch in on a daily basis, especially before deadlifting if you feel you need it. Because the capsule is such a thick, gristle-like tissue, you’ll want to hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds at a time, if not longer. (Since it’s a non-contractile/non muscular tissue, it’s ok to perform long, static stretches for this tissue.)
Tip #6: Check The Health Of Your Rotator Cuff Tendons
The rotator cuff muscles and their tendons may be small, but they can create major pain in lifters when not healthy. Rotator cuff pathology is a common source of shoulder pain for most individuals and lifters are no exception.(2)
As stated earlier, many lifters don’t ever attribute their deadlifting shoulder pain to their rotator cuff muscles and tendons since they fail to realize that they’re using them during the lift.
To determine if your rotator cuff muscles may be causing your pain, take a step back from the barbell and try doing some light resistance movements for these muscles. While the details are beyond the scope of this article, you can try some simple overhead presses, external rotations and internal rotations. If your familiar shoulder pain comes back during these movements, it’s entirely possible that your shoulder pain is coming from one or more of these muscles and tendons.
How to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles
Your best bet here is to set the ego aside and do some light resistance training specifically for these muscles. Do this as a dedicated warm up regimen or even as part of your shoulder training. Tendons take persistent effort to get healthy, due to their terrible blood supply, but doing dedicated rotator cuff exercises a few days a week for a couple of months on end should mop up the issue quite nicely.
Remember, the best lifters out there all do these sorts of routines on a regular basis – either for injury recovery or injury prevention. If you plan on staying in the lifting game for a long time, a dedicated rotator cuff regimen should be a staple in your training pursuits.
Start with the Tom House protocol (here’s the link again to that routine), as this is oftentimes enough to create great changes in the health of a lifters rotator cuff musculature.
Interested in learning how powerlifters train shoulders? Check out my article on Training Shoulders For Powerlifting.
Tip #7: Hold Off On Any Underhand/Alternated Grips For The Time Being
If I had a dollar for every lifter whom I’ve treated in the clinic due to bicipital tendinosis, I could likely afford to take a nice vacation this year. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not as big of one as you might think.
While the alternated grip is an essential for heavy deadlifts, it can wreak havoc on the long head biceps tendon if done to a greater extent than what the tendon can tolerate and recover from on a regular basis.
If you’re new to lifting, the alternated grip is a grip lifters use during the deadlift in which one hand squeezes the barbell from the top while the other hand squeezes it from underneath. This is done so that the barbell can’t roll out of the lifter’s hands during heavy lifts in which the lifters grip strength is exceeded by the weight of the barbell.
The alternated grip (aka the mixed grip) is essential to heavy deadlifting, but it’s important to be aware of the stress that is placed on one of the biceps tendons for the arm that squeezes the bar from underneath (I.e. using an underhand grip).
The biceps muscle has two distinct heads, and the tendon of the long head attaches to the top of the socket portion of the shoulder joint. When you place your arm in a supinated position (palm facing upwards) while lifting a weight with it, much more stress and tension is placed on this tendon, especially at the very top of the tendon, near where it attaches to the shoulder blade (specifically the superior glenoid tubercle) itself.
How to tell if your biceps tendon is causing your shoulder pain
There are a number of clinical tests that healthcare professionals can use to make this determination, but there’s a really simple one that you can do on your own:
Grab a pair of dumbbells that you would use for a lighter set of bicep curls. Lay on an inclined bench and perform some inclined bicep curls. Fully lengthen your arms out at the bottom of the movement as you perform about ten reps. You’ll find that this position will produce tension over the front of your shoulder (right near or on where the tendon attaches to the shoulder blade).
Make sure to perform about ten reps to see if the pain is drummed up at all. If it is, and it’s the pain you’ve been experiencing when deadlifting, then congratulations, you likely have an irritated biceps tendon. Don’t worry, it’s rather straightforward to fix, you’ll likely just need to be patient and persistent.
Interested in learning how powerlifters train arms? Check out my article on Training Arms For Powerlifting.
How to treat an irritated biceps tendon
While an entire book could be written on how to effectively treat tendon issues within the body, here’s the down and dirty method that you, the lifter, will need to take:
Start by either avoiding the alternated grip for the time being, or if nothing else, don’t use the underhand grip for the arm that has the unhealthy biceps tendon and save it for the other arm.
Note: if you take the latter approach, be advised that you’re now increasing the likelihood of creating the same condition on your other shoulder since all of your underhand reps will be done on that single arm, so you’ll need to pay extra attention as to how that arm/shoulder is feeling when doing your lifting.
The key to taking care of an irritated biceps tendon is to provide enough mechanical stimulus to it that it can kickstart the healing process but not so much that it gets irritated in its already sensitive state. I often term this the “Goldilocks phenomenon” when educating and treating lifters in the clinic. You’ll need to do this at a frequency that is appropriate for the tendon to recover after each session, which is ideally about every 48 hours.
Find a resistance movement that drums up the tendon pain to a very minor extent (about a rating of 1 or 2 out of 10 if rating it on a 10-point pain scale). Perform the resistance movement for about 3 sets of 10 reps, with a solid minute-or-so break in between.
Your goal is to have that pain either greatly diminish or entirely disappear while under load by the end of that third set. This signifies that you’ve stimulated the tendon appropriately. Repeat this process a few times per week while avoiding irritating movements along the way.
Once you no longer drum up the pain with the resistance, use a slightly higher/heavier resistance and repeat the process. Do this for a couple of months to ensure that your tendon is entirely healthy again, which will give you supreme confidence when deadlifting heavy again.
Shoulder pain while deadlifting is a bit more common than most lifters may tend to realize, but thankfully it's oftentimes effectively remedied with some simple changes to the lifter’s deadlift preparation, tissue extensibility and health throughout their shoulder(s).
Be sure to implement these strategies even after your shoulders are feeling much better, this will not only bulletproof your shoulders when it comes to warding off potential pain and injury, but will also give you much more confidence in knowing your shoulders can deal with the heavy loads that you’ll be pulling off the floor.
Be sure to check out my other rehab articles on shoulder pain: