How do I train shoulders correctly and avoid injury?

February 23, 2013

Q: Do you have any suggestions for training shoulders properly? It seems that shoulder injuries are the most common problem in my gym, and I want to make sure I’m doing my exercises correctly. I sometime get a little pain in the joint, and I have recently noticed that the front of my shoulders is much stronger and more developed than the sides and back. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A: The secret to training shoulders is balance, and if you fail to train correctly, you will be just another statistic in an orthopedic surgeon’s office. That’s why it’s important to learn how to train the shoulders correctly, strengthening all three heads, and providing security and balance for the shoulder joint without overtraining the front deltoid.

Too many presses can lead to injury

Don’t make the mistake of doing too many pressing movements, because you can over develop the front deltoid and pull the shoulder joint out of sync, setting it up for injury. Exercises like the military press, overhead dumbbell press and bench press are great but must be done in moderation, or you will become unbalanced, putting unnecessary pressure on the joint. This problem can cause pain, friction and serious injury if not managed correctly.

Work all shoulder heads equally

The shoulder is made up of three important heads or muscles - the front, side and rear deltoids. All three of these muscles play an important part in keeping the shoulder healthy and functioning correctly. Failure to work each muscle evenly can put you at much greater risk of injury and will diminish performance. However, the problem is, working the front delts is much more fun, and gyms provide little to no equipment options to work the side and rear, so you will have to be creative to get the job done. Good examples of exercises that work the side deltoids are dumbbell side lateral raises and cable side lateral raises. Other options for the rear delts are overhead plate lifts and throat rows. Upright rows with a moderate grip work all three heads and are also a great addition to most shoulder routines.

Target weakness

If you already have strong front deltoids and you work them at the beginning of your workout when you’re fresh and full of energy and do your weak rear deltoids at the end when you’re tired and exhausted, guess what? You’ll continue to have weak rear delts and will probably continue to have shoulder pain. It makes much more sense to work weak muscles at the beginning of your workout when you are fresh and can focus better. Save the strong muscles for last. You’ll get much better results. If you’re trying to correct an imbalance, you may even want to reduce the amount of sets for the stronger body part until the weak muscles begin to catch up.

Add weight slowly

Getting stronger takes time, so be sure not to sacrifice form for pounds lifted, or it will only put pressure on the joint instead of the muscle. When you can do 2-3 extra reps of a particular exercise with great form, add 5-10 pounds. Eventually you will make progress, build great shoulders and stay injury free.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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