I made an unconscious switch to calisthenics from weight training back in the early part of 2016. It just happened; it wasn’t intentional as such, I just started to enjoy it. Even though I was coming up to 25 years old at the time, there was clearly much the universe wanted to teach me.
I tried all kinds of tough moves and pushed myself hard. I know no other way really. In the late part of 2016 I had right shoulder pain that just never seemed to go away. I was just getting strong (at least I thought at the time) – I was getting better at muscle ups, levers and starting to rep out ring dips……..
Cutting a long story short, in the winter of 2016/17 the pain got so bad at times I couldn’t do a knee push up without being in considerable pain. The low point really hit when I was pulling my hair out trying to mobilise the shoulders and figure out what was wrong. I was doing the ‘scratch stretch’ with a band……..the pain was so bad I nearly cried.
(The scratch stretch; can be done with a towel or band for those with tighter shoulders)
I wanted to give up. I’d lost strength on an astronomical scale. I had no idea what I was dealing with and didn’t have the money to get professional help. So I moaned to anyone and everyone that would listen (they know who they are).
I’d read all I could about shoulder problems. I’d lie awake at night trying to work out what could be wrong and I asked colleagues in the industry. There were some suggestions that my pec minor is likely tight and I knew my lats were tight, as they’ve always been tight, thick and overactive.
Some people suggested bicep tendinitis as that can often impact the shoulder and most people don’t realise the connection between the bicep tendon and shoulder function. Then I stumbled on info on shoulder impingement. There’s a multitude of tests on YouTube alone. The penny was starting to drop………..
- Pain when pressing (horizontal and especially vertically)
- Right shoulder sitting slightly further forward than the left in a relaxed position
- Pain made worse when internally rotating the shoulders – think ring push ups, dips or arm across chest stretching
- Big and overdeveloped pecs and lats (too many push ups and pull ups WITHOUT horizontal pulling)
(RELATED READING: Fixing ‘Gorilla Posture’ – The DEFINITIVE Guide)
Simplifying Shoulder Impingement
Shoulder impingement is as the name suggests, ‘trapping’ of the shoulder, where the head of your upper arm is sitting too far forward. And when you go to further internally rotate and flex the shoulder, there’s no more room for movement, and thus, there’s pain and inflammation thanks to this ‘jamming’ effect.
(Image credit: theclimbingdoctor.com)
When it comes to balancing things out, if we have too much of a certain action, direction, force or pattern, we need to reduce it and increase the opposite. This will bring us back into balance.
If the shoulder is sitting too far forward then we need more retraction. Once we identify the plane of movement needed, we can start addressing muscles that need relaxing. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle coming together.
Tight & Overactive muscles contributing to impingement:
- Pec minor/major
- Front deltoids
Weak & Underactive muscles that need activating:
- Rear deltoids
- Middle portion of the trapezius
- External rotator muscles
- Serratus anterior
- Lower portion of the trapezius muscles
One of the simplest ways to go about this is to reduce internal rotation exercises and double up on external rotation exercises.
Exercises Promoting internal rotation:
- Bench press/push ups (horizontal pushing)
- Pull ups, chin ups and pulldowns (vertical pulling)
- Overhead pressing (this will likely be well out of the question if you’re dealing with impingement)
Exercises Promoting external rotation:
- Face pulls
- Rear delt flyes
- Horizontal rowing (bodyrows/bent over rows)
- Direct external rotation work – like cuban rotations, dumbbell rotations and cable rotations
There were three exercises I used to balance out my own deficits. Each move targets a different action………..
#1 Band Pull Aparts
Use a moderate – light resistance band and keeping the arms straight, try to rip it apart and pull it until it pushes into your chest. This activates the rear delts and all the scapula retractors – crucial for a healthy posture. I did 4 sets of 12-15 reps and would tighten the band a little more everytime 4 sets of 15 was achievable.
#2 Face Pull/Cuban Rotation
These can be done with a barbell, with cables or with gymnastics rings. I personally found them most friendly on the rings, as the rings allow the shoulders, hands and elbows to move naturally and aren’t in a fixed position. The bar variant can be a little rigid and if you lower too far it can cause shoulder pain for those with an impingement issue.
Again, high reps; 4 sets of 12-15 focusing on quality and control.
#3 ‘Trap 3’ Raise/Prone Y Raises
For the trap 3 raises you’ll need weight of some kind, although not very much. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1-5 kg should suffice. If you have gym access you can do these on an incline bench.
If you prefer to do it at home and have handweights, what I do is target one side at a time. Adopt a stride stance: one foot forward, one foot back. Rest the non working arm on the front leg and let the working arm hang straight with the weight in hand. From here RETRACT the shoulder and lift the arm out to around 30 degrees, from the midline of your body. Control the descent and let the arm hang once again, rinse and repeat.
Sets and reps are same again, 4 sets of 12-15 and be conservative with weight progression; these are not meant to be done heavy.
For anyone completely devoid of equipment, fear not, there’s a bodyweight alternative!
Enter the prone Y raise…………
Lay down on your front and have your arms out overhead, resting on the ground. Squeeze your glutes and engage your abs – this is absolutely essential; if you don’t do this the lower back will do all the work and your lower traps will just chill out and have a night off. They’re already lazy, let’s fix that.
(Note: lifting the head off the floor isn’t essential as we’re trying to target the lower traps. Lifting the head off brings in thoracic extension, which isn’t bad, it just depends on your goals)
Bonus tip: Keep the thumbs pointed to the ceiling as you do your trap raises. This keeps your shoulders externally rotated and thus, recruits more upper back musculature.
I used the above routine at least once per week, subject to time, but ideally it was done twice to thrice per week. Really this should be your main workout and many physios will tell you to go nowhere near a pressing workout, but if your ego cannot handle that (like my fragile one), then make sure the pressing volume is low and limited to moves causing no pain……..and, be sure to do the whole sequence straight after. This made a difference to me and seemed to make me feel better.
Some Stretches To Use Alongside These Exercises
The main stretches I used were pec and lat stretches. The simplest way to do this is a chin up (supinated) bar hang. I mentioned this in another post not long ago (How Flexibility Makes Calisthenics Easier) and it’s much more effective than the overhand grip hang, because the overhand hang is often painful for those with a shoulder impingement, as it puts the shoulder into a flexed and internally rotated position. You’ll find the chin up grip actually alleviates your pain.
(Image credit: stronglifts.com) – visual representation of different grips (overhand vs underhand)
In terms of holds, I went by feel. I didn’t rigidly time it. I just hung until I felt looser and of course, my grip didn’t get too fatigued – which could be a limiting factor.
Anytime I felt tender I’d hang on my home pull up bar. It worked a treat.
You now have a real world account of how I rehabbed my shoulder injury and am now back to far better strength than before, as you can see on my Instagram page on the right.
This article isn’t intended as a diagnosis of any kind, more an account of how I worked my way back to health. If you’re struggling with pain of any kind, please see an appropriate professional. It will save you so much time. I lost over a year thanks to that. But keep in mind recovery from things like this are a SLOOOOOWWWWW process; you’ve got to remodel your musculature and undo years of bad habits and movement patterns.
I promise you this though, once you free yourself you will be stronger, wiser and harder than ever. That’s worth a year of learning and suffering and I wouldn’t change it for the world really.
Links to everything I’ve written that’s injury, shoulder or posture related:
- 1 exercise for healthier shoulders
- Try THIS overlooked calisthenics move!
- Fixing ‘gorilla posture’ – the DEFINITIVE guide
- Tips on dealing with injuries or suspected injuries
- ANOTHER move for healthier shoulders
- A crazy story about the psychology of injuries (fixing my shoulder pain)
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.