Choosing the right chest exercises while dealing with bad shoulders can be tricky. With a range of potential injuries (like a torn rotator cuff or biceps tendon), selecting (safe) chest exercises to minimize pain and discomfort is essential. You can manage most sports injuries by understanding what triggers or causes them, making simple exercise modifications, and correctly preparing your body for your chest workout.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain
Before I tell you what exercises to do, I would like to point out why they are so effective from a treatment and prevention point of view. Hopefully, it will encourage you not to skip this good warm-up and corrective exercise before your chest workout.
The existence of shoulder pain does NOT necessarily mean a problem at the shoulder joint. For example, weakness in the posterior muscles of the back, including the lower and mid traps, can contribute to shoulder pain.
When these muscles are weak, the levator scapulae (neck muscle that elevates, adducts the scapula, and assists in downward rotation) may become overactive to compensate for the lack of stability in the shoulder. This can lead to muscle imbalances, increasing the risk of injury.
Additionally, weakness in the posterior muscles of the back can cause postural problems, contributing to shoulder pain and injury. Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain good strength and balance in the muscles of the back and shoulders to help prevent injury.
So, I added some warm-up and corrective exercises below to help you!
Another common injury is impingement which often causes pain to the front or on the top of the shoulders.
Common causes of this are:
- Repetitive overhead movements: Activities that involve repetitive overhead motions, such as throwing a ball, playing tennis, or lifting weights, can put stress on the supraspinatus muscle and tendons and lead to impingement.
- Poor posture: Slouching or having a rounded shoulder posture can cause the shoulder blade to rotate forward, which can compress the supraspinatus muscle against the acromion.
- Muscle imbalances: Weakness in the muscles that support the shoulder blade, such as the serratus anterior, can cause the shoulder blade to rotate forward and ping the supraspinatus muscle.
- Other causes: Degenerative changes in the shoulder joint, rotator cuff tears, bursitis, tendinitis, arthritis, trauma, and direct injuries to the shoulders.
A physical examination, movement and postural assessment, X-ray, MRI, or CT scan can help determine the cause of shoulder pain and its contributing factors. Therefore, you should consult a doctor or physical therapist if you have a shoulder injury. They can help you create an exercise plan that will help you recover and avoid further damage.
Corrective Exercise Warm-Up for Chest Workout (With Shoulder Pain)
It’s essential to warm up before doing any chest exercises, especially if you have bad shoulders. A proper warm-up will prepare you for the workout and reduce the risk of injury. Here is a sample warm-up routine that targets the chest and shoulders:
1. Kettlebell Banded Upside Down Chest Press
We use this exercise as a dynamic warm-up and muscle activation for the chest and shoulders.
It is suitable for shoulder injuries because it allows for a controlled range of motion and allows the individual to focus on proper form and technique. This exercise can also be used as a warm-up exercise to activate the shoulder muscles and prepare them for more demanding exercises or activities.
The band provides extra resistance that allows the individual to work on stability, balance, and strength in the shoulder. These benefits are important to prevent further injuries and improve overall shoulder health.
- Lie down on a bench with a braced neutral spine.
- Put the band around your wrist for resistance and hold the KB upside down in your weaker/injured hand/side to start with.
- Aim for a 45-degree angle with the elbows while pressing.
- Lower the weight to the chest with good control.
- Do not let the kettlebell fall.
- Press the kettlebell back into the starting position.
Use a lightweight: 2 sets of 15 reps. Reps may vary, depending on the injured tissue’s tolerance. Rest for 60 seconds between sets.
2. Scapular push-ups
Scapular push-ups improve the stability and strength of the scapular muscles, such as the serratus anterior, lower trapezius, and middle trapezius.
These muscles are responsible for maintaining proper shoulder blade alignment and preventing impingement of the rotator cuff muscles. Weakness or imbalances in these muscles can lead to poor posture and an increased risk of shoulder injuries.
You can use this to help rehabilitate shoulder injuries, such as rotator cuff tears, impingement, and instability. These exercises help to improve the alignment of the shoulder blade, which can help to reduce pain and inflammation and improve the range of motion.
- Start in a high plank position (or with the knees on the ground) with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your core engaged.
- Lower yourself towards the ground by bending the elbows and keeping them close to your body.
- As you lower yourself, focus on retracting and depressing your shoulder blades, which is the main action of the scapular push-up.
- Keep your neck and spine in a neutral position.
- Push back up to the starting position with a braced core while maintaining a proper scapular position throughout the movement.
- Keep the movement slow and controlled, focusing on proper form and technique rather than speed or reps.
- It’s important to keep the movement range limited by the individual’s mobility and pain level, if any.
Note: if this exercise induces pain, you are not yet ready to add this to your routine, so skip it!
Reps: 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps with 30-60 seconds rest. Choose the reps suitable for your level of strength.
3. Monkey Shrugs
Monkey shrugs activate and warm up the upper back muscles, address muscle imbalances and improve posture. The upper traps and levator scapulae muscles are often overactive in individuals with poor posture and rounded shoulders.
This exercise helps to release the tension in these muscles and activate the rhomboids and the lower trapezius to improve the balance of the upper back muscles.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Place your hands on your hips, with your thumbs pointing towards your back.
- Slowly lift your shoulders towards your ears, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Hold for a moment, then release the shoulders down.
- Keep your neck and spine in a neutral position throughout the movement.
- Repeat the movement for the desired reps, focusing on proper form and technique.
Reps: 1-2 sets of 20 reps.
Other Simple Dynamic Upper Body Warm-Up Exercises
- Shoulder circles: Raise your arms out to the sides at shoulder height. Make small circles with your arms, going forward for 10 reps, then backward for 10 reps.
- Arm crosses: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and raise your arms straight to the sides at shoulder height. Cross your right arm over your left, then your left arm over your right. Repeat for 10 reps in each direction.
- Wrist circles: Make circles with your wrists, clockwise for 10 reps, then anticlockwise for 10 reps.
- Torso twists: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands on your hips. Twist your torso to the right and left 10 times while facing your hips forward.
What Makes a Chest Exercise Shoulder Friendly?
The exercise variation. The injured tissue might tolerate a neutral grip Dumbbell press but not a flat bench press. That makes it shoulder friendly FOR YOU. Choosing the suitable variation/alternative with the right equipment, grip, and angle (incline, decline, and flat) may allow you to complete the exercise pain-free.
So, let’s see the shoulder-friendly variation of some chest exercises and some tips and modifications to make it suit you.
Top 5 Chest Exercises for Bad Shoulders
1. Incline Dumbbell Press
Dumbbells allow for independent movement of each arm (single arm, alternate press), which can also help to correct muscle imbalances.
- Start by sitting on an incline bench with your feet planted on the floor.
- Grasp a pair of dumbbells and hold them with your chosen grip.
- Carefully lie back on the bench
- Bring the dumbbells to your chest, with the elbow tucked in, to reduce the load on the shoulders.
- Push the dumbbells upward and extend your arms, fully extending your elbows.
- Lower the dumbbells to your chest, keeping control of the movement and avoiding any jerky motion.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
2. Cable Cross Overs
Cable crossovers provide a controlled and consistent resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This can reduce the stress on the shoulders by allowing for a more gradual and controlled movement. In turn, this helps to minimize the risk of further injury.
- strengthen and stabilize the shoulders.
- you can adjust the resistance to match your strength level.
- it works the chest muscles, shoulders, triceps, and back muscles.
- Start with a light weight and gradually increase the resistance as your shoulders become stronger.
- Face the cable machine with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Grasp the cables’ handles and step forward, so the wires are at chest level.
- Keep your core engaged and the knee slightly bent throughout the exercise.
- squeeze your chest muscles and bring your arms together in front of your chest
- Control the movement as you extend your arms back to the starting position.
- Keep your shoulders back and down, avoiding any shrugging or hunching.
- Avoid swinging or using momentum.
- Keep your breathing steady throughout the exercise.
3. Floor Dumbbells Flies
Doing DB Flies on the ground, in a bridge position, allows for better activation of the core muscles, providing better stability and balance during the exercise. You will also have a greater range of motion to work with, which can help to target the chest muscles more effectively. Lying on the ground puts your shoulders in a more natural position, minimizing the risk of injury. Also, the floor will help you avoid dropping your elbows lower than 90 degrees, putting less stress on the shoulders.
- Lie down with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground.
- Place your arms at your sides with the dumbbells in your hands.
- Press your hips up towards the ceiling, creating a bridge position with your body.
- Keep your core engaged and maintain this bridge position throughout the exercise.
- Keep your elbows slightly bent, and lower the dumbbells towards the floor.
- Squeeze your chest muscles as you bring the dumbbells back to the starting position.
- Keep your shoulders back and down, avoiding any shrugging or hunching.
- Repeat for the desired reps.
4. Incline press-ups
Doing push-ups at this angle reduces the amount of load on the shoulders. You can also adjust the angle of the incline to match your current strength level. The higher the incline easier the press is.
- Begin with a high incline like a wall, kitchen table, bench, or step. As your shoulders become stronger, you can gradually reduce the incline to make the exercise more challenging.
- Keep your core engaged and the shoulders back and down.
- Avoid pushing your shoulders out and up & shrugging the shoulders.
5. Seated Chest Press
The machine guides your movement and can help minimize the risk of injuries. It also allows you to adjust the weight, resistance, and seat position to match your current strength level.
- Adjust the seat height, so the handles are level with your chest.
- Set the weight for your strength level.
- Grasp the handles with your palms facing forward.
- Take a deep breath and press the handles forward, extending your arms.
- Keep your core engaged and your back against the seat throughout the exercise.
- Exhale as you bring the handles back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Tips and Modifications for Shoulder-Friendly Chest Exercises
- Flat: These exercises target the middle portion of the chest muscles.
- Incline (30-34 degrees): It targets the upper portion of the chest muscles.
- Decline (15-30 degrees): It targets the lower portion of the chest muscles.
Incline and decline exercises, such as the dumbbell or barbell press, work the different target muscles and can put less stress on the shoulders than flat bench exercises. This is because the angle of the bench places the shoulders in a more favorable position and reduces the resistance on the shoulders.
People with shoulder issues may still experience discomfort with incline and decline exercises, so I recommend seeing which angle suits you better.
- Close grip: Perform the exercise with the hands placed close together on the bar or dumbbells. This grip variation emphasizes the triceps muscles and should put less stress on the shoulders.
- Wide grip: A wide-grip press, such as a wide-grip barbell press or wide-grip dumbbell press, is performed with the hands placed far apart on the bar or dumbbells. This grip variation loads more the chest muscles and can be more challenging for the shoulders.
- Neutral grip: When the palms are facing each other, this grip variation can help reduce stress on the shoulders as it puts the shoulders in a more natural position and also works the chest muscles.
- Reverse-grip: The palms facing backward. This grip variation can work the chest muscles differently and reduce stress on the shoulders by putting the shoulders in a more neutral position.
- Resistance bands can significantly reduce stress on the shoulders while still providing a challenging workout. Exercises such as a banded chest press or fly work the chest muscles while giving a different stimulus.
- The cable machine works in different resistance angles, which can help reduce stress on the shoulders. You can also change the height of the pulleys to target other areas of the chest muscles.
- Dumbbells allow for a more extensive range of motion while providing a different stimulus.
- Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, dips, and chest dips can be a great way to work the chest muscles while reducing the load on the shoulders. You can do them at home with no equipment.
- Medicine balls can add variety to your chest workout.
- Others: Barbell, Swiss bar, Bamboo bar (increases stability demand)
Reps & Sets
The suitable reps, sets, and rest for chest exercises for people with bad shoulders will depend on a variety of factors, including your current fitness level, the exercise tolerance to the injury (you may be only able to perform 10 reps to start with), and your recovery time.
Therefore, I suggest you start with a lighter weight, and on the number of reps and sets you can tolerate when first starting. Then gradually increase as your shoulders become stronger.
For general guidelines, you can consider 1-3 sets of 8-15 reps with 30-60 seconds rest.
The equipment, grip, reps, sets, and angle you choose depend on your personal preferences and goal. You can try each chest exercise with any of the modifications above if that suits your injury and reduces pain and discomfort.