This topic has been of utmost importance to me since the start of 2017.
Just after the new year, I hurt my right shoulder while playing ice hockey. For the next few days, I struggled to lift my arm up in front of my body and out to the side laterally.
After about a week, I was able to regain much of my shoulder mobility with just some slight pain. I thought I was good to go back into the gym and get back at it on my push days.
Boy was I wrong.
I went back into the gym, picked up the same old weights I’d been used to lifting, and re-injured my shoulder once again — this time, the pain was even worse.
Unfortunately, injuries are often a reminder to us of the importance of lifting smart, focusing on form, remembering the reason why you’re in the gym and lifting weights, and tempering your ego and expectations as you slowly work your way back to 100 percent.
It took injuring my shoulder twice and losing about two months of training intensity (chest and shoulders, specifically) to get back to where I wanted to be. The silver lining, though, is that you can often rehab your way back to 100 percent and find yourself even stronger than before.
I’m going to detail some of the steps I took into rehabbing my shoulder, and I hope that this can be something you apply to yourself if you run into an injury (for anyone that trains regularly, injuries are bound to happen).
The first thing you need to do is rest when you have an injury. Give whatever body part is ailing you 48-72 hours to rest. If you’re still experiencing pain after that time period, I’d suggest zeroing in on the problem area.
With my shoulder, I discovered the majority of the pain was in my anterior delt and my trap in my right shoulder. Identifying that can be accomplished by simply massaging the area to discover where some “trigger points” of pain are (essentially, feel around the area and find out where it hurts the most).
If it’s simply muscle pain, you can often rehab that yourself. If it’s something deeper (such as ligament pain) or if you still are experiencing significant discomfort after a couple days of rest, see a doctor. You could have suffered a major injury.
My shoulder was pretty clearly a muscle pain issue — maybe a strain or slight tear, I really don’t know. I was able to feel the trigger points of pain directly on those two muscles. Thus, I went about self-rehabbing the injury.
It’s a painful thing, but using items like a foam roller, tennis ball, or lacrosse ball to massage and mash out these muscles and trigger point pain areas can often be extremely effective. You need to get blood into the muscle so nutrients can help the healing process. Mashing these areas out and releasing muscle tension caused by the injury is often a huge help.
I spent two weeks mashing out my anterior delt and trap every night. It hurt like hell at first, but eventually the muscles loosened up and the pain slowly started to decrease little by little each day. I would also practice the motor patterns for the push movements I couldn’t perform. Sitting on the couch or walking around the house, I’d periodically set myself up with a mock bench press or overhead press motion to assess how much pain, if any, I was experiencing.
This process continued until I felt no pain with the motions. Once I reached that checkpoint, it was time to CAREFULLY return to the gym.
Easing Back Into Training
Learning from mistakes is a big part of this process. It’s a big part of why I started this blog and have so much to say. Really, it’s the best way to learn in fitness and many other avenues in life.
I made a big mistake in this whole shoulder injury process. Initially, I didn’t scale back and it made things a lot worse.
This time around, I approached the weights as conservatively as one possibly could.
I lifted embarrassing amounts of weight. I’m talking starting with just the bar on bench press and doing sets with 45 pounds, total. I did 10-pound dumbbell overhead presses. I used 30-pound dumbbells on my flat dumbbell press.
It was a true hit to my ego, but I pushed that aside and did everything possible to ensure I wasn’t going to re-injure myself a third time.
After each workout, I assessed how I felt. I wrote down notes in my training journal to document any successes, failures, and points of interest. Once I strung together a few successful workouts in a row, I added weight — 5 pounds at a time.
Over time, I was able to build back to my normal working weights, and I’ve quickly progressed from there.
This entire process really taught me a lot. It forced me to take a focused look at how I’ve been training. I realized I wasn’t always going in to the gym with the focus necessary to lift in a smart and efficient manner.
Things like retracting my shoulder blades on my bench press — a crucial element to performing the movement correctly and safely — is something I realized I let slip over time. Workout by workout, month by month, I slowly and unknowingly lost attention to detail.
Whether you’re serious about training and are an experienced lifter, or if you occasionally visit the gym, attention to detail is important. I re-learned that the hard way, but now I’m better for it.
So that’s my message to you: give your training the attention it deserves. Listen to your body. If you experience pain — even a small amount — address it immediately. Revisit what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and if it aligns with the proper ways to lift.
Identifying these types of things before a major injury will allow you to continue to train, be consistent, and make progress towards your goals. If you’re doing that, you’re truly winning with your training.