Shoulder Pain in Weightlifters: The Cause and The Fix

Updated: Sep 24

Here you are, on your quest to become as strong and athletic as possible, and you decided getting under the iron and between the plates was the best way to do that (great choice). So far, it has gone very well; you’ve hit some PRs, you feel better - heck you even look better in the mirror. But now you’re 1-year into it, and your shoulder starts bothering you. So much so that putting dishes away in your cabinets hurts now.


What happened?


“Your rotator cuff is weak,” your coach says. “Do some banded internal and external rotations.” (You can now bench press 200+ pounds, do you honestly think your rotator cuff is just “weak”? – probably not)


So, what really happened?


In short, your body adapted. After performing exercises like barbell squats, deadlifts, bench press, cleans, snatches, and all the CrossFit-style gymnastics, your body started to change so it could perform those exercises even better. Where does this change occur? Most likely, your rib cage.


All of these exercises can be considered compressive. Meaning, in order to perform them well, your body needs to compress from the back and front. That type of compression on your rib cage will cause it to better expand out to the side, literally making your rib cage wider. In its most extreme form, picture the absolute biggest meathead at your gym, Mr. Invisible-Lat Syndrome. Now, chances are your body has not changed to that extreme degree, but it does occur on a smaller scale.



Mr. Invisible-Lat Syndrome's rib cage is incredibly wide.

But why would that lead to shoulder pain?


In order for your shoulder to move well (pain-free and through a full range of motion), your shoulder blade has to move through a full range of motion. For your shoulder blade to have a full range of motion, it has to be able to actually wrap around the side of your ribs a little bit. But, if your rib cage has become compressed and widened, your shoulder blade will not be able to reach around the side of your ribs, limiting its range of motion, in turn limiting how your shoulder can move. For a more in-depth explanation and visual, watch this video here.


Should you stop doing all of those types of exercises?





If you want to become an athletic specimen and an iron tiger, then you need to do what iron tigers do and lift some heavy weights. The exercises listed above are phenomenal options to do that. However, if every single exercise you do is compressive in nature, then your body (especially your rib cage) will become too compressed and lead to the negative changes talked about above.


How do you fix it?

If you are someone with a compressed and widened rib cage, learning how to compress it from the sides (to expand more in the front and back) will help restore the shoulder motion you are missing and help fix your pain.


One of the simplest possible exercises to do for this simply requires you laying on your side as you breathe through your diaphragm. Gravity will help push your ribs in from the side, creating the effect you are looking for. For an added bonus, you can even add weight like sandbags onto your ribs for an even better effect.




Another option for compressing your ribs in from the side to expand in the front and back is by positioning your own muscles to do so. The two exercises below put your lats and serratus anterior muscles in a position to push your ribs in from the side:




While performing these exercises will help restore a proper rib cage shape and position, you can also help prevent the compression of your rib cage in the first place. As you may have noticed, most of the exercises listed above that are compressive require you to stand on both feet or use both arms at the same time. When you are using both sides of your body at the same time in the same way, you are in a position where it is easy for your body to leverage your back muscles. This is a good thing if you want to lift heavy ass weight, but is not always the best option for maintaining rib cage and shoulder health. Adding in more single leg and single arm exercises into your workout routine can help prevent the excessive rib cage compression from happening in the first place.


It is important to mention that shoulder pain is an incredibly complex topic, and this blog only discusses one possible reason for why shoulder pain can occur. Every single person and every single body are unique, and what may be the reason for someone else’s shoulder pain may not be the reason for yours. In order to understand why your shoulder hurts, you need to be assessed by a professional. If you are dealing with shoulder pain that is preventing you from lifting weights the way you would like, call us at (469)626-7254 to schedule an appointment. We work with people like yourself every day, and help them return to their workouts and training pain-free.