A dislocated shoulder isn’t just physically a pain—it can seriously sideline your workout plans, too. But dislocated shoulders aren’t always that dramatic, “quick, pop it back into joint!” drama people usually imagine.
“If a person is naturally very loose-jointed, which is common, the [shoulder] ball can come out without trauma,” says Armin M. Tehrany, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care. “The average weightlifter may already have slightly loose joints, and after years of training, he may have some microinstability, in which the ball comes out just a little bit and then pops back in.”
If you’re feeling shoulder discomfort or pain deep inside the joint, or even that weird sensation that your shoulder joint is slipping, it’s wise to get it checked out by a doc, who might do an MRI arthrogram, which uses an injection of contrast solution to show more detail.
Once you’re diagnosed with a shoulder problem, you’ve arrived at a treatment plan (surgery, PT, or a combination of both), and your doc has given the OK, you might wonder how you might get back into the gym. The short answer: very carefully.
The longer answer: You’ll need to train smart, pay attention to your body, and improve on your weaknesses as acutely (if not more acutely) than your strengths. Here are six pro tips for training around dislocated shoulders:
1. Stop if it hurts
It may sound silly, but seriously: If a movement pattern causes pain, don’t do it. “A dislocation causes muscles in your shoulder to shut down,” says Dustin Jesberger, D.P.T., a physical therapist with React Physical Therapy in Chicago. “If your arm is placed in a sling, the tissues become tight, muscles shrink, and your stability is affected. Once your arm can move all the way, gentle strength training is usually allowed.”
2. Focus on the lower body
While your shoulder heals, you can still do all sorts of lower-body training. “A great way to stay in shape is to perform bodyweight circuits for the lower body,” Jesberger says. “Think high reps of squats, lunges, heel raises, bridges, and high knees to keep your muscles lean and mean.” You can also try cardio like running, as long as you don’t swing your arms too much and it doesn’t over-stress your shoulder.
3. Be careful with rows, pullups, and raises
Specifically, you don’t want to cause the injury to recur, which happens at an alarming rate—70% of athletes will suffer a second shoulder dislocation within two years, Jesberger says. “Any force that pulls the arm away from the shoulder should be avoided, such as pullups and rows,” he says. “It creates too much risk on a shoulder that is already unstable.”
Also: Avoid exercises that stress your shoulder while your arms are straight, like front and side raises, Jesberger says. Keeping the weight closer—bending your elbows when doing lateral raises, for example—gives you more control over the weight and reduces your risk of injury.
4. Be careful with your lower body, too
Even heavy deadlifts can put undue stress on a weak shoulder joint, even though the lower body does (or should be doing) the bulk of the lift. You should also avoid back- or front-loaded squats while your shoulder is healing. “Racking weights on shoulders produces too much torque on the shoulder,” says Jesberger. “Instead, do a goblet squat, keeping the weight close to body.”
5. Aim for balance
As long as you have approval from your PT or doctor, you can do strengthening exercises to stabilize the rotator cuff, says Tehrany. But you should also know about any muscle imbalances that may have contributed to the injury in the first place. “More and more of the athletes I treat, they have too-strong muscles in the front and not enough in the back,” he says. “Rather than working harder on the back, see a strength specialist to evaluate the muscle balance.”
6. Don’t quit physical therapy too early
Those physical therapy exercises that got you to this point? They’re still really important to keep you here. “People are often interested in treatment only, and move on with their lives,” says Tehrany. “It’s so important to do the exercises as the physical therapist and later a trainer recommends to keep muscles balanced.” Not sure how to work ‘em in? One word: warmup. Try our exercises to help bulletproof your rotator cuff and improve your overall shoulder strength.
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