How to minimize CrossFit Shoulder Pain

Ring dips, handstand push-ups, repeated shoulders to overhead, butterfly chest to bars.  It doesn’t take a shoulder physiotherapist to see how CrossFit workouts can lean to shoulder pain or shoulder strain.  To minimize CrossFit shoulder pain you need a high level of shoulder mobility and stability, though it is relatively uncommon to have both these attributes at the same time.  If you enjoy exercise, you tend to like working on strength OR mobility, but rarely both. However, lacking in either while trying to perform highly complex movements puts you at at risk of developing CrossFit shoulder pain from muscle strains, tendonitis, labral tears, and rotator cuff tears or ruptures.  Since you probably don’t love putting in the extra time required to build a base of stability and mobility, here is the best bang for your buck CrossFit shoulder workout to make the most amount of gains in the least amount of time (15 minutes 3-4 days a week).

Mobility exercises for shoulder pain relief:

1. Chest Stretch on the Foam Roller:
Note: This stretch is best done on a long foam roller with the entire length of your spine supported. 


Start with your arms by your sides with your elbows straight and your palms up. Move both arms out to the side until you feel a gentle stretch in your chest. Keep the back of your hands touching the floor.  The sensation should be tolerable and not intense as you are going to hold the stretch for at least 5 minutes.  Longer holds for this stretch are better.

Watch for: Sensations of pins and needles or pain.  This means your arms are too high; bring them closer to your sides.   

2. Lat Stretch with a Band


Use a heavy resistance band over a pull-up bar, rig, or a solid post.  Wrap the free end of the band around your wrist and take a couple steps back so the band is stretched.  Move into a half kneeling position with your back leg being the same side as your wrist holding the band.  Lean slightly forward letting the resistance of the band pull on your arm while it stretches that side of the body. Tuck your pelvis under (as if you had a tail and you were tucking it between your legs) and move your hips slightly to the opposite side.  Hold for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Watch for: Pinching in the shoulder.  You should feel a stretch from the side of your shoulder blade to your hip, with no pinching in the shoulder.   If you feel a pinch, don’t lean so far forward. Bring your body more upright and twist your body towards the band.

Strength/ Stability to minimize shoulder strain:

1. External Rotation for Rotator Cuff Strength


Use a light to medium resistance band for this exercise. Start with your shoulder blade pulled flat against your rib cage and stand with good posture. Hold your elbow at your side and bent to 90 degrees.  Turn your palm up holding the band.  Pull the band across your body and out in a straight line, keeping your elbow bend to 90 degrees. Do not brace your elbow against your side during this exercise, but let it rotate freely around its axis. Complete 3 sets of 10 on each side.

Watch for:  Your elbow moving around. Your upper arm and elbow shouldn’t move, but should spin in place. Don’t lean to the side or don’t turn to look at your elbow; only your forearm should move. If you can’t maintain this position, put a towel under your arm and brace your elbow against that.  Either way your elbow and upper arm don’t move but spin in place, and your shoulder blade stays pinned against your ribcage. This exercise needs to be done with good form so don’t use a heavy-gauged band if it is affecting your form. Check your ego and get a lighter resistance band.
2. ‘T’ band-pulls for Upper Back Stability


Use a medium to heavy resistance band for this exercise. Start with your arms straight, shoulder blades set flat to your ribcage.  Holding one side of the band in each hand, pull your arms straight back with your palms facing forward, keeping your elbows and wrists straight, and making a ‘T’ shape with your arms.  Squeeze your shoulder blades together (back and slightly downward). Hold this 1-2 seconds before returning to the start position.  Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Watch for: Shoulder shrugging.  Don’t let your shoulders lift upward toward your ears.  Your arms should stay in a straight line and make a perfect ‘T’.   If you can’t hold this position, grab a lighter resistance band.

Once your master these exercise you will have a good base of stability and mobility to do the more challenging shoulder exercises in CrossFit.  Of course this will not guarantee your mastery of all things CrossFit, but it will give you a good base to develop movement.  If you don’t put in the work and neglect either your stability or mobility, you are likely going to struggle to move forward.

Special thanks to Coach Simon's tolerance of my endless request for photos and videos.