How can I strengthen my shoulders without (re)injuring them?

Dear Alice,

I've been doing martial arts for a while now and while the one I practice does not need huge muscles or extreme flexibility to be successful, I have to be able to do cartwheels and handstands, both of which require upper body strength. My problem is this; every single time I start doing a regular regime of pushups — two or three sets of ten, two or three times a week — I end up injuring one or both of my shoulders. When I went to my doctor last year, he said the muscle I injured was the pushup and handstand muscle, and was probably slightly torn from too many reps. This year my shoulder is fully healed, but my other shoulder has started bothering me lately now that I'm starting to do pushups again. I'm not doing that many pushups, maybe twenty a day after warming my shoulders up, two or three times a week. I'm doing fewer pushups than was recommened for me, and I'm totally frustrated because I can't figure how many is too many and how few is too few. I'm not even doing full pushups — I'm doing them from the knees to spare my shoulders the full stress. Is there anything that I can do to strengthen my shoulders without tearing them, aside from physical therapy? I live in terror that I'm going to retear the muscles in one or both of my shoulders either in training, because I've weakened the muscles from too many pushups, or out of training, while trying to get my shoulders and arms stronger doing too many pushups. I'm a girl so I know my shoulders are automatically weaker than a guy's, but this is driving me nuts! Help?

Thank you,
Desperate and Completely Frustrated

Dear Desperate and Completely Frustrated,

Competing in your particular discipline of martial arts or simple overuse while exercising could have (re)injured your shoulders. You are describing a condition similar to tendonitis, however, your primary health care provider is the one to re-evaluate your discomfort, examine any changes in your shoulders, and determine your next steps.

By not forcing too much pressure on your shoulders, it seems you are trying to protect them from further (re)injury. As much as you'd like to continue with your training on your own, your physical and mental health are a priority. To make sure you are going about this in a safe way, it actually would be a good idea for you to get a referral from your doctor to see a physical therapist initially. It appears the emphasis for your shoulders now is rehabilitation until you get the green light to resume your martial arts training routine. Plus, you'll have the added benefit of feeling more at ease when working on your shoulders under the supervision of a health professional looking out for your best interests, including your martial arts goals.

During the physical therapy sessions, you may use an exercise band or a piece of surgical tubing to help rehabilitate your weakened shoulder. These items come in differing resistances and are available at gyms and fitness or pharmaceutical equipment stores. By using these bands, you are placing less stress and strain on the shoulder girdle itself. What you are accomplishing is slowly strengthening the torn shoulder muscles, and in effect, the entire shoulder area. Once you are done training the currently injured shoulder, you can complete the same exercises on your other shoulder to ensure symmetry in strength, flexibility, and appearance.

The physical therapist may also recommend other exercises that you can do on your own to further the rehabilitation and strengthening of your shoulders so that you may not need monitored physical therapy in the future. After the physical therapy ends, you might find it useful to consult an exercise physiologist or certified trainer to help ease you back into a regular martial arts routine.

Last updated May 12, 2015
Originally published Apr 29, 2005

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