Fitness Distilled

How I’ve Been Training Since Life Started Sucking

I hurt my shoulder. No, it wasn’t from benching or setting a new PR with five, 10, or 20 more pounds than I should have been using. It was while doing a Turkish getup (and, as my friend Ben Bruno said when I told him, “it serves you right for doing Turkish getups”).


Ironically, beforehand, I was doing a shoulder prehab exercise that had me lying on the floor holding a kettlebell over my chest. The weight of the kettlebell helps to drive your humerus further back into the shoulder socket, opening up the front of the shoulder and relieving impingement symptoms. Since I found myself in the bottom of a getup, I figured I’d knock out a few reps while I was there with the kettlebell—and on the second one, I felt my arm drift back a bit further behind my head than it should have. I sensed a slight click and a little discomfort but didn’t think much of it.

This is where the problem lies.


“Well, on to benching,” I thought. And as it turns out, that was about the stupidest thing I could do.


Fast forward to me benching with 225 on the bar and my shoulder was screaming. “Hmmm,” I thought. “It’s supposed to be the left shoulder that hurts. Why am I feeling it in the right one?”


My left shoulder has had problems off and on over the years for various reasons, but the right one was always in the pink. Till now.


It kept hurting for another week until I decided to see my physical therapist. She didn’t give me a clear diagnosis—she and her team assume it’s just some irritation of the AC joint—but she worked on it with some Active Release Technique, massage, and ice.


It’s been getting better, but for the last month, my training has been extremely limited as a result. I can’t do any pressing, in any direction. I can’t even do a pushup. Since the biceps tendon is also irritated, right where it inserts into the shoulder, some variations of curls and triceps exercises are also impossible.


I’ll spare you the details about my horror and disappointment over this injury, especially when I was on the cusp of military pressing 190 pounds, which would have been a PR. I won’t take you through the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). But I will share what I’m doing about it, so that you may do something similar if tragedy strikes you.


WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT (Besides complaining)


1 When I realized that my shoulder wasn’t going to heal overnight and accepted the suckyness of the situation, the first thing I did was re-tool my diet.


Since I can’t train all out and can’t do hardly any shoulder and chest work at all, there’s no point in me eating above maintenance in an effort to put on muscle. (I wasn’t really in bulk-up mode before but I wasn’t watching my food either. As far as I was concerned extra calories would go toward my training.) I recalculated my calories for fat loss and am now following a gradual diet. Again, since my training is limited, it doesn’t make sense to go on a full-blown fat-loss program either, but I should be making better choices and eating lighter again so I don’t get fatter while I’m less active.


BFR builds muscle and improves recovery.


2 I’m committed to keep training. I obviously can’t do the kind of pressing workouts I’m used to and there’s no sense in doing upper/lower splits but I can keep working everything else. To make up for the lack of intensity, I’m doing more frequency. Now I’m following full-body workouts so I get a little bit of everything I’m able to do in each session.


Sadly, the only chest/shoulder work I can handle is raises, so I do front and side raises often. I can’t do pullups or pulldowns but I can work rows at different angles. I can’t do any biceps training that puts the biceps tendon on stretch, so I do hammer curls, cross-body curls, and very light EZ-bar curls. For triceps it’s been overhead cable extensions (these are done walked-out from the machine and bent over at the hips, not with the elbows pointing straight overhead), cable pushdowns, and pronated kickbacks.


I experimented a lot with blood-flow restriction training last spring and am starting it up again because of its rehab-promoting potential. In a nutshell, the concept is that by restricting blood flow to working muscles you encourage the release of various muscle-building hormones and promote more blood flow when the tension is released. I’ve been using elastic wrist wraps tied around the top of my arms just below the shoulder. I end workouts with four sets of curls and overhead extensions done with high reps and short rests. The pump is unbelievable and, hopefully, it’s driving blood into the shoulder area to speed healing.


3 I begin every workout with three sets of internal and external rotations for the rotator cuff. This is what my doctor advised and should help take some pressure off the shoulder and realign it.


4 In addition to eating healthier and eating less, I’m trying to control inflammation as much as possible with good food. Greens, greens, and more greens, including cold-pressed juices. There isn’t any definitive research that shows this works but it certainly can’t hurt. The healthier the body is overall the faster it can fix what’s wrong that.


I’m not going much heavier than her these days, unfortunately.

Beyond that I’ve just been icing and resting. The worst part of any injury is always the mental aspect. “When will I be better again?” “How much progress am I losing?” “Why did this have to happen now?” I’ve been through em all and the best answer I can come up with is to stay as active as you can and give yourself the time you need. Remember that there is such a thing as “muscle memory” and you can usually get back to where you were in a short time once all systems are go.


On the brightside, I don’t seem to have lost much size… yet. I’m still able to squat and deadlift, and even though those exercises don’t directly tax the shoulders and chest, they do seem to keep muscle on them. My friend Ben Bruno was out of action for several months with shoulder and groin injuries recently and he didn’t show much decay—and bounced back quickly when he was able to train again—so I’m trying to stay positive.


But I’ll never do a Turkish getup again… 😉

Join the Discussion

  • Paul Thiel

    DEFINITELY stay positive, Sean. I just came off of a hamstring tear, hernia repair and travel, plus I constantly train around painful shoulders suffering with chronic long-term rotator health. Apparently, my left biceps tendon no longer wants to live in the groove that evolution created for it, so I too have almost constant irritation in the biceps on that left side.

    Couple of points.

    First, I did exactly what you are doing. As soon as my injuries and surgery arose, I cut calories to a little under maintenance. No point in getting fat. I also kept active, mostly with walking. In that six weeks, I managed just three or four workouts, and I could not squat or DL due to the torn hamstring. Bottom line, I stayed lean and lost very little mass in real terms; barely a handful of pounds on the scale. And as Nuckols suggests in his great post on muscle memory, anything you do lost will come back FAST.

    Second, for the long-standing shoulder and biceps health, I do a few things routinely now.

    1. I never flat bench. All pressing is DB and generally floor press. As you know, this helps to limit ROM in that critical region of the press under maximal loads. Also, starting at the bottom is novel and without the rebound/stretch response from the eccentric portion to drive that first rep, it takes a different kind of strength. BONUS: I’ve also been doing this single arm, which also acts as a great core exercise.

    2. For the shoulder lateral work, you can further isolate the medial and posterior head of the deltoids by using the cable station, and in particular, using an ankle strap around the wrist to negate “gripping” the handles. This serves two purposes: First, I find I can get the perfect angle and line of resistance with the cable station, and given my poor shoulder health, this movement/position can vary greatly week to week. It allows me to find a comfortable path. Second, eliminating the “gripping” has done wonders to help reduce overall elbow pain, something else I suffer with on a chronic basis.

    3. Favor DBs for the biceps work over barbell and even EZ bar. Also, do not rotate the palms from the neutral to supinated position; that adds biceps friction for me. Instead, stay in the supinated position and focus on the cue of “pinkie high” throughout the movement. You get a great contraction throughout and it really limits shoulder pain.

    BONUS: For that biceps tendon irritation, I find that any exercise where the humerus is in front of the body, versus inline or especially, behind the body, greatly reduces the stress/discomfort in the shoulder. So for example, I’ve been doing DB preacher and spider curls quite successfully without too much shoulder irritation. I suspect this is because the tendon is already in a shortened position and generally under less stress. Still, with a shortened ROM on the preacher, you can still keep big tension on the biceps, and combined with your BFR work, could be fun too, in a perverse kind of way.

    Anyway, keep up the hard work, and get better soon.


  • Matt Cetta

    I’ve been in the same boat last few weeks but I have posterior elbow pain with any pressing or elbow extension movements.

    Ever have anything similar?

    I’ve been trying to roll my forearm & triceps with a lax ball and icing (not consistent enough though). Maybe seek out some real soft tissue/ART work?

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