Dear Colin: Ive started exercising regularly at the advice of my doctor. The problem is that the front of my shoulders hurt when doing biceps curls. My doctor ran tests and said theres nothing wrong, but he suspects my technique is bad. Is there a way I can do the exercise without hurting my shoulders? Paul, Beaverton
First, props to your physician for advising you to exercise. Even though exercise should be the universal prescription for folks presenting with chronic pain, less than 25 percent of all physicians counsel patients on exercise.
Your shoulder problem is a very common one in both beginners and advanced exercisers, usually because of two factors: using too much weight and allowing the shoulder blades and elbows to rock back and forth during the exercise.
Using too much weight is usually the main culprit, which by virtue of the biomechanics of the biceps curl exercise leads to excessive movement of the shoulder blades and elbows to compensate for weak biceps. Regardless, its the position of your elbows and shoulder blades as you curl the weight up that dictates the amount of stress imposed on your shoulders.
To begin, stand with one foot slightly in front of the other to reduce strain on your low back. Grip the bar at shoulder width and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Note that maintaining this retracted shoulder blade position is crucial throughout the exercise to reduce the pulling strain of your biceps tendon on the shoulder joint.
As you begin to curl the weight up, its also essential to keep your elbows still (dont allow them to move forward) to minimize shoulder stress. This is very difficult, so make sure you use light-enough resistance so youre able to do at least 15 repetitions with still elbows. If you use too much weight, you will compensate by rocking the shoulders back and forth along with moving your elbows forward in front of your body, both of which load sensitive structures in and around the shoulder.
Your finishing position should feature the wrists extended slightly while the elbows and shoulder blades are maintained in the starting position. This is extremely difficult to do because it makes your biceps work harder while minimizing shoulder forces. But, isnt this the point?
Keeping your shoulders and elbows back is accomplished by using your back muscles, so its important that you also do strengthening exercises for this region. The seated row exercise is great for your entire back as long as its done correctly: head still, shoulder blades pulled straight back and elbows kept slightly away from your torso.
If you have health insurance, ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist with advanced exercise training to ensure youre exercising correctly. Otherwise, you risk chronic injury that seems to never go away.
Colin Hoobler is a certified physical therapist and writes a regular column