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Weight Training For The Older Shoulder

Weight Training For The Older Shoulder
Weight Training For The Older Shoulder

A Spike In Older Weight Lifters

I have noticed in recent years more and more of my older patients are getting seriously into weight training as a form of exercise. Previously an activity favored by guys in their 20’s it is now not uncommon for men and women in their 40’s and 50’s to regularly work out at the gym. Not surprisingly associated with this increase in the average age of gym goers I am also seeing an increase in older individuals coming to my Sydney physio practice with shoulder issues. Some of which are significant enough to require surgery as a result of injuries from weight training for the older shoulder.

Benefits Of Weight Training

Don’t get me wrong resistance training has its benefits for the general public, improved fat metabolism aiding with fat loss, improved metal health, improved sleep quality and general well being to name a few… and these benefits are across the ages and specifically in the elderly weight training can aid in reducing the risk of falls and reduced perceived joint pain. However I do feel how resistance training is approached should be somewhat age specific if one is to remain injury free.

The At Risk Shoulder

Some structures in the shoulder are subject to wear and damage, weights further accelerate and heighten this process when the athlete chooses exercises that add excessive load to the shoulder joint in vulnerable positions. At risk tissues include the rotator cuff, specifically the tendon part of the rotator cuff which doesn’t have great blood flow and thins with increasing age. Other tissues which wear with age include the biceps tendon and the labrum (which simply put is piece of fibrocartilage attached to the rim of the shoulder socket which helps keep the ball of the joint in place) show similar age related changes and may be damaged with poorly guided weight training.

What Exercises Risk Damaging The Shoulder In The Older Athlete?

Your labrum, biceps tendon and the tendon portion of the rotator cuff are vulnerable to damage when lifting weights particularly when doing exercises where your arm is raised from your side and your hand rotated back adopting a position similar to the queens wave (anatomically referred to as a position of abduction and external rotation).
At risk activities for the shoulder in this position are:

  • Shoulder press (or overhead press, specifically when performed behind the head).
  • Push ups or bench press (including incline press and this for me can also encompass wide flys and cable flys).

Balanced Training Is Crucial When Weight Training For The Older Shoulder

Training for cosmetic purposes can have a negative impact on your shoulder biomechanics and how your shoulder functions. The shoulder and shoulder blade is supported by many muscles and an imbalance in the shoulder via over training particular muscles can lead to poor scapula positioning and function putting the shoulder joint at more risk of being injured as a result. One of the most common training mistakes is focusing efforts on growing the “mirror muscles” like your pecs that look good when the are big.

How To Safely Approach Weight Training For The Older Shoulder

Firstly what would do I define as the older shoulder? For the purpose of this blog any individual over 40 would be considered older when it comes to weight training for the older shoulder and should seriously consider adjusting their training accordingly.
As an older individual either new to training or looking to adjust your resistance training to something a little more age appropriate making sure you partner up with a trainer experienced in dealing with the older athlete is a good idea and appreciates the need for a balanced training program where the focus is more on staying healthy, injury free and training more with toning in mind than bulking up. Bulking up adds excessive loads and this is where things will go wrong very quickly if you are not careful.

Generally exercises to avoid or perform with caution when weight training beyond your 30’s include:

  • Push ups
  • Shoulder press (overhead press)
  • Bench press where your elbows go below the level of your shoulder
  • Dips
  • Chin ups
  • Lateral raises with a heavy weight

Tips for the older athlete to help avoid injury to their shoulder when weight training:

  • Avoid the above exercises and generally avoid or take care with wide grip activities (it is safer and less stressful on your shoulder to choose activities that keep your elbows in towards your side)
  • Listen to your body. If you feel pain then stop and seek advice (early intervention is likely to give you a better outcome. Early treatment with a physiotherapist combined with exercise modification can help reduce damage and avoid the need for surgical intervention).
  • Consider training with a personal trainer or at least having a program built for you by an experienced trainer.
  • And avoid training the same body area on consecutive days.
  • Toning training is much safer than bulking for the above 40yr old.
  • and finally prevention is better than cure.

Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific advice or assistance on Weight Training For The Older Shoulder should consult his or her general practitioner, physiotherapist or otherwise appropriately skilled practitioner.

Hayden Latimer is the founder of and principle physiotherapist at Sydney Physio Clinic. Since graduating from Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand he’s gained wide experience practicing across the globe for over 15 years and is now extremely knowledgeable in helping people reduce discomfort and restore function and mobility.


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