In February, about a week prior to attending the Reactive Training Systems (RTS) CLICK seminar in Brooklyn, NY my right shoulder began to bother me. It felt extremely tight and painful in strange positions such as reaching behind my back to pull my belt through belt loops and pulling up the blankets at night before I went to bed. As strange as this sounds I had never experienced a sports-related injury before so I was completely in the dark. I spoke to some friends, scheduled an appointment with a Sports Medicine Doctor and tried to do some self-diagnosis.
My shoulder did not bother me doing deadlift, overhead press, squat, pull-ups, or barbell row. My shoulder did bother me on bench press. Having never received any formal instruction on the bench press I searched YouTube and quickly realized that I had been flaring my elbows, bringing the bar down above my nipple line, and not retracting my scapula properly. That night I went home and did an experiment with push-ups. I performed a push-up the way I traditionally performed a bench press and it hurt. I then performed a push-up the way I should perform a bench press and it did not hurt.
The next day I saw the doctor who diagnosed me with a partially torn anterior rotator cuff. He told me I could attend the RTS seminar with pain being my guide. If it hurts, don’t do it. He recommended four weeks physical therapy which was due to begin the following week. At the RTS seminar under the expert supervision of the RTS team I performed deadlift, overhead press, squat, and bench press with the proper form and had zero pain. The following week I worked up to a triple on the bench press at 195lbs with zero pain. Based upon this my Physical Therapist (PT) diagnosed me with a swollen long head bicep tendon vice a partially torn anterior rotator cuff.
During four weeks of physical therapy I made great strides. The pain is nearly-gone. The lack of pain is important but more important is learning what stretches and shoulder strengthening exercises work well for me as well as assessing and deciding which lifts to retain and which to drop.
Regarding stretch and shoulder strengthening exercise selection this is highly personal and something each person must figure out on their own. The shoulder is a complicated piece of gear and what works for one person may not work for another.
Regarding the decision of which lifts to retain and which to drop I have identified my main problem as lack of scapular retraction. Until I am totally fixed and can begin working on this again in a 101-style manner I am dropping the bench press. I am also switching out barbell row for the cable row or Yates row. While the cable row and Yates row are inferior exercises due to lack of loading ability or shortened range of motion I can perform both of these with full scapular retraction thus for me they are safer. Safety first and ability to load / range of motion second. This works well in my context of a non-competitive hobbyist lifter who doesn’t make his living based upon strength and is not duty bound to maintain a certain level of physical fitness.
I would like to publicly thank Bob Wanamaker, “The Thinking Strongman” CLICK for all of his advice and mentor-ship through my ordeal. If you have not been reading and watching Bob you are missing out. Here is his YouTube channel CLICK. As this was my first sports-related injury I was scared. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Through a series of unfortunate events Bob has become an expert in the realities of pain and mindset. Bob took time from his schedule and helped me with the mental game. As a father of a small child I was concerned that my hobby had suddenly injured me for the long-term and the idea of “Sorry honey I can’t play with you as my hobby limits my range of motion” sounded like absolute idiocy. Bob showed me that in pain there is opportunity. Under Bob’s mentorship I feel as though I seized that opportunity, learned what works for me, and will be better in the long run for it. Thank you Bob!
Obviously we should avoid injury if we can. I would recommend you divorce yourself from ego and the desire to impress others at the gym and select only the lifts that you can perform safely. If you cannot perform the lifts safely either learn how to do so or drop it in favor of another lift. For the majority of the non-competitive hobbyist lifters I doubt we will ever notice a difference if we drop barbell row in favor of cable row or barbell bench press in favor of dumbbell bench press.