How to Avoid Common Upper Body Gym Injuries

Never shoulder press behind your head

If you’re doing a shoulder press using a machine or a barbell, lower the bar in front of your face or, if you’re using dumbbells, they should start at your collarbone and stay in front of your ears as you lift them up.

Pressing weights from behind your head puts extreme stress on the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder joint and pushes your neck forward, putting unnecessary strain on its lower joints, which is especially dangerous if you have a stiff neck.

For standing positions, make sure your core, hips, spine and legs are all properly engaged and balanced – and always seek professional advice before lifting heavy free weights. Shoulder presses are compound exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at once, so your body should have general strength conditioning before you take on heavy shoulder presses, otherwise you could easily injure one of your untrained muscles.

Lat pulldowns shouldn’t be forced

The same advice from the shoulder press applies to lat pulldowns: always lower the bar in front of your head and trust your range of motion. Eventually, the aim of a lat pulldown is pull the bar down to your collarbones, but don’t force the bar towards you if you’re struggling to achieve the complete motion, otherwise you’ll start to offload the force from the muscles you want to be working onto other, weaker structures that can’t take the strain – especially dangerous if you’re a novice.

Don’t bench press too deep

Bench presses are another common cause of shoulder injury, often from incorrect technique. Bench presses are supposed to work your pectoral muscles, which are large and powerful. However, if you lower the bar too much, your shoulders – which are far weaker – take on too much load and become vulnerable to injury. Only lower the bar until it’s about a fist’s length above your chest, which also applies to dumbbells, just without the bar.

Kettle bells aren’t for beginners

Kettle bells have become increasingly popular in gyms and they can be used in a wide variety of exercises. Like any other exercise they can quickly result in injury if you’re not properly trained but it’s the overhead exercises that are particularly dangerous.

Modern life rarely demands us to lift our arms above our heads, especially with any weight attached. This, combined with the speed of ballistic exercises, means that you should only start doing kettle bell training after three or four months of weight conditioning and definitely only after instruction from a professional.

Go slow and steady

No matter which upper body exercise you do, never overload yourself. Learn which muscle groups you should be activating and pay attention to how they feel through the motion. If you feel too much load on muscles that you shouldn’t be working on, you’re either trying to lift too much or your technique is wrong. Start on light weights until you’re confident with the technique and increase the load very gradually.

Pace is also important. A safe general rule is a 2:1 ratio for lengthening and contracting, so for a shoulder press that would be two seconds up and four seconds down. More experienced weight lifters and athletes can change this up with quicker or more explosive movements depending on what their objectives are, but beginners or people who just want general strengthening should stick to slow, controlled movements.

Come and see us

Every gym tells you to seek medical advice before starting exercise and that’s not advice you should ignore – though we know most people do. Your gym experience will come to a quick and painful end if you don’t understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of your body, and it can be very hard to motivate yourself to pick it back up after sustaining an injury.

Email us at or call us on 020 7937 1628 to book your appointment today and we’ll show you how to make the most out of your time at the gym without putting your body at risk.

If you have any questions about your running technique, feel free to get in touch by emailing or calling 0207 937 1628.

Kam Physio BelgraviaKam Sowman  BSc (Physio) MCSP MHCP

Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist

For any other questions regarding this topic please do not hesitate to contact me at West London Physio on 0207 937 1628 or email