Shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights: Causes & Treatments

shoulder pain weight lifting


Shoulder pain when lifting weights can dramatically impact your physical activity and daily life. The shoulder joint is complex, consisting of bones, muscles, and soft tissues that work together for a wide range of motion. Pain can arise from various parts of the shoulder, such as the rotator cuff tendons, shoulder blade, or the upper arm bone.

In this article, we will explore the causes of shoulder pain when lifting weights, the signs and symptoms to watch out for, and effective treatment options to alleviate the pain. Additionally, we will provide tips for weightlifting with sensitive shoulders and advice on when to seek professional medical assistance.

Anatomy of the Shoulder Complex

The shoulder complex is a sophisticated system comprising several key structures:

  • Shoulder Joint: A ball-and-socket joint where the upper arm bone (humerus) fits into the shoulder blade (scapula).
  • Rotator Cuff: A group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder and facilitate rotational movements.
  • Shoulder Blade (Scapula): A triangular bone at the back that connects with the collarbone (clavicle) and humerus.
  • Clavicle (Collarbone): Sits above the ribcage, connecting the arm to the trunk.
  • Biceps Tendon: Attaches the biceps muscle to the bones of the shoulder, contributing to the stability and movement of the shoulder joint.
  • Acromioclavicular (AC) Joint: A joint at the top of the shoulder, where the scapula meets the clavicle.
  • Bursa Sacs: Fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction between shoulder tissues.

This intricate arrangement enables the shoulder to have the most expansive range of motion of any joint within the body.

Is shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights a Serious Condition?

Experiencing shoulder pain when lifting weights can range from a minor annoyance to a serious condition requiring professional attention. The shoulder is susceptible to injuries like rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, and shoulder impingement due to its complex structure and wide range of motion.

If lifting weights causes shoulder pain, improper technique or overexertion could be common culprits. It’s essential to ensure that exercises such as shoulder presses are performed with the correct form to prevent undue stress on the shoulder joint and rotator cuff tendons.

For pain that is persistent, increases, or is accompanied by a decreased range of motion, consulting a physical therapist or an orthopedic surgeon is advisable. These professionals can diagnose and treat conditions ranging from a dull ache indicative of minor strains to more severe ailments like a frozen shoulder or severe rotator cuff injuries. Ignoring symptoms may exacerbate issues, potentially leading to chronic limitations in daily activities and physical activity.

Understanding the Causes of Shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights

Understanding the Causes of Shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights

The shoulder, a highly mobile joint, sustains various stresses during weightlifting. Understanding the causes of shoulder pain is crucial as it can affect one’s ability to perform daily activities and maintain an active lifestyle. Let’s delve into these common shoulder injuries to grasp what may lead to pain and dysfunction.

Weightlifter’s Shoulder

Weightlifter’s Shoulder, or distal clavicular osteolysis, is a condition often observed in those who engage in heavy lifting. The stress upon the acromioclavicular joint, where the collarbone meets the shoulder blade, can result in microscopic fractures leading to wear and swelling over time. This wear predominantly causes shoulder pain during and after lifting sessions.

Shoulder Impingement

Shoulder impingement is caused by the compression of soft tissues between the shoulder blade and the upper arm bone during overhead lifting movements. This squeeze can affect the rotator cuff tendons and the bursa sacs, leading to pain and a limited range of motion. Shoulder impingement often restricts activities that involve raising the arms.

Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear occurs when the tendons that connect muscles to bones around the shoulder are partially or completely torn, commonly due to abrupt loading or wear from repetitive use. Symptoms may include a dull ache deep in the shoulder and difficulty in performing overhead movements or even simple daily activities.

Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy

Rotator cuff tendinopathy develops from chronic overuse of the shoulder, leading to inflammation and irritation of the rotator cuff tendons. Extreme or incorrect weightlifting techniques are typical factors contributing to this condition, displaying as pain and tenderness in the shoulder area, especially when lifting the arm.

Biceps Tendinitis

The biceps tendon, which connects the biceps muscle to the bones in the shoulder, can become inflamed, suggesting biceps tendinitis. This inflammation is frequently a result of repetitive motion or overuse injury related to weightlifting, causing pain in the front of the shoulder and sometimes radiating down the arm.

Subacromial Bursitis

Subacromial bursitis emerges from the inflammation of the bursa sacs that act as cushions for the shoulder joints. Lifting weights overhead repetitively can inflame these sacs, causing pain when you lift your arm overhead or press against the sore area.

Slap Tear

Finally, a SLAP tear (Superior Labrum from Anterior to Posterior) is a tear of the rim of the cartilage, or labrum, that encircles the shoulder socket. It can manifest due to heavy lifting or a fall on an outstretched hand. SLAP tears can cause a range of symptoms, from a catching sensation to a decrease in shoulder strength and range of motion, as well as pain when performing overhead activities.

Weightlifting can be rewarding, but it remains important to listen to your body and seek professional guidance. Correct form, appropriate load management, and workouts designed by a personal trainer or physical therapist can improve shoulder health and prevent injuries. If you experience persistent shoulder pain, especially with loss of strength or mobility, consult a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Signs and Symptoms

When engaging in weightlifting, being attentive to the first signs of shoulder pain can preempt more serious conditions. These symptoms can be indicative of various shoulder injuries. It’s important to track these signs and understand how they develop, as this can influence the approach to management and recovery.

Recognizing Early Signs of Shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights

Pay close attention to the following when lifting weights:

  • Pain onset during specific exercises, particularly shoulder presses or bench presses
  • Difficulty completing previously manageable movements
  • Sharp pain or discomfort that occurs specifically when lifting, not at rest
  • Reduction in weightlifting capacity or the need to decrease weight to lessen pain

Noting these early signals can be crucial for taking timely action to address potential shoulder issues.

When to Seek Professional Medical Advice

It’s time to consult a healthcare provider if you experience:

  1. Consistent or worsening shoulder pain despite rest and over-the-counter pain relief
  2. Pain that disrupts sleep or daily activities
  3. Noticeable changes in shoulder appearance, such as deformity or pronounced swelling
  4. Inability to use the shoulder, carrying objects, or lifting your arm
  5. Pain that persists for more than a week or two
  6. Symptoms of an infection, such as fever or redness

A professional such as a physical therapist, orthopedic surgeon, or personal trainer can assess shoulder pain to prevent further injury and provide treatment options tailored to your specific case. They can determine the cause of pain through physical evaluation and imaging tests, helping to guide appropriate interventions and rehabilitative exercises.

Treatment Options for Shoulder Pain When Lifting Weights

Experiencing shoulder pain during weightlifting can often be managed with a variety of treatment strategies. These range from simple home remedies to more extensive medical interventions, depending on the severity and nature of the injury. Here’s a breakdown of common treatments:


The RICE method is a classic first-line approach used to relieve pain and swelling in the soft tissues surrounding the shoulder joint. This acronym stands for:

  • Rest: Avoid activities that increase shoulder pain, allowing the injured area to heal.
  • Ice: Apply cold packs to the affected area for 15-20 minutes multiple times a day to reduce swelling.
  • Compression: Using an elastic medical bandage to provide support and minimize swelling.
  • Elevation: Keeping the shoulder elevated above the heart as much as possible to help decrease inflammation.

This method is particularly beneficial for minor injuries and should be applied soon after the onset of pain.

Anti-inflammatory medications

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be useful for managing pain and reducing inflammation. Commonly used medications include ibuprofen and naproxen. These should be used according to the package directions or as prescribed by a healthcare provider to avoid potential side effects.

It’s worth noting that while NSAIDs address symptoms, they do not correct the underlying cause of shoulder pain. Proper diagnosis and treatment are essential for long-term recovery.


For more serious shoulder injuries, such as a severe rotator cuff tear or marked shoulder impingement, surgical intervention may be necessary. An orthopedic surgeon can evaluate the extent of the injury and may recommend the following procedures:

  • Arthroscopic surgery: This minimally invasive surgery involves small incisions and the use of a camera to repair damage within the joint.
  • Rotator cuff surgery: This procedure repairs torn rotator cuff tendons allowing for proper healing and a return to previous function.
  • Total shoulder replacement: In cases of severe arthritis or massive rotator cuff tears, replacing the damaged shoulder joint with a prosthetic one may provide relief and restore range of motion.

Surgery is typically followed by a period of rehabilitation to strengthen the shoulder muscles and tendons and restore flexibility. Patients are often guided through this process by a physical therapist to ensure proper healing and reduce the risk of future injuries.

How To Treat Shoulder Pain From Lifting Weights with the Help of Physical Therapists

How To Treat Shoulder Pain From Lifting Weights with the Help of Physical Therapists

When coping with shoulder pain from lifting weights, guidance from a physical therapist can be invaluable. They offer tailored exercises that enhance range of motion and fortify shoulder muscles, including the rotator cuff. Physical therapists emphasize proper techniques to both prevent and rehabilitate shoulder injuries.

Key treatments include:

  • Stretching Exercises: To maintain flexibility in shoulder movements.
  • Strengthening Exercises: Targeted workouts to bolster shoulder stability.
  • Massage: To alleviate tension in soft tissues.
  • Heat Therapy: To relax muscles.
  • Ultrasound: For deep tissue healing.
  • Education: On proper weight lifting form to prevent further injury.

Physical therapists also often coach individuals on adapting daily activities to allow for healing and may employ tools like resistance bands for gentle rehabilitation. They work closely with patients on exercises that facilitate external rotation and enhance the function of the biceps tendon and shoulder blade mechanics.

Adhering to a physical therapist’s regime not only aids in recovering from common shoulder injuries like rotator cuff tendonitis or rotator cuff tears but can also prevent issues like frozen shoulder or shoulder impingement from weightlifting.

Weightlifting Tips for Those with Sensitive Shoulders

Weightlifting with sensitive shoulders requires proactive measures to prevent injury and manage pain effectively. Here are some essential tips to prevent shoulder injuries from lifting:

  • Warm-Up Properly: Begin with light cardio to increase blood flow.
  • Practice Good Form: Consult a personal trainer to ensure correct postures during exercises like shoulder presses.
  • Gradual Progression: Increase weight and intensity slowly over time.
  • Incorporate Rest: Allow time for your muscles and soft tissues to recover.
  • Mind Your Movements: Avoid overhead activities that exacerbate shoulder pain.
  • Cooldown and Stretch: Always wrap up your session with stretches to maintain flexibility.
  • Seek Medical Advice: If pain persists, consider visiting an orthopedic surgeon.

Remember, shoulder pain when lifting can signal common culprits such as rotator cuff injuries or tendonitis. Consult a healthcare provider if you experience a persistent dull ache or limitation in your range of motion.

Don’t Let Shoulder Pain Stop You from Weightlifting

Experiencing shoulder pain during weightlifting can be a red flag, indicating issues with the shoulder joint like impingement or rotator cuff tendonitis. Your shoulder is a complex mechanism, involving the shoulder blade, upper arm bone, and an array of muscles and tendons. Pain suggests that something within this intricate system may be amiss, perhaps due to improper technique or overuse.

To keep lifting safely and avoid shoulder pain from weight lifting, maintain a strong focus on proper warm-ups and cooldowns. These are not just essential for enhancing performance but are crucial in preventing common shoulder injuries associated with weight lifting.

If you are dealing with shoulder pain from weightlifting or athletic activities, look no further than Continuous Motion PT for all your physical therapy needs. Our expert therapists specialize in treating shoulder pain caused by muscle tightness, overuse, and inflammation. With a focus on mobility and strengthening exercises, we can help you regain full strength in your shoulder and get back to peak performance.


Shoulder pain when lifting weights can significantly hinder your ability to engage in physical activities and impact your overall quality of life. Understanding the causes, signs, and symptoms of shoulder pain is crucial for addressing potential issues and preventing further injury. Whether it’s a weightlifter’s shoulder, shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tear, or other common shoulder injuries, being attuned to your body and seeking professional guidance when necessary can make a substantial difference in your recovery journey.


How do I stop my shoulders from hurting when I lift weights?

To prevent shoulder pain during weightlifting, start by focusing on your technique. Ensure you are performing exercises like shoulder presses with proper form, which often involves keeping your wrists straight, elbows in line with your shoulders, and movements controlled and smooth. Prioritize a full range of motion without compromising posture. Additionally, incorporating warm-up exercises that target the shoulder muscles and soft tissues can help prepare them for the stress of lifting. Gradual progression in weight and intensity also helps avoid overloading the shoulder joint.

Should I workout if my shoulder hurts?

If you are experiencing a dull ache or discomfort in your shoulder, it’s advisable to refrain from activities that exacerbate the pain. Rest and apply ice to manage the inflammation. However, it’s important to maintain some movement to prevent stiffness, resembling a frozen shoulder scenario. If the pain is sharp, persistent, or accompanied by a decrease in your range of motion, it’s crucial to consult a physical therapist or an orthopedic surgeon for a professional evaluation and guidance before resuming workouts.

How do you treat weightlifter’s shoulder?

Treating a weightlifter’s shoulder involves several steps. Initially, rest and ice can help manage acute pain and swelling. Anti-inflammatory medications may be recommended by a healthcare professional. Physical therapy treatment can be effective in restoring range of motion and strengthening the rotator cuff tendons and shoulder blade stabilizers. In cases of rotator cuff tendonitis or minor shoulder impingement, specific exercises may be prescribed to alleviate pressure on the soft tissues.

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Dr. Cameron Moore

PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, CSCS, Dip. Osteopractic

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Dr. Peyton Oules, PT, DPT Cert. DN

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Dr. Peyton Oules, physical therapist, is a Brewster, Washington native who grew up as a small-town athlete. During her high school sports career, she suffered from two ACL injuries which led her to pursue a career in physical therapy. 

She began her studies by earning her Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science, Pre-PT at Eastern Washington University.  During her undergraduate studies, she spent much of her time playing volleyball and coaching at the high school level.  Dr. Oules continued her education to earn her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Franklin Pierce University in Goodyear, Arizona.While in school, Dr. Oules became Certified in both Dry Needling and Myofascial Cupping.

Part of her clinical training included international travel to Sydney, Australia where she expanded her orthopedic skill set and had the opportunity to provide treatment for the athletes from the 2023 World Underwater Hockey Championships.

During her doctorate level studies, Dr. Oules learned the importance in making movement a lifestyle. She has a passion for sharing this knowledge with the community and getting her clients back to the activities they love.

Outside of the clinic Dr. Oules enjoys CrossFit®, hiking, traveling, and spending time outdoors with her dog, Rue. Some of her favorite adventures to date include hiking parts of the Grand Canyon and running across the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Sydney 10k!

Dr. Peyton Oules’ Credentials:
•           Physical Therapist (PT)
•           Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
•           Certified Dry Needling (Cert. DN)

Dr. Khristian McGinley, PT, DPT Cert. DN

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Dr. Khristian McGinley, physical therapist, grew up here in Phoenix, as a competitive softball player with a longtime passion for health and wellness. After sustaining an elbow injury in high school and attending PT herself, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career helping people recover from injuries and getting back to doing what they love. She eventually received her B.S in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2013, then earned her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Franklin Pierce University in 2017.

Dr. McGinley began her career with a passion in pediatrics and orthopedics, undergoing coursework to treat diagnoses such as torticollis, developmental delay, and toe walking. She also became certified in Dry Needling in 2017, and since then has been additionally trained in Dry Needling for Pelvic Rehabilitation. After the challenging birth of her first child, she developed a passion for treating the pregnant and postpartum population. She became specialty training in Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation in 2021 and since then has focused her practice on helping moms achieve pain free pregnancy, peaceful childbirth, and complete postpartum recovery. She specializes in diagnoses such as urinary incontinence, diastases recti, pelvic organ prolapse, and pelvic pain.

Outside of the clinic, Dr. McGinley enjoys hiking, running, camping, weight lifting, and playing slow pitch softball. She loves spending as much time as she can outside with her husband and two children.

Dr. Khristian McGinley’s Credentials:

  • ​Physical Therapist (PT)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
  • Certified Dry Needling (Cert. DN)
  • Specialty-trained in Pelvic Floor Therapy

Dr. Meredith Wall, PT, DPT FAFS, Cert. DN

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Dr. Meredith Wall, physical therapist, grew up as a competitive athlete in basketball, gymnastics, soccer and volleyball. After sustaining an ankle injury and going to rehab as a young athlete, she instantly fell in love with learning about sports injuries and rehabilitation. This led her to major in Exercises Science at Grand Valley State University. After she graduated in 2010, she immediately pursued physical therapy to ultimately achieve her lifelong goals of becoming a physical therapist. She earned a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Grand Valley State University in 2013, graduating as a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society recognizing individuals with outstanding GPA in a college graduate program.

Dr. Wall continued her educational pathway through the Gray Institute receiving a fellowship in Applied Functional Science (FAFS). A FAFS is only obtained by a select number of practitioners, who deliver optimal care through the diagnosis and treatment of functional human movement. She also became Certified in Dry Needling (Cert. DN) in 2017, is trained in the McKenzie Method to treat spinal pain, and most recently has become specialized in Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation. This specialty area allows her to treat women across the lifespan dealing with incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic pain, and pain during or after pregnancy.

Dr. Wall’s special interests include diagnosing and treating active patients across the lifespan to help them return to optimal function. In her spare time, she enjoys Crossfit®, running, coaching youth sports, and traveling with her husband and three sons.

Dr. Meredith Wall’s Credentials:

  • ​Physical Therapist (PT)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
  • Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS)
  • Certified Dry Needling (Cert. DN)
  • Specialty-trained in Pelvic Floor Therapy

Dr. Cameron Moore, PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, CSCS, Dip. Osteopractic

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Dr. Cameron Moore, physical therapist and co-owner, has always been very active with sports and activities starting with competitive motocross racing up to a semi-professional level and being a scholarship athlete in track and field competing at the division 1 level in college at Eastern Washington University in the triple jump. Cameron became interested in the profession of physical therapy after having knee surgery in high school and seeing the inter-workings of the profession. He pursued his bachelors degree in Exercise Science before moving to Phoenix to earn his Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) from Franklin Pierce University.

He then began specialization courses for spinal manipulation (Spinal Manipulation Institute) and dry needling (Dry Needling Institute). This lead Cameron in to becoming a Fellow of the American Academy of Manual Physical Therapist (FAAOMPT) through the American Academy of Manipulative Therapy (AAMT) and earned a Diploma of Osteopractic®, a distinction and training that only a small percentage of physical therapist have completed.

Dr. Moore continues to be very involved with motocross riding, Crossfit®, Olympic weight lifting, running and an overall active lifestyle with his Wife (Michelle) and their Vizsla (Parker).

Dr. Cameron Moore’s Credentials

  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
  • Certified in Dry Needling (Cert DN)
  • Certified in Spinal Manipulation (Cert SMT)
  • Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
  • Diploma in Osteopractic® (Dip Osteopractic)
  • Fellow Of The American Academy Of Manual Physical Therapist (FAAOMPT)
  • American Academy of Manipulative Therapy Fellow (AAMT)
  • Crossfit® Level 1 Certified (CF-L1)
  • Crossfit® Mobility Certified
  • USA Track and Field Level 1 Coach

Dr. Michelle Moore, PT, DPT FAAOMPT, Dip. Osteopractic

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Dr. Michelle Moore, physical therapist and co-owner, grew up as a competitive gymnast and developed a passion for healthy living from a young age. Her collegiate studies in Health Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and athletic background influenced her to combine her passions and pursue a career in physical therapy. She earned a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Franklin Pierce University in 2013.

Dr. Moore continued her educational pathway through the American Academy of Manipulative Therapy where she earned her Diploma Osteopractic® (Dip. Osteopractic) and became Certified in Dry Needling (Cert. DN), and Spinal Manipulative Therapy (Cert. SMT). From 2016-2017 Dr. Moore completed the rigorous coursework to become a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy (FAAOMPT), a distinction held by only a fraction of the profession.

Dr. Moore’s special interests include treating active individuals and returning them to the activities that they love. In her spare time she enjoys Crossfit®, Olympic Weightlifting, mountain biking, hiking, and traveling with her husband, Cameron, and dog, Parker.

Dr. Michelle Moore’s Credentials:

  • ​Physical Therapist (PT)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
  • Fellow of American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists (FAAOMPT)
  • Diploma in Osteopractic® (Dip. Osteopractic)
  • Certified Dry Needling (Cert. DN)
  • Certified Spinal Manipulative Therapy (Cert. SMT)
  • Crossfit® Mobility Certified