How to maintain arm strength even with a shoulder problem

You’ve got shoulder problems, and you want to improve your comfort levels - BUT you don’t want to lose the muscle you’ve built up over time. You want to look good AND feel good. This is quite the dilemma for some people.

Do you want to keep doing those bicep curls?

If you’re a body-builder, power lifter, cross fitter, or even a casual weight lifter, you are familiar with bicep curls. This is probably one of the most recognizable exercises you can do with a weight. You hold a dumbbell in one hand and fire your biceps to bend your elbow.

This is a great way to target the biceps to make your upper arm plump up and look a bit more aesthetically pleasing. “Curls get the girls,” so the saying goes! 


Everyone loves this exercise. It's probably one of the first strength exercises every guy and gal starts with - whether it's in a boot camp or on their own just fooling around in front of the bathroom mirror. 

So I wasn’t surprised when I got this message from a user of the Shoulder Fix:

"I have worked hard on my upper body fitness and have been bummed out at not being able to swim.  Is it okay to perform low weight bicep curls?  I wanted to at least maintain muscle tone in my arms.”


So can you do bicep curls with shoulder pain?

If  you want to be able to continue to do bicep curls, it’s totally understandable. But you should know that there are risks to continuing to train your biceps hard. 

If you work out the biceps a ton to keep your arm plump and juicy, you may be forcing the shoulder into a compromised position. Unless you’re VERY careful, you’ll end up with your humerus and scapula getting pulled forward into a tilt that makes your shoulder unstable, increasing the odds you'll get pinching in the front or top/side of your shoulder. If you are already suffering with those kinds of issues, you're likely only going to make those problems worse by continuing to train your biceps hard with more curls. 

My general recommendation would be to lay off the bicep curls for at least a few weeks until you feel your shoulder get more stable. Once you feel you can better control your shoulder blade and your comfort levels have improved, THEN start doing bicep curls again. 

What should you do if you want to keep doing bicep curls?

Of course not everyone is willing to take that advice. So if you really want to keep doing bicep curls, you can still try to help yourself stay out of unnecessary pain. Make sure you stay on top of exercises that help mitigate the impact of bicep curls. That means you need to keep your biceps opened up and loose - or as opened up and loose as possible.

For example, this exercise can help you keep the biceps feeling more open so that your shoulder doesn't get dragged further into poor position. 

The video above is an exercise taken directly from the Shoulder Fix. This exercise helps you open up the front of the shoulder by stretching out the biceps and anterior deltoid. This is an area that a lot of people can get pretty tight and taut in, so taking the time to relax this area can really help the shoulder settle back into a better position. It's worth a try if you aren't willing to listen to my first recommendation (which, to be clear, is to lay off the curls for a little while!). 


Bicep curls are a staple of many a gym nut's routine, but they can definitely contribute to shoulder problems. If you're working on restoring better motion and comfort to your shoulder, take a close look at how bicep curls are affecting your shoulder mechanics. If you already have a shoulder that's getting dragged forward and tilted anteriorly, you're going to want to lay off the bicep curls or integrate a lot more bicep stretching into your routine to keep your shoulder happy (or at least happier)! 

Want shoulders that feel good and move well?


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.