The Best Exercises for Fitness Athlete Shoulder Pain

In my last article, I discussed what I believe to be the six most common causes of shoulder pain in CrossFit. To review, usually, shoulder pain results from doing too much volume or too high of skills for what that athlete is prepared for. As a result, the soft tissues of the shoulder get overloaded and become irritated. The following is NOT a prescription for fixing all shoulder pain. But I want to share the exercises I most frequently use for addressing CrossFit shoulder pain and provide some insight into why I use each.

Many of these exercises can be found in our Bulletproof Shoulders program inside of Performance Plus. This 6-week plan is meant for athletes wanting to get ahead of future shoulder issues. It will build a stronger shoulder foundation on which to progress your pressing strength & gymnastics. Joins thousands of athletes that have build stronger shoulders with this program!

Best Exercises for Shoulder Pain in the Fitness Athlete

Hanging Controlled Articular Rotations

CrossFit involves serious amounts of gymnastics work on the rig. In pull-up variations and progressions, the full hang position tends to be where athletes are weakest. Hanging Controlled Articular Rotations are a great way to build shoulder strength and stability in this position. 

 Banded Lat Rows

I consider the lats the glutes of the upper body. The lats are a large and powerful muscle that is important in many gymnastics movements common to CrossFit. When the lats are weak, athletes tend to over-rely on momentum to perform these moves, and the shoulder joint gets a lot of extra stress. Banded lat rows are a great exercise to isolate the lats.

For more lat strength exercises, see my article “The Importance of Lat Strength in CrossFit.”


Internal Rotation Diagonals for Shoulder Pain

The first rotator cuff drill I will share is for the subscapularis muscle, which sits as the front part of the rotator cuff. I start here because often, when rotator cuff strength is prescribed, the focus is on the posterior rotator cuff, and we forget to strengthen the front as well.


Face Pull Y Press

Probably my most prescribed rotator cuff strength drill for those with shoulder pain during CrossFit. I like this when athletes have shoulder pain with overhead squats, snatches, and kipping as the end position is very specific to the place that aggravates their symptoms.

Prone Swimmers

These are significantly tougher than they look! Prone Swimmers do a great job strengthening the rotator cuff and upper back in athletes dealing with CrossFit shoulder pain.

PVC Lift Offs

I use prone lift offs in athletes needing rotator cuff strength that also tend for their shoulders to rotate during the performance of overhead squats and pull-ups instead of keeping a strong, active shoulder position. This video further discusses the shoulder position we want to see in the overhead squat.


Banded Beat Swing

When performing kipping pull-ups and other CrossFit gymnastics movements, maintaining full-body tension and hitting proper positions is crucial for safety and performance. The banded beat swing is my most commonly prescribed exercise for working on kipping technique. Focus on the shoulders pushing and pulling in to the bar to move your body forward and back into the band. 


Lat Eccentrics

For athletes needing increased overhead mobility, lat eccentrics are often my go-to exercise for opening the shoulders up. Focus on lowering slowly into the fully stretched position before lifting back up. 


Sleeper Stretch PAILs/RAILs

For some athletes with shoulder stiffness, we’ll find that the tissues’ lack of mobility on the back of the shoulder limits overhead motion. In this case, I’ll often empty sleeper PAILs & RAILs to improve mobility.


Foam Roller Thoracic Extensions 

Thoracic spine mobility is also essential for shoulder health. A CrossFit athlete will have to take the shoulder through significantly more range of motion for overhead positions to compensate when limited. There are lots of thoracic mobility exercises, but this is my favorite.


If you are tired of dealing with nagging shoulder pain in your WODs, consider looking into the following programs we offer inside of Performance Plus to address the above areas:

  • Bulletproof Shoulders – great shoulder strength program for post-rehab strengthening to reduce the risk of future injuries
  • Building Lats to Fly – a great program for building lat strength and kipping mechanics
  • Overhead Mobility Overhaul – a four-week plan designed to improve your overhead mobility
  • Thoracic Mobility Overhaul – four weeks to a more mobile upper back
  • We have 40+ plans inside of Performance Plus to help you reach your fitness goals! Whether you are working on your very first pull-up or want to push your muscle-up endurance, we have you covered!