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5 Worst Shoulder Exercises (Avoid at All Costs)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Last updated: May 17, 2023

The shoulder is a complex joint made from three bones: humerus, scapula, and clavicle.

All three bones work together to create motion at the shoulder joint, but their functions aren’t always the same.

After 20 hours of research and careful consideration, I identified the worst shoulder joint exercises according to injury risk criteria.

Both multi and single-joint exercises were considered during the testing process.

Read below to learn the worst shoulder exercises, why they are so bad for the shoulders, and what alternatives to consider.

Quick Summary

  • Some of the worst shoulder exercises include lateral raises with palm down, behind-the-shoulder presses, upright shoulder rows, triceps bench dips, and single-arm rows.
  • The best way to avoid rotator cuff shoulder injury is to use free weights since they allow a bigger range of motion and don’t fix the shoulder joint.
  • You must include the same amount of pushing and pulling exercises in a weekly training regime to avoid shoulder muscle imbalances.

Top 5 Worst Shoulder Exercises

Performing worst shoulder workouts

Me and my team reviewed all the shoulder exercises before placing them on the list.

We ensured that the exercises below are the worst for the entire shoulder joint, including ligaments, bones, and surrounding muscles.

In addition, the exercises below are likely to lead to injury if you use them extensively.

I suggest completely removing them from the workout or doing alternative lifts.

"The most common problems come from repeating the same movement over and over again, and from too much arm motion above your head (like painting or hanging curtains). But your shoulder can get hurt in other ways too."

- Tyler Wheeler, Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician at Family Practice Center Atlanta

1. Lateral Raises With Palm Down or Thumb Down

Lateral raises with palm thumbs down aren't the best for building lateral deltoid muscles.

This is because the functional and anatomical movement of the shoulder in the frontal plane doesn't include internal or external shoulder rotation.

However, when you place your palms or thumbs down, your shoulders will internally rotate and cause an unnatural position which may lead to potential injuries.

The best way to avoid injury from lateral raises is to perform them in anatomical and natural shoulder positions. 

This entails 0 internal or external shoulder rotation while abducting your upper arm to 90 degrees.

To test when your shoulder begins to rotate internally, you should try multiple loads and choose the one where your shoulders don't compensate for the movement with rotation.

2. Behind the Head Shoulder Press

Doing shoulder press behind neck

Behind the head shoulder press represents a problem for your shoulder’s health since it places extensive stretch and force while your shoulders are externally rotated.

External shoulder rotation will stretch the entire shoulder's muscle complex, which can lead to strains or even ligament issues.

To avoid the negatives of the head-shoulder press, you should do the alternative, which is the dumbbell over the head press.

Dumbbell overhead press will place your shoulder in an anatomical position and allow a greater range of motion in the joint.

3. Shoulder Upright Rows

Shoulder upright rows aren’t necessarily bad but can cause pain in the joint due to the movement being completed in an unnatural position.

Upright rows place the weight in front of your body, meaning your shoulder must abduct more than 90 degrees while your elbows remain flexed.

Perform decline or low cable rows towards your chin to avoid injuring yourself.

This will have the same results as the upright row but lower the risk of potential injury while targeting the same muscles.

4. Triceps Bench Dips

A woman doing bench dips

Triceps bench dips are one of the easiest triceps exercises and are almost always performed in large volumes.

However, the body's range of motion and front position limits the shoulder’s range and places it in the stretched position.

You can replace bench dips with regular parallel bar dips to avoid injuring your shoulder.

Performing dips with your body weight will be enough initially, but you can progress it by adding weight plates or any form of external resistance.

5. Single Arm Rows

Single-arm rows are only dangerous if you perform them incorrectly.

This means that learning the proper technique can make these exercises as efficient as the rest of the shoulder exercises.

To perform the movement correctly, you must assume an athletic stance, inhale, brace your core, and row the cable toward your hips.

You can also row the cable or resistance band towards your lower ribs to target trapezius muscles more.

Is the Rowing Machine Bad for the Rotator Cuff?

Rowing machines

The rowing machine can only be bad for the rotator cuff if you forget to develop the entire shoulder holistically.

You must develop three whole shoulder heads and perform enough internal and external rotations to balance out the muscles.

Shoulder muscles such as the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoid are prime movers.

However, rotator cuff muscles and shoulder blades allow for rotation and extra movement in all planes of motion when performing different shoulder exercises.

Shoulder injuries or rotator cuff injury occurs when your internal shoulder rotation is much stronger than external shoulder rotation [1].

Performing the same amount of pushing and pulling exercises can balance out the external and internal rotation and avoid shoulder tendonitis [2].

Are Push-Ups a Bad Exercise for Shoulders?

Performing push ups exercise

No, push-ups aren’t a bad exercise for the shoulders. Shoulder pain from push-ups may occur if your external rotators or back muscles are weak, meaning your pectoral muscle is shortened.

Push-ups are much better exercise than flat bench presses since they require your shoulder blades to protract for the movement to occur.

This activates extra rotator cuff muscles while avoiding unnecessary shoulder pain.

Caleb Gray, principal physiotherapist and founder of Click Physiotherapy, adds that the position is also very safe for unstable shoulders as your hands are fixed on the ground.

This helps to activate even more stabilizing muscles around the shoulder.

However, if you have a current shoulder injury then caution is required, because push-ups will load the shoulder muscles a lot.

To avoid pain, perform push-ups wider than shoulder width in an anatomical position with 30 degrees internal rotation, 45 degrees flexion, and 60 degrees abduction.

Is Shoulder Press or Military Press Bad for the Shoulders?

No, shoulder press or military press isn’t bad for the shoulders. Overhead press exercises are excellent for strengthening your deltoid and rotator cuffs.

If you feel shoulder pain while doing barbell pressing, try switching to dumbbell overhead presses instead.


What Are the Worst Exercises for Rotator Cuff?

The worst exercises for rotator cuff include behind-the-head overhead barbell presses, triceps bench dips, and lateral raises with internal rotation.

What Gym Exercises to Avoid With Bad Shoulder?

Gym exercises to avoid with a bad shoulder include excessive internal rotation, shoulder abducting as chest flies, and excessive shoulder extension.

Are Skull Crushers Bad for Shoulders?

No, skull crushers aren’t bad for shoulders. However, you must fixate on the shoulder joint and only perform the movement in the elbow joint during the whole exercise.

What Is the Safest Equipment to Exercise the Shoulders?

The safest equipment to exercise the shoulders is adjustable kettlebells.

Adjustable kettlebells are the best free weights that allow a full range of motion in any joint, which is excellent for avoiding shoulder injury.

Read or guide on the best adjustable kettlebells for home gym to pick a high-quality, durable one to ensure injury-free shoulder training.

Let me know your thoughts on the worst shoulder exercise.


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