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Suggestions For Dealing With A Pinched Shoulder Nerve

pinched shoulder nerveI like to lift weight and that’s usually what you can find me doing five days a week. Sometimes even more. My favorite lifts all take place overhead: the kettlebell snatch, the military press with a barbell or an axle, the clean and jerk, etc. And for years I dealt with shoulder pain that would come and go. Every time I would go to the doctor they would say one of two things: “You’ve got a pinched shoulder nerve” or “This is a rotator cuff injury.”

Sometimes their advice helped, sometimes it didn’t. Most of the time it didn’t, in fact. I would leave each appointment with a prescription for muscle relaxers and a pamphlet that showed me how many external band rotations I should be doing.

In the last year I have been experimenting with range of motion muscle testing, and my shoulder pain has disappeared. I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice–I’m just going to tell you what I’ve been experimenting with and why I no longer have pinched nerves in my shoulder, if I ever did to begin with.

Range of Motion Biofeedback testing

I need to tell you a couple of assumptions I work off of. Feel free to ignore them or disagree violently, but for me to discuss how I deal with shoulder pain, my processes need to be clear.

I associate an increase of range of motion with a movement that is good, or beneficial, for the body. If I perform a movement that results in decreased range of motion, I associate that with not-goodness (scientific term!)

I believe that since movements are what put us into pain, movements are the best way to get us out of pain. I associate pain either too much or too little tissue elasticity, a condition which I can treat with movements that test well.

Here is how I perform a ROM test

I lean forward from the hips with my fingers reaching for my toes. I’m not stretching. In fact, I am going to stop at the point where going farther would require me to start stretching. I’m just looking for tightness or tension–when it appears anywhere in my body, I stop the toe touch and tap my legs at that point. That’s my baseline test. It is not the only test, but I find that it is the easiest for me to be consistent with.

There are six large movement patterns that I test. These big six and their variations comprise just about all of the gross motor movements a body can perform. They are:


One legs, two legs, loaded or bodyweight only. The pattern is simply the act of squatting down.


The hips reach back and form an acute hinge, as in the kettlebell swing, deadlift, snatch, etc

Overhead Press

Military press, one and two arms. Turkish get ups. Walking with weight supported overhead.

Horizontal Press

Bench press, pushups, floor press, etc.

Vertical Pull

Pullups and chinups

Horizontal pull

Rowing motions

I test all six movements and choose the three that result in the greatest range of motion increase. If I am having shoulder pain, I am particularly interested in finding a press variation that is pain-free and tests well. I have been finding that if I can find a variation of the pattern that tests well, it fixes the shoulder pain while also allowing me to continue to strengthen the vertical press pattern.

I do not consider this a reinforcement of improper technique, because for me I believe proper form is what tests best. And that for me, what tests best is often what fixes my pain.

If it does not make sense to you that a large motor movement like a squat or deadlift could help with shoulder pain, I understand. It doesn’t always make sense to me either, but it makes sense in my body. When I am in pain, anecdotal evidence is good enough for me.


If you have shoulder pain, even if you have already seen a doctor, I would suggest that you play around with these movement patterns and the ROM tests. If it doesn’t give you any relief, you’ve lost nothing but have kept moving around, which is rarely a bad thing.

But if you find something that works, you’ll be glad. I currently experience some sort of mild shoulder pain at least once a month because I am so active. But the difference is that while doctors might give me a solution that failed to produce relief after a year, I am now able to resolve my pains in minutes, if not seconds, simply by pursuing gross motor movements that test well.

If you’re curious about learning more about how to apply biofeedback testing to the gym, and to pain relief, I’d recommend checking out Adam Glass and Brad Nelson’s Grip and Rip DVD. It is a wonderful product that will help you implement testing in the easiest, most immediate way.

Again, I’d rather have you trusting your doctor than me, so please just take the above as what it is: a snapshot of my experiences. It’s working for me, so if you’re in pain, maybe it will work for you too.

Good luck!


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  • Brett Cornwright November 16, 2010, 3:42 pm

    Josh, I just found your blog and have been reading non-stop. I am also a literary type and also very into kettlebells. I was on the RKC track but have since changed my focus to GS. I have what I believe to be a trigger point problem on my left shoulder. I seem to get these trigger points after a few weeks of no problem training. I am definitely going to try out your ideas on correcting this pain, as right now it has been lingering for a week with no end in sight. Thanks for your great blog. Do you keep a training log that is publicly available. I would like to find out how you are tackling your goal of Master of Sport. Thanks again!

    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2010, 3:56 pm

      Non-stop? You’ll starve to death!

      For training logs, I have kept a few in various places, all in various stages of updating. The only 100% accurate one is in my notebook, but I’ve started keeping one here on WSL a couple of weeks ago. If you follow this tag you can see the entries:


      I’ve been dealing with some rib instability–the chairs I’ve been sitting on for hours a day have started to catch up with me, so my training lately has been working around this lameness.

      As to the GS, as part of the Gym Movement training, I’m tackling it differently. We’ll see how the results shake out, but if I wind up doing long cycle, snatches, or jerks on any given day, according to the testing, I’m only doing one or two sets, then letting it go until the next time it tests well. So far, this has enabled me to add reps consistently with relatively few sets and infrequent training. I’m currently able to hit my level IV ranking in all events without much trouble, and am now going to start playing heavier. let me know if you ever want to talk more, offline. It’s fun stuff, but I just couldn’t train jerks and snatches several times a week with multiple-minute sets. I get bored. Maybe that means I’m no champion, but the terror of boredom usually informs most of my decisions.

  • Brett Cornwright November 16, 2010, 6:27 pm

    Thanks for the response! I would love to talk to you when you have the time, as I really have no idea what I’m doing in my GS training. I have a Facebook friend who is giving me advice and who has critiqued my technique via video … One thing I love about this sport and kettlebells in general is how open and willing to help the experts are.

    Let me know if you have time for a chat sometime. I, too, have been doing one or two sets of jerks for time, then followed by snatches for time. I had never done jerks until about three months ago, but seem to be progressing nicely. I really love the snatch … got started on that with Viking Warrior and worked up to 80 sets with the 16k, but think the GS style is much more natural and beneficial. I’m up to 40 reps with the 16k, 25 reps per arm with the 20K … Also working the 16k on long cycle, I’m a bigger guy (6’3′, 225) so it is certainly humbling to be using such a light weight. 🙂

    Thanks again. I would like to learn more about the Gym Movement training, but am hesitant to lay out the cash as we are broke. Maybe at some point … How do you determine your ROM is improving? Do you do multiple sets of body weight squats and determine if you’re getting lower? Maybe we could discuss at some point. I would love to get ranked at some point and work my way up, as you are planning. We shall see. I have the OCD tendencies I think that should help … Did two Ironman triathlons but have regained my senses and now just do kettlebells and run some as twin three-year-olds now occupy most of my free time, something I’m sure you are aware of. 🙂 Have a great evening! Thanks again, I will be following along …