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Trainer Q&A: Why Does My Shoulder Crack and Pop?

Our expert weighs in on what these annoying sounds might mean—and how to properly warm up your shoulders.
Shoulder injury prevention

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Dr. Scott Weiss, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., A.T.C., is the owner and director of Bodhizone for Human Performance and Physical Therapy in New York and a professor in the division of athletic training, health, and exercise science at Long Island University.

Men's Fitness: Why does my shoulder crack and pop during certain exercises such as lat pulldowns or shrugs?

Dr. Weiss: Popping, clicking, and snapping are different. If you’re not properly warmed up and hear a crack on the first couple of repetitions, sometimes that’s gas released from the joint, an action called a cavitation, similar to when knuckles are cracked. Resistance exercises can release gas from the shoulder. Don’t worry about this; continue your technique. If you’re doing reps and you hear a cracking/snapping on every rep, usually a muscle is tight, rubbing and causing friction around the bone. In that situation, stretch first, resume the same technique, and the snapping should decrease or be almost non-existent.

A snapping, popping, or other annoyance that starts to radiate, say from the shoulder to the neck or through the arm, may be a pulled/torn muscle. A snap or crack in the shoulder can also mean the bones could be rubbing on themselves, which could be a developing arthritic condition or a loose joint creating a “grating” sound. 

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When should I get my shoulder checked out by an MD?

If you can’t complete a rep, stop that technique and put ice on for 20 minutes, on and off at least two to three times. When pain starts to radiate, when you can’t perform the rep without any weight, or if you can't perform the rep with proper form, that is when you need to see a physical therapist, trainer, or doctor.

If shoulder rotations with hands at your sides hurt, don’t screw with it; you’re going to make it worse. If you can’t lift your arm up past eye height, don’t mess with it; that’s a major injury, you probably tore something. When you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t challenge it.

What are the best exercises to properly loosen and warm up my shoulders?

Use an upper-body ergometer before upper-body workouts. Let your upper body rotate 6-10 minutes on the machine. Also, go through the motions of the exercises you are going to do without weights, or with lighter weights, e.g., do shoulder presses with 10-pound dumbbells before moving on to heavier ones.

You can also perform Y, T, A, and W exercises. They are probably the safest moves for the shoulder, and they help with stabilization. Here's what to do:

Y: Bring hands from your side and raise your arms in a Y position like you're spelling the Y in YMCA, or like a gymnast completing a routine.

T: Raise arms out to sides so they make a T.

A: Start in a Y position and pull your arms straight down so you have a foot between your hands and legs on both sides.

W: Start with arms in T position, bend your elbows, and face your palms toward your head. That is more for rotator cuffs.

You can use resistance bands or cables for these exercises. Tie a resistance band to a machine or something that is stable. You can also use light dumbbells.

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