Shoulder Pain After Bicep Curls: 8 Possible Reasons

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 2, 2022

Despite the relative simplicity of bicep curls, some lifters will experience a host of different issues during their performance - either as a result of improper form or simply using too much weight during their set.

One of the most common among these issues is that of shoulder pain, wherein performing several different errors together or separately results in pain in the rotator cuff or anterior head of the deltoid during bicep curl performance.

In order to remedy your shoulder pain during bicep curls, it is best to reduce the weight and assess your form so as to identify what is causing the pain - prior to practicing proper bicep curl form and correcting whatever issue you have identified.

Why Does Shoulder Pain from Bicep Curls Occur?

Shoulder pain experienced during or after a set of bicep curls is not uncommon - but otherwise is an issue that should be addressed as soon as possible, as leaving such pain to continue will eventually lead to chronic overuse injuries and a limited shoulder range of motion.

dumbbell bicep curl

While the shoulders are not usually directly involved in the movement of a bicep curl, improper form or simple lack of attention can result in the shoulder joint or deltoid muscles being moved in a manner that is disadvantageous and potentially injurious in nature.

Furthermore, certain issues with the biceps muscles or their surrounding tendons can cause pain that may appear to be related to the shoulder, but in actuality is only in close approximation from an anatomical point of view.

1. Biceps Long Head Injury

As is clued in by the name, the biceps brachii is a muscle group consisting of two heads, with one being shorter and on the inner side of the arm whereas the other is longer and on the outer side of the arm. 

long head bicep brachii

This longer head extends to the bottom of the deltoid, potentially resulting in pain if stress is placed along the bicep during a disadvantageous position or if said long head lacks sufficient range of motion.

2. Biceps Tendonitis 

Tendonitis or tendinopathy is a form of chronic overuse condition wherein the tendons that connect a skeletal muscle group to a bone are inflamed and otherwise damaged, resulting in pain and weakness when excessive loads are placed on said muscle group.

biceps tendonitis

Shoulder pain experienced during the performance of bicep curls can readily indicate this condition as the main reason, with the cause of said tendonitis usually being an excessive amount of weight being lifted, or improper form being executed.

3. Internal Shoulder Rotation During Concentric Phase

Rotating the shoulders inwards during the concentric phase of a curl exercise can cause unnecessary and potentially injurious recruitment of certain portions of the deltoid muscle group, resulting in pain and transference of the resistance from the biceps to said deltoid muscles.

In order to avoid this, the usual advice is for lifters to move their elbows as little as possible, and to ensure that their hands remain at a neutral angle so as to avoid subconsciously rotating the shoulders during the exercise.

4. Possible Muscular Imbalance

Another possible reason why shoulder pain is experienced during bicep curls is because of a possible muscular imbalance, usually with one bicep muscle group being weaker than the other.

This, in turn, forces other muscle groups on the weaker side of the body to compensate - resulting in disadvantageous and irregular recruitment of nearby muscles, such as the deltoids or brachioradialis. 

Fortunately, this is the most easy cause to identify when dealing with curl-related shoulder pain, as most individuals will realize one side of their body is weaker or disproportionate to the other if such is the case.

Errors in Bicep Curl Form Contributing to Shoulder Pain

Though we’ve covered the reason why shoulder pain may be experienced during bicep curls, we’ve yet to point out the exact errors being made during the execution of said bicep curls - all of which contribute (if only in part) to the occurrence of the aforementioned shoulder pain.

1. Raising the Elbows

A major form cue of bicep curls is to press the elbows closely to the sides of the torso so as to avoid subconsciously raising them during the concentric portion of the repetition, of which can result in forearm and wrist pain alongside the usual shoulder pain.

This is somewhat more difficult if the bicep curl is being performed with a straight or EZ curl barbell, as achieving a full range of motion may be somewhat hampered by this rather important form cue.

2. Hands Placed Too Close Together

Placing the hands closer than shoulder-width apart can lead to the deltoid muscles and long head of the biceps compensating for the disadvantageous position, leading to shoulder pain and elbow pain when the exercise is performed with higher amounts of weight.

To avoid this, exercisers should seek to avoid placing their hands in such a way that the wrists are forced to pronate in order to raise the weight upwards, with approximately shoulder-width apart being the ideal position for the majority of lifters.

3. Internally Rotating the Shoulders

As was mentioned earlier in the article, internally rotating the shoulders as a way to “cheat” the repetition or otherwise subconsciously due to excessive weight will easily result in shoulder pain and potential injury of the biceps brachii.

Exercisers should seek to keep their deltoid muscles as uninvolved as possible during a bicep curl repetition, with a slight retraction of the shoulder blades potentially aiding in this particular issue.

4. Jerking the Weight Upwards

Making sudden and uncontrolled movements during the bicep curl exercise can easily result in excessive torsion being placed on the rotator cuff of the shoulder joint, resulting in acute tissue injury or simple inflammation as the rotator cuff is forced to absorb the force produced by these jerking movements.

biceps curl jerking weight

Bicep curls should be performed in slow and controlled movements, with excessive jerking being a sign that the weight is too heavy for the lifter and should be lightened to allow for proper form.

How to Fix Shoulder Pain from Bicep Curls

1. Stop Performing Bicep Curls (Temporarily)

In order to remedy shoulder pain during bicep curls, the first step is to cease performing the exercise until you have identified the cause of your shoulder pain. 

Depending on the cause and the severity of your condition, a short length of time may be required so as to allow whatever injury to heal prior to attempting to perform the bicep curl exercise once again.

Fortunately, taking time off from the gym may not be necessary if you are uninjured or the shoulder pain is simply a result of easily correctable and relatively minor issues in form.

2. Assess and Correct Any Form Issues

The first and most likely culprit of shoulder pain from bicep curls is the form with which it is executed. 

Record yourself as you perform the exercise or ask a certified trainer to assess your form as you perform the bicep curl, with any deviations from standard form and exercise mechanics usually being the direct cause of said shoulder pain.

If you have indeed discovered an issue with your bicep curl execution, lower the weight that you are lifting and focus on performing correct and slow repetitions so as to engrain the movement within your muscle memory.

3. Perform Rehabilitative Exercises

In the event that the injury relating to the lifter’s shoulder pain has reached the point of affecting their range of motion or stability, rehabilitative exercises are one of the most effective methods of undoing the damage - so long as they are approved by a physician or physical therapist.

The intensity and sort of rehabilitative exercises employed will depend on too many factors to cover within this article, and will generally be tailored to match the sort of injury that the lifter has sustained.

4. Find an Alternative Exercise

Though the bicep curl is an excellent exercise, some individuals may simply prefer to let go of it altogether in favor of one that is more suited to their liking. 

Exercises such as the hammer curl, chin-up and curl machine all feature widely differing characteristics to the bicep curl while still retaining its recruitment of the biceps brachii muscle group, allowing the bicep curl to be substituted for an exercise with a similar effect.

5. Consult a Physician

In the end, if the issue or injury behind your shoulder pain is more difficult to fix than simply altering your bicep curl form, it is a good idea to consult a medical professional, as there are certain types of injuries that can only really be fixed through surgery or through physical rehabilitation.

Other symptoms that may be present alongside your shoulder pain such as tingling, numbness or a significantly reduced range of motion are all signs that a deeper medical issue may be the culprit as well - also necessitating medical advice.

In Conclusion

Though shoulder pain from bicep curls can vary in cause and severity, it's generally a good idea to remedy whatever the reason as soon as possible. Once you begin to experience pain during or after performing certain exercises, the smartest move is to stop performing said exercise and to investigate why the pain is occurring.

Rest assured, once you have managed to rectify whatever is causing the shoulder pain, it is likely that you will be able to return to performing bicep curls - now without pain. If not, there are always alternative exercises that can replicate the training stimulus of bicep curls.

References

1. Oliveira LF, Matta TT, Alves DS, Garcia MA, Vieira TM. Effect of the shoulder position on the biceps brachii emg in different dumbbell curls. J Sports Sci Med. 2009 Mar 1;8(1):24-9. PMID: 24150552; PMCID: PMC3737788.

2. Raney EB, Thankam FG, Dilisio MF, Agrawal DK. Pain and the pathogenesis of biceps tendinopathy. Am J Transl Res. 2017 Jun 15;9(6):2668-2683. PMID: 28670360; PMCID: PMC5489872.

3. Cummins J. Biceps Disorder Rehabilitation for the Athlete: A Continuum of Moderate- to High-Load Exercises. Review of Educational Research. 2017;45(3):222-251. doi:10.3102/00346543049002222

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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