“Is it the pushups? It has to be the pushups.”
If you’d been inside my head a few days ago, that’s the conversation you would have heard.
See, for the past couple of months, I’ve been gently rehabbing a shoulder injury. Nothing too serious, but enough that I had to back off on some of my regular workout routine in order to let things heal up.
But finally, after all that rest, I once again felt good enough to try a full training session. I started off gently. I was pretty sure that bad form on one of my upper body exercises was the culprit. I slowed down and really focused on practicing good form.
Planks, reverse planks, bridges, and shoulder rolls… no pain. Those movements didn’t even seem to affect that particular area of the shoulder at all. Clearly none of those was the culprit.
Maybe the horizontal rows had been my downfall. I’d read that rounding my shoulders too far at the bottom could create the kind of impingement I was feeling. I did my sets of those. Nope, that wasn’t it. My form there was fine, too. No indication of lingering pain.
It had to be the pushups.
Except… it wasn’t. In fact, I was able to set a personal best on the number of reps.
What was going on?
It Wasn’t the Pushups
At this point, I really had no idea. Had I miraculously healed? That couldn’t be it, because the shoulder was still twinging.
Maybe it wasn’t my strength training, after all, I thought to myself. Maybe it was some of the boxing I’d been doing on the heavy bag, or I’d just slept on it really, really wrong?
And then came the squats.
Now, I was SURE that the problem couldn’t be my squats. Squats are about the lower body. How on earth could it cause my shoulder problems?
Yeah, about that.
I did one squat and…
Yeah, that was it.
See, I’d been training bodyweight overhead squats. For the uninitiated, that’s like the ones where you see people holding a bar up overhead with straight arms as they lower their body down — but instead of a weighted bar, I use a towel to make sure I stay upright. Turns out, I’d been pulling my arms too far behind my head. This put strain on my already tight neck muscles… which then made me compensate by over-activating the shoulder muscles… which pulled my shoulder forward just enough to put everything out of whack and… insert pain here.
But here’s the thing: I ASSUMED that my shoulder problems were coming because of something I was doing wrong in my upper-body training. It was the only thing that made sense to me.
I was wrong.
The real problem was in a completely different exercise. One I hadn’t even considered as being the root problem.
Symptoms Don’t Always Point to the Source of the Problem
Now, you may not be much of a work-out geek. But I’m willing to bet that you have areas in your life, in your career, or in your business where you’ve got some pain.
What I’ve learned is that whenever that’s the case, the same principles apply: just because a symptom shows up in one area doesn’t mean that’s actually where your problem lies.
As a business coach, I can’t tell you the number of clients who have come to me complaining that they have a problem with sales when in reality, their problem is that they are too busy doing day-to-day fulfillment to even think about sales. As soon as we fix their fulfillment issue, and they get back to selling, their “sales” problem disappears.
Or the number of clients who say they don’t have enough cash flow. They blame sales, or perhaps pricing. But what we discover when we actually look at the root is that the real problem isn’t about those things at all. It’s an efficiency problem with regard to how their team supports the clients — they’ve got a profit leak in their client experience.
The point is, symptoms may tell you where the acute injury is. They demand your attention, because of how painful things are.
But if you only look to where the symptoms are occurring, it’s very likely that you’re missing the root cause of your injury. And if THAT is the case, you’ll never be able to solve it.
The Surprising Solution to My Sore Shoulder
Having figured out where the problem was, I was able to adjust. I decided not to do any more overhead squats that day. I’d fix my form later, but for now, I needed to rest the shoulder since I’d already aggravated the injury.
Then, it was time for stretching. The first stretch, I did 3–4 specific ones that were supposed to be good for shoulder impingement. They were fine, but I didn’t feel like they were really “doing” anything. If anything, they almost made things feel slightly worse — more irritated, more inflammation.
“Oh well,” I thought to myself. “Can’t figure it all out in one day.”
The last stretch for the day was to stretch my mid-back and side muscles. I got into child’s pose: down on my knees, arms stretched out on the ground in front of me as far as I could reach. Then, I slowly shifted my arms to the side, so that the stretch would go all the way from my ribs to my hips along the side.
It’s a stretch I’d done dozens of times before. Honestly, I’d never felt like I understood it… it didn’t seem to “do” much for me. But for some reason, this time was different. Maybe it was because I was trying to be more conscious of where my shoulders were sitting. Maybe it was because I was working around the pain. Maybe it was just luck.
Whatever the reason, I did my stretch and then heard a little snap, a little crack, and even a tiny little pop…
And just like that, my shoulder pain was gone.
There’s still a little bit of a lingering ache, mostly due to compensation and a bit of inflammation from a week of the shoulder not working properly — but the pain itself is gone.
Start Simple and Small for Instant Relief
Here’s the lesson:
Even having identified the correct underlying problem, that doesn’t mean that tackling it directly is always going to work. In fact, very often, a direct approach isn’t going to “do” what you expect. It may, in fact, make things worse.
So often, we try to make wholesale changes that create massive disruption. You might find yourself, for example, completely swamped with projects and client work. In that situation, you may think that the solution is to pivot your business model, hire more team members, or create a coaching program. But the truth is if you’re that busy, you probably don’t have time to do any of those things.
The solution is always to start simple, and look for small tweaks you can apply right away. (Tweet this.)
Because with the right pressure applied to just the right place, you will get instant relief. And that’s when you can start the long-term process of building up your strength again.
Just like with me and my shoulder.