How To Injure Your Shoulders

My shoulders have always been tight and really dense for someone my size. Jon says I “walk like a guy” and Javi says I have a “butch walk.” It’s okay with me, but it’s worse when my legs are sore and don’t really bend my knees. Then, I walk like a macho a-hole. I had gotten used to the tightness so when my shoulders loosened up after a deep massage, it was strange to not feel stiff… This is normal?

I’ve been in denial, but the inevitable finally happened… an injury (dun dun dun!). It’s not bad and I don’t even know if I can call it an “injury” since it’s nothing compared to a torn ACL. I felt pain in my sternum, my shoulders were fatigued, and I’m taking it easy for a while. I hurt myself by over-training.

Muscles, Tendons, & Ligaments*
Instead of focusing on building muscle mass, we strengthen our tendons and ligaments for overall martial arts training which includes, but is not limited to: handling weapons, withstanding qín ná (擒拿, joint locks) techniques, and manifesting jìng (勁, martial power). Weak tendons and ligaments lead to injury. We do build some muscle, but over-developed muscles can reduce arm and leg speed (thus, also power) and tighten the tendons and ligaments. When Dr. Yang asks for volunteers for qín ná demonstrations, he picks the guy with the biggest muscles because that person probably has tighter tendons and ligaments and is therefore easier to lock.

(*Tendons connect muscle to bone. Ligaments connect one bone to another.)

White Crane Qigong with weights

White Crane Qigong with weights

I’ve been using weights to strengthen my tendons and ligaments and I added too much too soon. This is what I had been training for my arms and back:

  • Speed Training: Striking/blocking with 1 lb per hand for 5 min as fast as possible
  • White Crane Qigong: Last semester, I was up to 5 lbs per arm for 20 min. Sometimes I practiced jìng (勁) training with 1 lb for a few min.
  • Taiji Ball: ~20 min 2x per week
  • Push Ups & Pantherhops: 4x per week
  • Pull Ups: Max was 6 in a row (now less)
  • Front Dips & Chest Dips: Max was 15 (much less now)
  • Cinder blocks: 3 min throwing and catching
  • Staff: Patterns (stationary feet) — 15-20 reps up and down, drawing circles in both directions with one end of the staff and then the other, half circles. Mixed patterns & moving stances — 1 min per arm.
  • Bags
  • Saber and Staff drills with a partner
  • Sequences: Qí Méi Gùn & Qí Méi Duì Gùn with the 10 lb staff starting in February

And I was so happy with my progress! Dangit!

It felt good using the weighted staff and then switching to the regular staff. The regular staff was so light and fast! I didn’t think the weighted staff was that heavy, but I guess my body did. Although I felt fine, all the other training built up layers of tightness and knots and the staff training pushed me over the edge.

I took note of what happened (in much greater detail than most people would care to know) so that I (and my future students) won’t get injured in the same way.

Order of events:

  • Tue 2/11: Started using the 10 lb staff for 1 or 2 reps (of sequences), gradually increasing up to 4-6 reps in a day, 2-4 days/week.
  • salonpasWed 2/26: Sternum ached, but only when I caved it (like for péng 掤). Shoulders were really tight and during our weekly massage lesson, got my first deep shoulder massage. Muscles felt sore and weak so I rested them until Monday. Also used Salonpas heating patches at night (and kind of became addicted to them).
  • Tue 3/4: Felt much better and was ready to train like normal. When I started Gōng Lì Quán for sequence training, my sternum hurt so much that I stopped. Javi had me contort my body until I felt a lot of pain, then he did some stretching and it opened something up, causing the pain to move towards the right side along my rib cage. We thought this was a good sign so the pain could start moving outwards. Javi showed me exercises for healing: White Crane Qìgōng pattern Baby Crane Waves Its Wings (幼鶴抖翅 Yòu Hè Dǒu Chì), hard Qìgōng / resistance by pushing against a wall or someone, stretches with & without a resistance band, and rolling the shoulders in all different angles. I also did other soft Qìgōng patterns as healing exercises.
  • Wed 3/5: Stiffness moved towards the right side of my neck so Javi massaged and stretched it. He also did some energy healing without making contact with me, and I could really feel him moving the Qì along my arm! The Qì even got stuck at my hands and I had to move them to release the energy.
  • Thu 3/6: Right side was more sore (a good sign? things are surfacing?). During meditation, did grand circulation and felt the Qi getting stuck in my shoulder. During White Crane Qìgōng, felt light pinches on back of shoulders. Only did slow walk-throughs of sequences so as to not to further aggravate shoulders.
  • Fri 3/7: Right shoulder was better, but started to feel some pain in left shoulder (a good sign?). I rubbed the knots near my collar bone and they got bigger (probably aggravated).
  • Sat 3/8: Jon tried a different massage technique he learned while in S. America. Instead of using a lot of pressure to press and rub around the knots, he used one or two fingers to gently press and roll over them. The next day, my left arm and elbow started to ache and I think it means the problems were surfacing (a good sign).
  • Mon 3/10: Left elbow had been a little strained since the beginning of the semester but it was minor. Now it was aching more as the pain moved to my left shoulder and down to the elbow. Before going to bed, I massaged elbow and it along with my right upper arm started to get so warm that it woke me up within an hour.
  • Thu 3/13: I let people do qín ná on my left elbow and it popped a “good” pop, like tension being released. I felt about 70%, so I did 70% of my usual training. Went all out in sequences but did fewer reps than usual. Minor chest ache on left side.

It’s been about 2 ½ weeks since the pain occurred and I think I’m finally far enough in the recovery process that I can start rebuilding again. With our training schedule, we’re always going to have shoulder issues so we have to deal with them. I’m eager to start pushing myself but I have to know my limits.


  • Add weight and/or intensity very gradually.
  • Do exercises to balance out your training.**
  • Stretch. Including areas I often neglected like shoulders (many angles), elbows, forearms, wrists.
  • Practice massage on yourself and find a partner for hard to reach areas.
  • Use heating patches on affected areas.
  • Listen to your body. Know when to ease up or stop. Know when you’re in the rest & recovery phase and when you’re in the rebuilding phase.
  • Have patience. Learn what’s going on.*** Train other areas.

**I was told by my teacher in Andover and by a visiting masseur that the type of training I’ve been doing works out the anterior & lateral deltoids but leaves my posterior deltoids under developed in comparison. I need to do pulling motions (e.g. pull a resistance band in front of me towards my body) or free weight exercises like lateral raises, bent over lateral raises, or reverse flyes.


***Pain or discomfort in one area could mean a problem stemming from a different area. The pain started in my sternum and my shoulders were tight, but the overworked areas also included my elbows, wrists, and upper and lower back.

I welcome advice from others who have had similar injuries and/or are in the healing/medical fields.

Stay healthy! (Or as healthy as you can be)

Related Post: Reprogramming (torn ACL and damaged meniscus)

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