Every year, millions of people visit the emergency room with shoulder pain, while millions more are treated for acute or chronic shoulder pain by their regular doctors. Since almost everything you do with your upper body travels through this joint from arm to trunk, it’s easy to understand why shoulder injuries are so prevalent.
Aside from being one of our most used joints, the shoulder also has a greater range of motion than any other joint in your body, making it one of the least structurally stable. Read on to learn more about how to build strength and flexibility in your shoulders.
Shoulder Stability for Athletes
As an athlete, you rely on your shoulder quite a bit, whatever sport you pursue. Baseball, football, and martial arts all rely on the ability to use your shoulder through a full range of motion. When the shoulder is hurt, your level of play suffers, and often it’s impossible to keep competing. One of the keys to preventing injury, especially as you age, is to make shoulder strength and flexibility a focus in your workout regimen.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder
Your shoulder is an amazingly complex network of bone, muscle tendon, and ligaments. While your shoulder is comprised of a ball-and-socket joint, where the ball at the top end of your humerus meets the cup of your scapula, it’s a very shallow cup. In reality, the mating is almost entirely maintained by the soft tissues. While the rotator cuff, which has no doubt sidelined an athlete from your favorite sports team before, gets a lot of attention, a tear or sprain in any of these tissues can be incredibly painful and leave the remaining structures more prone to injury.
Getting Warmed Up
Before starting your shoulder exercises, or any exercise, start with some gentle stretches to limber up. The key is to apply gentle, even pressure at the apex of your stretch. Don’t push it too hard, people can and do injure themselves stretching too far. The idea is to loosen tight muscles and get the blood flowing through the extremities.
These are some favorites that focus on the shoulder area:
This helps limber your deltoids and your traps.
- Bring your arm laterally across your chest, elbow facing away from you.
- Place your other arm in front of your elbow, forming a cross.
- Apply gentle pressure with the front arm.
You should feel this stretch across your shoulder blades and along the top of your shoulder from the neck downward. Keep your lateral arm straightened to get the most benefit.
This stretch is very similar to the first, just rotated 90 degrees upward.
- Reach up and over your head, elbow out.
- With your opposite arm, reach over and grasp your elbow.
- Pull gently toward the midline of your body.
You should feel this pull up the side of your body through your lats and into your arm. Bending your vertical arm at the elbow, so that the hand of your stretching arm is reaching down behind your head, will also give you a nice tricep stretch as a bonus.
The favorite of elementary school gym teachers everywhere, as windmills help warm up your rotator cuff to reduce the chance of rotational or repetitive motion injuries in the shoulder.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms held straight out to your sides.
- Start with small, forward rotations at an even, measured pace.
- Slowly increase the size of the circles, but keep your motion controlled.
- Once you’ve reached the largest rotation you can, shake your arms out.
- Repeat the process with a backward rotation.
Building Strength Throughout Your Range Of Motion
When exercising to increase strength, it’s important to remember that the shoulder is comprised of complementary structures. Focusing on a single grouping and ignoring others will not add stability, in fact, you run the risk of increasing instability. Adjust your routine to make sure you’re working the entire shoulder, and you’ll have much better results.
Tools Of The Trade
If you have access to a full gym — great, but a lot of people don’t or don’t have the chance to get to it as much as they’d like. Luckily, there are some really great shoulder exercises that require minimal equipment, but can just as easily be done with machines at a full-service gym. If doing these at home, a barbell or set of dumbbells is recommended, but in a pinch gallon jugs of milk or water weigh approximately eight pounds.
It’s always good to err on the side of caution when choosing the appropriate weight, as starting too heavy will result in an injury. Lighter weights provide plenty of resistance, especially when you hit muscles that aren’t used as often.
Slow And Steady
When one people are learning a new technique, teachers often start slow at first, with first repetitions being performed at half-speed or less. The same principles apply when lifting weights. Your focus should be on form, both to maximize your results and reduce the risk of injury. Keep your movements slow and controlled as you perform these exercises. This is a good idea with any weight training, but especially when working the muscles around joints.
If you already have a preferred rep/set pattern, you can work those first and then perform these additional exercises after. Complete these exercises in three sets of eight reps each, resting at least a minute and a half between sets and exercises. Three is a good mid-range set number that should allow you to gain strength and muscle volume in a balanced manner. If you can’t do eight reps, feel free to lower the rep count a bit, but you will have better results in the long run if you lower your weight instead.
The Front Raise
This exercise works your pecs, delts, traps, and lats,so it is great for the muscles that work your shoulder across the front of your body. It also makes the biceps do some work, so you can put on a more impressive gun show.
- Grip the barbell overhand with hands and feet at shoulder-width.
- Stand up straight so that the bar rests on your thighs.
- Take the weight off your thighs and hold about five inches away from your body
- Slowly lift the bar to shoulder height, keeping your arms straight.
- Hold for a second before lowering back to your thighs to repeat.
The Lateral Raise
The lateral raise works the top of the shoulder, focusing on your traps and delts. These help stabilize your shoulder during lifting and carrying. If you’ve always wanted to get all the grocery bags in one trip, this exercise will have you well on your way.
- Transition from the front raise into the lateral raise.
- With the same foot positioning, let the dumbbells hang at your sides, palms facing in.
- Keeping your arms straight, raise your arms to the side until they are at shoulder height.
- Hold for a second.
- Slowly, return to the starting position.
If this causes shoulder pain or you are rehabbing an injury, rather than facing in, turn your palms to face forward, thumbs upward. This should relieve some of the pressure while still giving you great results.
Romanian Deadlift Into An Overhead Press
We’re going to start this routine as a Romanian deadlift.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, back arched.
- Hold your weights in front of you, palms facing you.
- Straighten your legs, keeping you back tight and arms in close to the body.
- Tighten your glutes as you reach a standing position.
That is the Romanian deadlift, and it is great for the glutes, quads, and most importantly, your back, all of which your shoulders rely on for support during lifting, turning, and throwing motions.
- From this standing position, lift the barbell up until it is at chest level.
- Keep your hands in tight as your elbows pull outward into a 90-degree angle.
- Your upper arms will form a straight line across your shoulders.
- Slowly, keeping your elbows bent, rotate your arms at the elbow.
- Lift the weight in an arc that takes them from chest level to head level.
- Now straighten your arms, extending the motion into an overhead press.
This exercise will absolutely blast your shoulders through their entire range of motion. Respect this exercise, go slow, and don’t overestimate the weight you can handle. Even small dumbbells will feel like bricks by the time you are done.
Incline Dumbbell Fly
While these other exercises don’t require anything other than dumbbells, the dumbbell fly does require another piece of equipment. You will need something that allows you to sit or lay with your back at a 45-degree angle or less while being narrow enough to allow free arm and shoulder movement to either side. An inexpensive weight bench is perfect, lacking that, a narrow reclining chair will work.
- In the reclined position, stretch your arms out to the side, elbows straight and palms up.
- Bring your arms together in front of you, keeping your elbows straight.
- Open your arms slowly, being careful not to overextend to avoid dislocation.
This exercise works your both pectoral muscles, as well as the muscles that make up your delts.
Dumbbell Reverse Fly
This exercise can be done on a bench, however, if you don’t have access to one, it can be done without.
- Lay flat on bench or standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
- If standing, you should be bent forward, but keep your back neutral to avoid injuring your lower back.
- Let your arms hang, palms facing each other.
- Keeping your arms straight, lift the dumbbells laterally.
- You will feel this exercise pull through your shoulders and across your back
Be careful between sets. Standing up quickly from a stooped position, especially after exertion, can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure. Take a few extra moments and move slow.
Listen to Your Body
Your body is a machine, and an incredibly complex one at that. If you are already an athlete, you are pretty self-aware of your body’s “normal”. If not, then it can be especially hard to understand the difference between an ache and an injury. It is normal after starting a new routine for your body to complain; that’s part of it building muscles tissue and flushing lactic acid from your muscles. What isn’t normal is sharp, stabbing pain.
Keep your senses tuned to any irregular pains, as well as the sound or feeling of grinding or sharp pops, as these are also major red flags. Additionally, if your shoulder remains overly stiff for more than a few days or feels “loose”, it could be a sign of injury.
Fitness is a lifetime commitment, and a slow, steady start to any routine is better than being sidelined by an injury. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t start these exercises without consulting a trained medical professional. If these symptoms start, give the routine a break and go talk to a doctor.
Shouldering The Load
By adopting a structured, safe, and effective exercise regimen that focuses on your shoulders, you can make sure they stay healthier, longer. Increased strength is directly applicable to life, whether through sports like martial arts or through an extremely physical, labor-intensive job. Increased flexibility is key in later years to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. With a little work now, you can have both.
About the Author
Bryan Carlos is a fitness expert and Krav Maga instructor based in Los Angeles, California.
He loves to contribute articles about fitness and health to various media outlets.
When he’s not writing or teaching, Bryan enjoys running on the beach with his dog, Bobo.