Lots of people want strong-looking shoulders, but if you want to stay active for life, it’s important to make sure your shoulders are functionally strong, too.
“It is incredibly common to have imbalances or weak shoulder muscles,” says Monica Jones, a certified personal trainer and program director and coach at BASH Boxing. Part of the reason is our lifestyle. “We are constantly moving or holding our arms forward with activities like driving, computer use, cell phone use and side sleeping.”
Over time, this can cause some of our shoulder muscles to become tight and others dormant and weak. This can cause an imbalance between the various muscles in the rotator cuff and larger shoulder joint, leading to shoulder problems down the line.
It’s also normal to have imbalances between the left and right shoulders. “Typically we have a side that is a ‘stabilizing’ side — think of the side that you might hold a subway strap — and another side that is more dexterous — your dominant writing hand,” explains Bianca Beldini, DPT. “It’s common to have one side that is a bit stronger.”
Shoulder injuries and problems are common, because the joint is complicated with lots of smaller muscles and tendons that are highly mobile and unstable, Beldini says. “When a person’s posture is strained, such as in a forward head position from sitting at a desk for hours or ‘text neck,’ this changes the way the muscles interact with the shoulder due to malalignment.” The front of your chest collapses, which pulls the shoulder blades outward across your back, and internally rotates your arms. You end up with tight pecs and stretched rotator cuff muscles, which can lead to instability, weakness, tightness and poor mobility, according to Beldini.
SIGNS OF WEAK SHOULDERS
So how can you tell if shoulders are an area of concern for you? According to our experts, there are a few signs something might be up with your shoulder joints, including:
- Hunched over posture
- Pain when lifting or reaching arms overhead, reaching behind you, sleeping on one side, or doing pushing/pulling exercises
- Neck pain when doing shoulder exercises
- Weakness or fear of putting your shoulder in certain positions
- Inability to lift straight arms overhead or extend them straight out in front of you and fully rotate from palms up to palms down
Of course, because the shoulder is such a complex joint, it’s a good idea to get any issues checked out by a professional (a doctor or physical therapist), as there are many possible causes.
To work on a solid foundation of strength on your own, here are some exercises to try.
8 SHOULDER STRENGTHENING MOVES
BANDED PULL APARTS
“This shoulder external rotation exercise is very effective at activating the key rotator cuff muscles that help improve stability and control of the shoulder joint and contribute to resolving postural and alignment issues,” says Emma Garner, senior physiotherapist and master Pilates teacher at Mojo Pilates. In particular, it activates the infraspinatus and teres minor.
“This exercise is a favorite of mine because you can start it no matter how weak or sore you are — it’s just a case of adapting the range and the load by reducing or increasing the band resistance level,” Garner adds.
The move: Hold a resistance band with your palms facing up. Keep your elbows softly tucked into your sides as you hold the band parallel to the ground. Keeping your shoulders back and down, pull the band apart until it touches your chest while squeezing your shoulder blades together, then return to the starting position. Repeat for 3 sets of 10–15 reps.
FRONT AND LATERAL DUMBBELL RAISE
“These two exercises help to strengthen the deltoids as well as part of the rotator cuff responsible for raising the arm forward or upward to the side,” Beldini says. “I like this combination because it can specifically target the functional motion of abduction (moving the arm away from the body) present in our daily activities: lifting up to get a glass out of the cabinet, brushing your hair, etc.”
The move: Choose a lighter weight for this exercise. Stand up tall with an activated core, and your shoulders pulled back and down. Keeping your arms straight, lift them up in front of your body until they’re parallel to the ground. Lower back down, then raise arms straight out to the sides and lower back down. That’s one repetition. Avoid using momentum and control the movement as you lift and lower. Repeat for 3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.
“This is a great exercise to help stretch the pec minor muscle, facilitate proper shoulder alignment, and cue better engagement of the scapular (shoulder blade) muscles,” says Sara Mikulsky, DPT. “It also helps facilitate proper shoulder alignment and range of motion without the stress of gravity.”
The move: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bend your arms to 90 degrees, keeping your palms facing up and your arms touching the floor for the entire exercise. Slowly slide your arms up overhead as far as you can without letting your ribs and back pop up off the floor. Avoid shrugging your shoulders as you come up. Once you reach the top of your range of motion, slide your arms back down to the starting position. Repeat for 3 sets of 8.
This is more of a stretch than an exercise, but it’ll prime your shoulders to be properly engaged by lengthening the muscle group that is typically tightest and causes imbalance to the upper body, Jones says. “If we begin weight-bearing or impactful exercise with tight pecs, we have a harder time engaging the right muscles or getting proper range of motion and increase our risk of injury. The pec stretch is my favorite warmup to start a workout.”
The move: Get into a “split stance” with your left leg ahead of your right. Put the end of a dowel in the palm of your left hand and reach up and back at an angle. Then, use your right hand to push the dowel into your left to get a deeper stretch. (Don’t twist your body.) Do several reps on this side, then switch sides.
If you don’t have a dowel, you can also stretch your pecs using a doorway. Standing with your elbow bent at 90 degrees, press the inner portion of your forearm against a door frame and begin rotating your body counterclockwise until you feel a stretch through your chest. “Press actively through the arm and only rotate away, do not lean,” Jones recommends.
“This series of exercises really targets all the scapular stabilizing muscles,” Mikulsky says. Because these muscles are small, they don’t need a lot of motion to work.
The move: Lying face down on an incline bench or on the floor, extend your arms overhead with palms facing each other. Pull your shoulders back and down, then, lift your arms into a “Y” position. Gently lower down, and repeat in a “T” (arms out to the sides), “W” (goalpost) and “L” (elbows toward the ceiling bent at 90 degrees, fingertips toward the floor). You can add light dumbbells to make the exercises more intense. Repeat all four exercises for 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
“This is a great exercise because it works the body in a closed-chain position,” Mikulsky says. That means the feet are fixed, but the body is moving, and it helps the muscles of your shoulder, especially theserratus, work more effectively. “Additionally, by completing the row with the plank, the shoulder joint must work on stabilizing, while the scapular muscles must work to lift the weight. This targets all three issues: stability, strength and control.”
The move: Get into a wide-plank position a few feet in front of the cable or resistance band you’re using. You should be able to fully extend your arm forward. Pull the band back in toward your body, stopping when your elbow reaches your waist, then extend your arm forward to the starting position. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 reps per side.
“I love elevated pushups because they allow us to keep great form and achieve a consistent and thorough range of motion,” Jones explains. Many people have limited range of motion in pushups due to tight chest muscles, which means they aren’t getting the full benefit of the exercise. “The elevated pushup can help us create healthier shoulder joints and core strength due to less compensation of our neck and back.”
The move: On an elevated surface like a bench or box, find a high-plank position, shoulders hovering over the wrists and a straight line from head to heels, Jones instructs. (You can also try this on a stability ball, as shown, if you’re a pushup pro.) Bend your elbows, lowering the body in one line while squeezing your glutes to protect your back. “As you press away from the bench, be sure to keep all fingers on the surface, elbows angled slightly inward and pecs engaged. Always keep tension throughout the entire body.”
“This exercise allows you to work on the stability muscles around the shoulder and scapula purely due to the fact that you are working in a closed chain, weight-bearing position,” Garner explains.
The move: Get into an all-fours position on a mat. From here, extend opposite arm and leg, then return to the starting position. “The key is to start with and maintain the best alignment and posture you can,” Garner says. “Be aware of slightly tucking the chin, lengthening the back of the neck, relaxing the shoulders down away from the ears, maintaining a light ‘push’ into the ground to fire up the subscapularis (one of the key rotator cuff muscles) and the idea of lifting the bottom few ribs up into the belly space.”
Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side, completing all reps on one side before switching to the other.
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.