When your shoulder hurts, a commonplace to turn is the internet by searching: shoulder pain exercises.
But what many of these shoulder exercise compendiums don’t tell you is that the shoulder is arguably the most complicated joint in the body. The shoulder is a highly mobile joint made up of many small muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons.
Any one of the structures in your shoulder (or even certain organs via referred pain) may be the cause of your shoulder pain.
Therefore, the best way to manage your shoulder pain is through visiting a skilled physical therapist or physician.
That being said, there are a few exercises that everyone should be performing to keep their shoulders healthy. In this article, I will highlight:
- Some common causes of shoulder pain;
- The importance of exercise in managing shoulder pain;
- 7 specific exercises that can help with shoulder pain and dysfunction.*
*This article is not a substitute for an in-person clinical examination. Everything presented in this post is provided solely for educational purposes. If you are experiencing shoulder pain, consult with a doctor or a similarly qualified medical professional.
You’ll also like:
- Shoulder Workout: The 6-Move Routine For Strong & Healthy Shoulders
- 5 Best Exercises That’ll Help Protect Your Back and Correct Posture
- The Best 30-Minute Dumbbell Back Workout Routine
Causes of Shoulder Pain
As was stated in the introduction, shoulder pain can result from many different causes. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the ones that will respond to and benefit from exercise.
Forward head posture (FHP), rounded shoulders, and generally poor posture can all lead to shoulder pain. The most common issues in this category result from the posture of the average desk worker. These individuals often sit slumped forward, looking at a screen, while typing all day long.
In this position, the shoulders tend to round and protrude forward. In said posture, a portion of the shoulder blade (the acromion) can begin to apply pressure to one of the rotator cuff tendons (and/or other structures).
In short bouts, this posture is not a problem for the body to handle. But when a person works in this position for hours, days, weeks, months, and years; pain can eventually develop.
Besides typical postural issues, other daily tasks can lead to shoulder pain. Certain jobs, many sports, and common activities require people to use their shoulders for repetitive motions.
This may include reaching, lifting, throwing, or any number of other repetitive movements. Regardless, these motions place stress on the shoulder and can lead to pain over time.
The previous two points can cause shoulder pain due to chronic use/positioning. But shoulder pain can also occur due to an acute injury. For example, if a person falls and has to catch herself with her hand, she may develop shoulder pain.
So what can be done to prevent and manage shoulder pain when it develops from one of the above causes? In the next section, I will outline how exercise can help to prevent and treat many of the common causes of shoulder pain.
Importance of Exercise for Preventing and Managing Shoulder Pain
Shoulder pain can be incredibly frustrating and completely debilitating. Luckily, when it comes to the common causes of shoulder pain, exercise is often very effective in managing symptoms.
Furthermore, performing “prehab”, or exercising before an injury occurs, can prevent the development of shoulder pain from ever occurring.
What Types of Exercise are Best for Managing Shoulder Pain?
In general, the goal of any rehabilitative or preventative exercise program is to achieve a full range of motion and an appropriate level of strength. Therefore, an exercise program geared toward reducing shoulder pain should focus on the following areas:
Stretching/Lengthening Tight Muscles
Muscles such as the pec minor and the upper traps are often overactive and tight on many people. This tightness can compress and irritate some of the structures surrounding the shoulder.
Strengthening Weak Muscles
Frequently, the muscles that maintain our posture can become weak and over-stretched. This is often due to our daily habits such as sitting with rounded shoulders.
Strengthening muscles such as the low/mid traps, the rhomboids, and the external rotators of the shoulder can, in many cases, correct postural issues and decrease shoulder pain.
Thus far, I’ve discussed some common causes of shoulder pain, and how exercise can help relieve this pain and/or prevent it from becoming an issue.
In the next section, I will review 7 of the best shoulder exercises that everyone should be doing.
7 Best Exercises to Relieve Shoulder Pain
The following 7 exercises can be performed daily, but they do not need to be. Three to five days a week of dedicated shoulder exercise is appropriate for the management of shoulder pain.
However, there are ways that a person can and should attempt to address shoulder issues daily. For example, maintaining proper posture while seated is critical. Ideal sitting posture (with regards to the upper body) consists of:
- Maintaining a neutral spine;
- Not allowing the shoulders to round forward;
- Keep your head straight and not allowing the chin to protrude (i.e. avoiding forward head posture).
Everyone should pay special attention to his/her seated posture, regardless of whether or not he/she has pain. Good posture must become a habit, or pain and dysfunction are sure to develop at one point or another.
The following exercises should be performed slowly, and with proper form. Over time, these exercises will become easier, at which point modifications can be made in the form of heavier weights, longer holds, or other appropriate progressions.
1. Upper Trap Stretch
The upper traps are the highest portion of a “three-part” muscle located on either side of the spine. This muscle is often noticeable and very defined by many American football players and wrestlers. While this muscle should be kept strong, if it is overactive and tight, it can lead to shoulder pain and dysfunction.
How to Perform
- In standing or sitting, maintain a straight spine.
- Tilt head slightly toward the right side.
- As you tilt your head, rotate your head toward the left.
- To increase the stretch, place your right hand on top of and slightly on the left side of your head. Apply slight pressure with your hand to further stretch the muscle.
- Hold the stretch for 12 seconds and repeat 10 times on both sides.
2. Pec Minor + Biceps Stretch
I can almost guarantee you: if you are a desk worker, you will love this stretch! This is going to open up your chest and stretch out your shoulders in a direction which you (likely) rarely move.
How to Perform
- In standing, clasp your hands together behind your back.
- Standing tall, extend your arms behind you.
- You should feel an intense stretch in your chest and anterior (front) shoulder area.
- If the stretch is too intense for you starting out, grab a towel between your hands instead of clasping your hands together.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.
3. Side Lying External Rotation
This exercise will require some lightweight in the form of a dumbbell or similar object. There are many external rotators of the shoulder, but two of the main muscles of the rotator cuff, known as the infraspinatus and the teres minor, are the primary muscles that accomplish this task.
How to Perform
- Lying on your left side, hold the weight with your right hand.
- Keeping your right elbow lined up with and touching your right side, lift the weight toward the ceiling.
- Your shoulder should make a “pivoting” motion as you perform the movement.
- Perform the exercise slowly and avoid moving to the point of causing any pain in your shoulder or arm in general.
- Complete 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions on both sides.
4. Prone Horizontal Abduction
Exercises that emphasize some of the smaller, lesser-used muscles of the shoulders are essential for keeping you pain-free.
This exercise is difficult for many people, so don’t be ashamed if you have to start with no weight at all. You’ll still be working the mid-traps and posterior deltoids to develop strong, stable shoulders.
How to Perform
- Lying face down, hold a light dumbbell or weight in each hand.
- Arms should remain straight out to the sides, with no bend in your elbows as you slowly lift the weights toward the ceiling.
- Slowly return the weights down to the ground and repeat for 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.
5. W’s on Wall
When you first see someone demonstrate this exercise, you’ll think it is a waste of your time.
It looks so easy! But if you don’t have good shoulder mobility, I promise you: you will struggle with this exercise. It activates many muscles and is terrific for improving shoulder mobility.
How to Perform
- Stand with your head, low back, and buttocks all touching the wall.
- Raise your arms so that they form a “W” shape, with your elbows bent.
- Your forearms, backs of hands, upper arms, and elbows should be in contact with the wall at all times (in addition to everything that is touching the wall in step one above).
- Maintaining the “W” shape, raise your arms up above your head.
- Slowly move up and down through the motion, completing 3 sets of 30 repetitions.
6. Serratus Push Ups/Push Up Plus
You don’t necessarily have to do a push-up to perform this exercise (but you can add in a full push-up if you want to).
This exercise will strengthen a muscle (known as the serratus anterior) that has “slips” along the ribs. It is one of the most underemphasized and important muscles for overall shoulder health.
How to Perform
- On the wall (easiest), an elevated surface (moderate), or the ground (hardest); place hands about shoulder-width apart, at shoulder height.
- Keeping elbows straight, push yourself upward, creating a “rounding” of your upper back and shoulders.
- Return to starting position and perform 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.
Developing strong shoulder and back muscles is essential for health as well as for the management of shoulder pain.
This exercise can be performed with bands, weights, or on a machine. For the purposes of this article, I’ll describe the exercise as it is performed with bands.
How to Perform
- Wrap the band around a stable surface and grasp one end in each hand.
- While standing tall, pull the band toward the sides of your chest/ribs.
- Perform the movement slowly, then return to the starting position, with the arms straight in front of you.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.
The Final Takeaway
In summary, the shoulder is a complicated joint that can develop pain from a variety of causes. In many cases, exercise can help reduce or prevent pain from occurring in the shoulder. However, you should always discuss any pain or medical issues with a qualified provider.
- Terry, G. C., & Chopp, T. M. (2000). Functional anatomy of the shoulder. Journal of athletic training, 35(3), 248–255.
- Murray G. M. (2009). Guest Editorial: referred pain. Journal of applied oral science : revista FOB, 17(6), i. https://doi.org/10.1590/s1678-77572009000600001
- Kim, E. K., & Kim, J. S. (2016). Correlation between rounded shoulder posture, neck disability indices, and degree of forward head posture. Journal of physical therapy science, 28(10), 2929–2932. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.2929