The Ultimate List of Exercises for Shoulder Pain
Shoulder pain affects millions of people each year across the world.
It’s one of those unfortunate conditions that can make everyday living quite a struggle, whether you’re an elite sportsperson or a mum of three.
Often it is hard to determine the root cause of the issue, and people either carry on their everyday lives in pain, or they resort to extreme measures, such as pills, cortisol injections and in some cases even surgery. It’s all quite worrisome, given the risks of those treatments…
However, you’ll probably be glad to hear that extreme measures can be avoided, and the majority of shoulder pain cases can be mitigated by a few simple changes in posture and alignment.
In this article, we’ve collected together the best resources on the web to help you combat shoulder pain, so you can start to move freely again and start to live the pain free life you were meant to enjoy.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain
There are a number of possible causes of shoulder pain, but the main ones typically include:
1. General inflammation
When the body is inflamed due to a poor diet, stress, or underling illness, joints may be become sore. The solution is to eliminate the cause of the inflammation by making lifestyle changes.
2. Acute injury
An acute injury usually occurs because an external force has been applied to the joint, damaging the muscles or connective tissue. The solution is typically to rest the joint, and in some cases surgery may be required. This should be followed by mobility exercises to regain movement.
3. Muscular imbalances
The alignment of your posture and the relationship between the feet, hips, back, neck and shoulders can cause shoulder impingement, where the shoulders are pulled forwards and the connective tissues in the shoulder joint become abraded. This can usually be rectified by addressing common posture issues, bringing the shoulders back and down so they rest in a more favourable position.
General Guidelines for Shoulder Health
As well as performing the below exercises, there are a few guidelines that you should probably consider when it comes to maintaining overall shoulder health:
- Avoid exercises that worsen pain. Certain movement patterns such as overhead pressing with the elbows flared out, or typical bench pressing may place undue stress on the shoulders and increase the risk of injury. Avoid troublesome exercises and retrain movement patterns that are causing issues.
- Avoid overtraining. Overtraining not only increases the risk of inflammation, it can also increase your chances of injury, as you are less likely to concentrate and hold good form. Ensure that you are getting enough good quality sleep and healthy food, and remember that ‘no pain no gain’ isn’t always the smartest way to approach training.
- Be mindful of posture. How you carry yourself throughout the day can have a massive impact on the health of your joints, particularly the shoulders. Aim to keep your pelvis neutral, your head tall, and your shoulders rolled back and down. Avoid sitting whenever possible, and keep your body moving.
- Choose complexity. There’s an adage in the world of movement and fitness that the shoulders respond to complexity, whereas the hips respond better to simplicity. In simple terms, that means that simple exercises with the barbell are suffice for the hips, whereas exercises that require more stabilisation (such as those with dumbbells or gymnastics rings) are good for shoulder health, as they encourage the activation of the small stabilising muscles. So with your upper body exercises, opt for complexity whenever possible.
Testing Your Shoulder Mobility
Before you begin with the exercises below, it may be worth testing your shoulder mobility so you know what you’re working with.
The video below from Emmet Louis will help you do just that:
In the video Emmet talks specifically about shoulder mobility for handstands, but the same applies for everyday shoulder mobility.
Exercises for Shoulder Pain
Onto the exercises!
Be warned that there are plenty to choose from below, and trying them all at once may be a little overwhelming for some of you.
Instead, pick 3-4 and perform them for 10 minutes every morning, gradually building up to more when you feel comfortable.
1. Shoulder Dislocates
Shoulder dislocates sound pretty gnarly, but they are actually one of the best exercises you can do for overall shoulder health and mobility.
As Reddit user dm0r points out in his excellent guide to shoulder dislocates:
“In my years of coaching a broad range of people, I haven’t found an exercise that’s more “bang for your buck” for shoulder health, mobility and strength than the shoulder dislocate. Not only will it put your shoulder joint through its full range of motion to aid in gaining/maintaining mobility, but it will also help strengthen it along the way in all of those small areas and corners you may not otherwise be addressing.”
To perform the dislocate, hold a pole or bar out in front of your body, gripping it wider than shoulder’s width. Then you’re going to rotate your shoulders up, back and down, keeping hold of the band or stick.
Check out the video below for a better explanation:
When you become more comfortable and your mobility increases, you can slowly begin to add a small amount of weight to your bar. Just don’t go crazy – this isn’t the type of exercise you want to be aiming to beat world records with… It’s easy to overdo the dislocates and cause more harm than good.
15-30 slow, careful repetitions should help to free things up.
2. Chest Stretch
As mentioned above, posture is a big contributing factor when it comes to most shoulder pain.
Due to being hunched over a laptop, sat behind a steering wheel, and often focussing too much on pushing exercises at the gym, many people have tight pectoral muscles. This often causes the shoulders to roll forwards, leading to impingement and pain.
To take things further, you can push your arm into the doorframe to add an eccentric contraction to the stretch, helping to trick the nervous system into improving your flexibility further.
Contract on the out breath for four seconds, then relax on in the inhale, taking the stretch a little deeper. Repeat three to four times before switching sides. Push to slight discomfort, but never to the point of pain.
3. Lat Stretch
Just like the chest muscles, the lats are another common area that tightens up due to poor posture and exercise habits.
If you’re not quite sure where your lats are, they’re the large muscles on the outside of your back (where your wings would be if you could fly).
To stretch them out, follow the Diesel Strength and Conditioning video below:
Again, like the chest stretch this can be made into an active stretch by pulling down on the support, contracting for four, relaxing for four. Just be careful not to overdo it, and listen to your body.
4. The Modified Child’s Pose
This popular yoga pose targets both the chest and the lats, giving you a double helping of shoulder health. It also feels extremely relaxing, and some people use it as a meditation pose.
Here is a good demonstration of the standard pose below:
To make the stretch a little deeper, shift your hips to the side, elongating one side of your body and stretching that lat/chest area out even further. 20-30 seconds each side should be beneficial.
5. Neck stretches
The neck is a key part of the posture equation.
As mentioned above, many of us in the domesticated world spend a fair amount of time sat down with our necks and heads straining forwards.
Your head is in fact one seventh of your body weight, which is pretty substantial. To support the head, your body adapts by shifting weight underneath it, which happens to cause your shoulders to roll forwards…
There are a number of great exercises you can perform to regain motion in your neck and bring it back into proper alignment.
In the video below, the guys at Body Blueprint take you through a few stretches for the tight problem areas. (the traps, scalene elevator scapulae and sternocleidomastoid) as well as helping you to strengthen the mid back.
Be especially careful when stretching the neck – it’s definitely not an area that you want to injure anytime soon…
If you’re looking to explore more treatment options for neck pain then check out this blog post.
6. Shoulder Rotations
As well as stretching the areas around the shoulder and neck, you’ll want to also introduce some movement. For this, a resistance band can really come in handy.
Some of the most effective resistance band exercises include external rotations and Cuban rotations, both of which help to strengthen the mid back and rotator cuff muscles, improving overall shoulder health and pulling the shoulders back and down.
The San Diego Personal Trainer gives a great demo in the vid below:
7. Horizontal Rows
As mentioned numerous times already throughout this article, many imbalances and shoulder injuries occur because the muscles at the front of the body are overdeveloped, whereas those in the mid back are weak.
It makes sense then to attempt to strengthen those muscles in the mid back, in order to undo the imbalance and help roll those shoulders back.
Richard Geres shows a basic version with a resistance band below:
If you want to take things further, you can perform rows on the underside of a table, using a barbell, or even with gymnastic rings:
8. Thoracic Mobility
The mid thoracic is an area of the spine that can sometimes become locked up, again because of our modern lifestyles and lack of natural movement. When the thoracic is locked up, your lower back, hips, shoulders and neck may compensate, leading to all sorts of unwanted issues.
The old cat-cow stretch found in yoga and Pilates is a great one of opening that mid thoracic area, shown below by the guys at Howcast.:
The T-extension on the foam roller is also another great exercise, demonstrated below by Dr. Josh Renkens:
9. Myofascial Release
Stretching and strengthening certain muscle groups is all well and good, but if you’re someone who’s had previous shoulder injuries or prolonged pain, you might need something a little extra.
That’s where myofascial release comes in, a technique used to break up muscle fascia and release tightness.
Naudi Aguilar from Functional Patterns demonstrates the most effective techniques for shoulder problems below (along with a few stretches.)
10. Improve your Hip Mobility
Just in case it’s not clear by now, everything in the body is connected, and if there’s an issues in one area, you can bet it’s gonna have a knock on effect somewhere else!
Tightness in the hips or a misalignment can cause issues with the shoulders, so it important to maintain free movement.
The techniques shown below by the masterful Ido Portal should be good enough to get you started: