Our shoulders, well, shoulder a lot. They carry heavy grocery bags from the car to the counter, toss tennis balls to dogs, transfer the laundry from the washer to the dryer and, if you have a tot, carry him or her from room to room.
But they also carry risks: “The shoulder is especially injury-prone due to its construction,” explains Matt Unthank, a Denver-based strength and conditioning specialist and director of training for Crossover Symmetry shoulder-training system. “The shoulder comprises a combination of many moving parts, offering extensive mobility and endless movement options. However, this is at the expense of stability. And when stability breaks down, even under small loads, pain and injury often result.”
Hence why, by their 50s, 13 percent of adults suffer a torn rotator cuff, research suggests. That number jumps to 31 percent for 70-somethings. Meanwhile, shoulder issues account for more than one-third of gym-related injuries, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. And clicky shoulders (aka shoulder impingement) account for up to two-thirds of shoulder complaints, per one 2014 review.
Basically, because the joint tends to lack stability, it can move too far in any direction, which can lead to injury over time, explains Grayson Wickham, a New York City-based physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. For example, if you don’t have the mobility to raise your arms up and behind your head, and you try, that’s going to wear on the shoulder’s bones, muscles and tissues over time, he says. Similarly, if you try carrying a mattress or piece of furniture up the stairs the wrong way, your shoulder’s going to feel it.
But rather than find a shoulder to cry on, listen up: With a little bit of consistent and targeted training, you can develop greater shoulder stability and range of motion so that you can take on the gym – and life – with a little less fear and a lot more oomph, Wickham says.
This workout is the perfect place to start. Incorporate it into your exercise routine two to three times per week, making sure to rest a full 48 hours between sessions. (Or, if you want, add your favorite of the exercises below to your existing upper-body workouts.)
1. Foam Rolling
Before diving into the exercises, start off with some self-massage work, suggests Unthank, because it’s a great tool for loosening tight muscles in the neck, chest and upper back that cause poor posture and inhibit proper movement of the scapulae, aka the shoulder blades.
Instructions: Position yourself on a foam roller and start by rolling it slowly up and down your upper back several times. When you hit a trigger point or tight spot, stop and focus on that spot for 30 seconds or until the pain slowly dissipates. Repeat on the sides of both shoulders.
2. Scapular Wall Slides
This mobility drill is a great way to train the scapulae’s upward rotation, which a lot of people lack, Unthank says. Just remember to keep a neutral spine and don’t arch your lower back. If you find that too challenging, try this exercise lying on the floor.
Instructions: Stand tall with your heels, glutes and back firmly against a wall. Place your hands and arms against the wall so that they form “goal posts” with your body and your palms face out. If you can, press your elbows and forearms against the wall as well, but if you don’t have the mobility, just keep your hands there. From here, with your chin tucked in and your shoulders, elbows and hands against the wall, slowly slide your arms up the wall as high as you can without allowing your elbows, wrists, shoulders or hands to come off the wall. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform four sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting for 30 seconds between sets.
3. Downward Facing Dog
This yoga posture is useful for opening the front of the chest and shoulders, which are often rounded and tightened from excessive desk work, says Wickham. This pose is all about upper-body strength, which means if you don’t have the shoulder strength, you might compensate by scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. If you notice yourself doing this, Wickham recommends actively drawing your shoulder blades down and together, which will create space in your neck. If the blades begin to tense up, bend your knees and rest on the floor until you’re ready to hold the position again.
Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees. Tuck your toes and lift your hips high, reaching them toward the ceiling. Reach your heels back toward the floor. Drop your head so that your neck is long. As you stay here, alleviate the pressure on your wrists by pressing into the knuckles of your forefinger and thumbs. Breathe here for at least three deep breaths, then reverse the movement to return to all fours. That’s one rep. Perform four.
4. Farmer’s Carries
This strength and stability exercise is largely isometric, meaning it eliminates any movement that could irritate already-aggravated shoulders, Unthank says.
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and hold two heavy dumbbells at your sides. From here, walk forward for as long as you can while holding the dumbbells and maintaining proper form. As you walk, remember to keep your core engaged, shoulders back and chest upright. If you can walk for longer than 60 seconds, switch the dumbbells you’re using for a heavier weight. Each carry is one rep. Perform four, resting for one minute between reps.
5. Bent-Over Rows
This is a great movement to counter poor posture and target all the major muscles in the back and shoulders. It also targets the back of your shoulders, which can be particularly hard to engage, so make sure you are retracting your scaps the entire time you are doing it for the biggest bang for your buck, Unthank says.
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and hold two dumbbells at your sides. Bend your knees slightly and push your hips back until your torso is almost parallel with the floor. Keep your back flat, arms straight, dumbbells directly under your shoulders and palms facing each other. From here, bend your elbows and pinch your shoulder blades together to pull the weights to the sides of your ribs. Make sure to keep your arms close to your body and your elbows pointed directly behind you the entire time. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep. Repeat for four sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting for one minute between sets.
6. Single-Arm Bottom-Up Kettlebell Shoulder Presses
This unilateral (single-side) exercise involves holding the kettlebell upside down, which is quite the challenge for your shoulder stabilizers, Wickham says. Start lighter than you think you’ll need to, he suggests, because even a few-pound kettlebell will quickly feel heavy.
Instructions: Stand tall and hold a light kettlebell, handle-down, against the front of that side’s shoulder. From here, keeping a neutral back and tight core, press the bell straight toward the ceiling so that you end with your arm fully extended and the bell above and just outside of and in front of the shoulder. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform two sets of eight to 12 reps on each side, letting each shoulder rest while you work the other one.
Written for USNews.com