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The 6 Best Shoulder-Saving Exercises

Don't let shoulder pain keep you on the sidelines. Keep your joints healthy and strong with these techniques.
The 6 Best Shoulder-Saving Exercises

Shoulder injuries suck. They can impede training, cause obnoxious nagging pain, and severely hinder your ability to do the YMCA at your second cousin’s wedding. A study from the American Academy of Family Physicians found that an estimated 20% of the population will suffer from shoulder pain at some point in their lifetime.

Thankfully, most shoulder issues are preventable. Unfortunately, most people—okay, most young dudes—would rather drive cross country with ABBA's greatest hits on repeat than attempt a prehab exercise. Maybe you're one of those “bench press every day” types with shoulders that would make a Cirque du Soleil performer envious. For the rest of us, chances are, some prehab and soft-tissue work would serve our shoulders well.

Here are six moves that you can put into a warm-up or training session that can get your shoulders moving, presses improving, and YMCA skills grooving. No ABBA required.

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Recent training wisdom advises doubling your volume of pulls to presses (example: 20 DB rows to every 10 DB presses) to “save your shoulders.” Like other fitness “laws,” there's probably a little room for interpretation—so don't freak out if your pull-press ratio isn't a perfect 2:1—but the point remains that the face pull is a great exercise that can develop your upper traps, enhance posture, and balance shoulder musculature.

How to Do It: Attach a fitness band to a sturdy base at shoulder level. Grab the loose end of the band and walk back until you feel tension. Straighten your arms and let your shoulders come forward slightly. Retract your shoulder blades, squeezing your upper back as tight as you can. Pull the band in toward your face and hold for a second. Straighten the arms back out and repeat for 20-25 reps. This can be done as a filler, or as an exercise all by itself. By doing 100 reps for each upper-body session at the gym, you'll be standing tall and proud. This exercise can also be done with a rope attachment at a cable station.

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Great posture is vital for shoulder function. Knuckle-dragging cave trolls in a constantly flexed upper back position likely experience more shoulder issues than their ramrod-straight counterparts. Hunching forward doesn’t just make you look like a human question mark. It also brings the shoulder blades forward, diminishes sub-acromial space, and prevents your shoulders from functioning as intended.

The fix? Twist. Move the T-spine and reap the benefits of standing straight and moving the shoulders more freely.

How To Do It: Position yourself facedown on a 45% back raise or a GHR, also known as a Roman chair. Situate the crest of your hip at the edge of the pad (too far out may stress the lower back unnecessarily). Keep your torso long and your posture as straight as possible. Twist your middle back as far as you comfortably can to one side. When twisting to the right, pull your right shoulder blade in toward your spine. Push your left shoulder blade away from your spine as you are pulling the right blade in. The same shoulder patterning should be present when you twist to the left (left blade in, right blade out). Repeat for two sets of ten reps on either side with a slow, methodical tempo.

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This exercise can correct poor posture and rebalance shoulder musculature. With practice, it'll have you changing light bulbs like a pro in no time.

How To Do It: There’s a reason you haven’t heard anyone in a gym ask, “What’s your overhead shrug max, bro?” Keep this one light. A full range of motion and a controlled tempo are critical in this exercise, and far more important than the total weight you're moving. Grab a bar with a standard bench grip and press it over your head. Keep your elbows locked in place as you elevate your shoulder blades upward. Contract your traps at the top of the rep and hold the bar there for two seconds. Slowly control your scapula down while keeping tension throughout the entire shoulder complex. Like the face pull, this can be performed as a filler or as a standalone exercise. Eight to twelve reps per set should work nicely.

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Band distractions are a tremendous tool that can serve as an alternative to conventional static stretching. They involve adding band tension to a joint and moving said joint though a comfortable range of motion, opening kinks and restrictions that have developed over the years. This particular variation should serve to free up the shoulders.

How to Do It: Loop a band to a chin-up bar. Face away from the bar. Put the free end of the band around your arm and snugly around the crook of your armpit. Walk out until you get some appreciable tension in the band. While keeping your arm straight, twist your arm up and down (think about twisting a door knob back and forth). The band will aid in pulling your humerus (big arm bone) back into the glenoid (shoulder socket). Perform for 10 twists up and down on each arm.

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This unique move doesn’t look particularly challenging, but the end range nature of the movement will put a ton of tension on the posterior shoulder and place your shoulder blades in a more favorable position posturally.

How to Do It: Lay facedown on the floor. Extend your arms over your head. Slowly bring your arms towards your hips in a slow arcing manner. Reverse the arms back to the starting position over your head. Tension is the key. The seagull should be graceful—an elegant, controlled dive, not a spastically twitching shoulder slaughter. Ten to 15 reps of bodyweight or very light resistance (five pounds or less) should work tremendously.  

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Self-myofascial release (SMR) is all the rage these days. Athletes use it for performance, physical therapists use it for rehabilitation, and you can use it to free up posture and make the shoulders move efficiently. Active release therapy (ART), a subtype of SMR, involves moving the joint while applying pressure to irritated tissue. There is no substitute for having a professional who is certified in ART to examine and work on your shoulders. If time and money are issues, this self-administered technique can aid in alleviating discomfort and enhancing mobility.

How to Do It: Take a lacrosse or tennis ball and position it between a wall and the back of your shoulder blade. From there, move. Keep the arm straight and it over your head (flexion), down (extension), towards the midline of the body (adduction), and out towards the wall (abduction). Fix the ball in place and see what kind of pain-free range of motion you can muster. Get creative. You can even form a 90-degree angle in your elbow and internally and externally rotate the shoulder. After moving the joint through every manageable position, move the ball slightly and try it again. Search for hot spots, “floss” the areas that don’t feel great, and get ready to feel and move better.

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