Best Exercises for Shoulder Pain

If you are struggling with shoulder aches and pains or recurring shoulder injuries, then this article is for you. When it comes to being strong at the push and pull movement patterns such as the bench press, pull-up, push-up, dumbbell row, or any other movement that involves the shoulders, it is imperative to have adequate shoulder mobility and strength.

Many people injure their shoulders with the above listed movements. And it is not because the movements are “bad” exercises. It is because these people are not prepared for the exercises they are performing. Their muscles and joints are not prepared for the exercise, or the combination of exercises at hand.

  • Injury = demands placed on tissues > tissue capacity
  • Rehab = demands placed on tissues < or = tissue capacity
  • Prevention = tissue capacity >> demands placed on tissues

Taking a quick look at the above equations should really shed light on how injuries and aches/pains occur. However, just “getting strong” and building tissue capacity is not enough. You must train smart and through your entire ranges of motion. You cannot just get strong in one part of your range of motion and expect to be strong in other parts of that range. That is just not how our body works. Strength is angle specific.

So to really mitigate your chance of injury, you must make sure you have full ranges of motion in your joints. Secondly, you must create strength, control, and stability throughout all of those ranges of motions. This is the recipe for bulletproofing your shoulders and overcoming your shoulder pain.

Here are 5 of our favorite shoulder exercises for combatting achy and painful shoulders, especially stubborn anterior shoulder pain.

1. Sleeper Stretch for Shoulder Internal Rotation

Shoulder internal rotation is the most common shoulder joint range of motion lost. Normal range of motion for shoulder internal rotation is 70-90 degrees. Having a lack of this internal rotation range of motion puts your shoulder at a greater risk for injury. This range of motion is necessary for various movements and without it, compensations often occur throughout the shoulder girdle. Most commonly seen is tipping/dumping of the shoulder blade forwards, compromising the anterior structures of the shoulder joint. This is especially true in vertical pulling exercises such as the barbell clean.

PRO TIP: The sleeper stretch is often criticized, but when executed properly and safely, it is a phenomenal exercise to normalize shoulder internal rotation. Do not push through pain or pinching with this exercise. You should only feel a deep stretch on the outer part and back part of your shoulder.

PROGRAMMING: 2-3 rounds 3-4 days/week. This is a safe exercise to perform in your warm-ups prior to upper body pushing or pulling days.

2. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder External Rotations

Those with anterior shoulder pain often have “weak” or under-trained shoulder external rotators. Relatively speaking, most training programs do not implement much (or any) accessory training exercises for the shoulders. They target the large prime movers of the shoulders, but neglect the smaller shoulder stabilizers, especially the shoulder external rotators (the teres minor and infraspinatus). Seated dumbbell shoulder external rotations are a fantastic way to isolate these muscles and build strength and endurance. Go light with this exercise and do not use momentum to power through this exercise.

PRO TIP: Keep your elbow that is resting on your knee slightly lower than shoulder height. Do not push into any pain or pinching at any time during this exercise. Additionally, you can slowly lower the dumbbell to work on eccentrically stretching the posterior shoulder to improve shoulder internal rotation range of motion. At no time during this exercise should your shoulder blade tip/dump forwards (keep your shoulder blade stable and immobile).

PROGRAMMING: 2-3 rounds of 15-20 repetitions, 3-4 days/week. This exercise is safe to perform in your warm-up, during rest breaks in betweens sets/exercises, or on its own.

3. Banded Face-Pulls

The banded face-pull combats that nasty posture we all exhibit throughout the day, especially those of us that work desk jobs: internally rotated, adducted, and protracted shoulders with an overly flexed thoracic spine. By working the upper back and posterior shoulder with the banded face-pull, you are working on maintaining an upright/extended spine, while pulling your shoulders into external rotation, horizontal abduction, and retraction. As with all exercises, you should feel no pain or pinching with this.

PRO TIP: While pulling the band towards your face, also think about pulling the band apart horizontally. Keep your elbows high throughout and really focus on hammering your posterior shoulder and upper back. Go light with these. Again, we are working accessory movements and shoulder joint stabilizers, so we are training for endurance with this exercise.

PROGRAMMING: 4-5 sets of 15-20 repetitions, 3-4 days/week. This is a fantastic exercise to implement into your warm-ups to prep your shoulders for upper body days, or to superset with a heavy pushing exercise.

4. Band Pull-Aparts

Banded pull-aparts again are a great exercise to hammer the posterior shoulder and upper back musculature. They again help reverse that poor posture we all unfortunately exhibit by training shoulder external rotation, horizontal abduction, and scapular retraction. Hold on to the band in a supinated grip (palm facing upwards) to really target shoulder external rotation. From here, you can vary your grip width to make the exercise easier or harder. Pull the band apart only until it taps your chest. Slowly and controllably return to the starting position.

PRO TIP: Keep tension in the band at all times. Perform these slowly or you are short-changing yourself. There is no need to pull your arms back farther behind your back, just tap the band to your chest.

PROGRAMMING: 4-5 sets of 15-20 repetitions, 3-4 days/week. Like the banded face-pull, this is a fantastic exercise to utilize in your warm-ups or to superset with heavy pushing exercises.

5. Kettlebell Arm-Bar

The kettlebell arm-bar is fantastic for improving shoulder joint stability, especially reactive stability due to the offset weighted nature of the kettlebell. This exercise really works on maintaining shoulder joint centration (joint alignment/spacing from optimal co-contraction of all the shoulder joint stabilizer muscles). Once holding the kettlebell in this position becomes easier and more second-nature, you can add in axial shoulder joint rotations to further challenge your shoulder joint reactive stability.

PRO TIP: Do not go too heavy with this exercise. This is a common fault we see and contradicts the purpose of the exercise. Remember, we are training reactive stability and endurance of the shoulder joint, not brute strength.

PROGRAMMING: 3-4 sets of 5-6 repetitions, holding each repetition for 15-30 seconds. Perform 3-4 days/week. This is fantastic for prepping the shoulders in your warm-ups or performing it on its own.

There you have it! 5 of our favorite exercises to combat painful and achy shoulders.

As always, we do not recommend you taking this information as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor before implementing strengthening exercises or starting a training program. For optimal results, we recommend consulting with a qualified physical therapist or chiropractor who understands human movement and strength training. This is because musculoskeletal pain requires a thorough physical/movement-based assessment to identify your individual limitations and needs before specific rehab exercises are prescribed.

Frustrated with your painful or achy shoulders and have tried these exercises without much success? Reach out to us for help! We can even help find you a qualified healthcare professional to help you in your area.


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