We neglect our shoulders at our own risk. Most of the things we do during the day—reaching, pushing, pulling, lifting, swiping—rely heavily on our shoulders. But because the shoulder joint is so highly functional, it’s also complicated and prone to injury. And so when we ignore our shoulders, or let them get weak, or subject them to repeated aggravating stresses, we’re asking for trouble.
To prevent shoulder injury, we need to exercise our shoulders to keep the muscles and joints strong and healthy. But we also need to remain aware of the exercises and movements that could be causing injury through overuse or unnecessary stress.
Shoulder Exercises at Home to Stay Strong
Fortunately, it’s easy to perform shoulder exercises at home. You don’t need any expensive equipment. Just some free weights or resistance tubing will do the trick.
It doesn’t take much time, either. Pick a few exercises from the list below, and you can be done in 15 minutes or so. For your next session, mix it up and try a few different exercises.
First, Though, Which Shoulder Exercises Should You Avoid?
In general, you want to avoid exercises that compress the rotator cuff, that group of muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint. Problematic exercises can include:
- Lateral raises with palms or thumbs down
- Behind-the-head shoulder press
- Upright rows
- Triceps bench dips
- Single-arm rows (when performed with poor form)
10 Shoulder Exercises at Home
The exercises below are great for strengthening the shoulder and keeping it healthy. Accompanied by everyday shoulder stretches, these should keep you pain-free and functioning for years to come. As always, lay off any exercise that causes pain, and seek medical advice if pain persists.
1. Shoulder Press
Begin seated or standing with a dumbbell in each hand, or standing with a resistance band anchored under your feet. You don’t need heavyweight or resistance. Hold the weights or the ends of the bands at your shoulders with your palms facing forward and your elbows bent. Slowly extend your arms overhead, hold for a second, then slowly return to the start position. For a variation with even less stress on the shoulder, hold your hands so that your palms are facing toward your head rather than forward.
2. Lateral Raise
This one can also be performed with free weights or with a resistance band anchored under the feet. You’ll often see instructions for this exercise that tell you to keep your thumbs and palms facing down, but we just told you not to do that. Thumbs up, please! Turning your thumbs slightly toward the ceiling will help protect your rotator cuff. While holding the resistance in each hand, raise your arms out to the sides until you’re in the T position. Stop there, then return to the start.
3. Front Raise
Similar to the lateral raise, but this time you raise both arms in front of you rather than to the sides.
4. Single-Arm External Rotation
For this exercise, use resistance tubing or bands anchored to a wall. With your right side facing the wall, hold the tubing in your left hand. Your left arm should be bent at a 90-degree angle, with your elbow by your side. Now rotate your arm so that the hand pulls the resistance tubing away from the wall while your elbow stays by your side. Slowly return to the starting position. Perform the exercise on both sides.
This is a simple feel-good stretch. While on your hands and knees, arch your back up and lower your head while exhaling and tilting your pelvis back. This is the cat. Then inhale as you raise your head, tilt your pelvis, and curve your back in the other direction. This is the cow. It’s fun.
Less fun than cat-cow. Begin standing, then lean forward to put your hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward one at a time like an inchworm until you are in a plank position. Then walk your hands back toward your feet, stand, and repeat.
7. Push Up
You know what a push up is. Love it or hate it, it’s a great exercise that you can do for free. Nobody’s stopping you.
8. Plank and Side Plank
A plank is like a push-up, but without the pushing up part. Sound easy? Okay, try holding that position for a minute. Or try doing a side plank, where you rotate your body as you lift one hand in the air, then slowly rotate back to a plank position, then you rotate again on the other side. Remember cat-cow? That was fun.
9. Plank Shoulder Tap
Instead of rotating, take one hand off the ground and tap the opposite shoulder. Then do it with the other hand. Then back to the first. Etcetera. You might need to widen your feet a bit to keep your balance.
10. Plank to Down Dog
What’s with all the animal poses? Begin again in the plank position. Without moving your hands or feet, shift your body back so that your bottom rises into the air. Keep your back flat and your arms straight until you form an inverted-V shape. This is how the dogs do it when they’re playing. You’re not playing; you’re strengthening your shoulder. Now reverse the movement back to plank. Repeat.
What if Your Shoulder is Already Injured?
If your shoulder is already injured, you can still benefit from shoulder exercises at home. However, your doctor or physical therapist is best qualified to prescribe specific injuries for whichever shoulder problem you might have.
Often a shoulder injury can be healed with rest and time, but you need to be careful not to aggravate an injury to make it worse. You also don’t want an injured shoulder to become frozen, which is another aggravating way our shoulders can make our lives difficult.
If your shoulder injury affects your range of motion, your doctor may recommend exercises using a shoulder pulley. Shoulder pulley benefits are numerous. But at its most basic, a shoulder pulley allows you to passively move your joint through its range of motion without putting unwanted stress on the muscles, joints, and tendons.