Fitness Articles

The Importance of Training the Shoulder

Give this Crucial Joint a Boost

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The shoulder is the most moveable and unstable joint in the body. The "ball" in the upper arm is actually larger than the socket that holds it, and with the range of motion being so great, it is susceptible to injury.

To remain stable, it must be kept in place by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Therefore, it is very important to make sure these soft tissues are strengthened to keep the shoulder strong, flexible, more coordinated, and conditioned to handle stress.

There are many daily activities that use the shoulder muscles: lifting groceries, any type of manual labor, household chores, raking leaves, handling children, etc. It is therefore critical that they be able to handle stress well. This is especially true for athletes vulnerable to overuse injuries.

Important small muscles that surround the shoulder joint are called the rotator cuff muscles. They are the key muscles that keep the joint functioning properly. Weakness in any of the four muscles can cause instability, which can lead to numerous injuries.

Exercises that strengthen the shoulder and the rotator cuff muscles can be done at home, work or the gym. You can include these exercises in your regular workout routine or do them separately. The rotator cuff muscles are very small, so be careful not to use too much weight or do too many repetitions. Also, it is important to keep a balance between the front and rear rotator cuff muscles. Many people tend to overwork the front muscles by training only the major muscle groups. They work the back, chest, shoulders, and arms, all of which internally rotate the shoulder. As a result, the muscles used in external rotation are under worked.

Below are some examples for a well-rounded shoulder workout. Click highlighted exercises for explanations and demonstrations.

Internal shoulder rotation exercises

Shoulder press w/ Swiss ball and dumbbells
Dumbbell shoulder press
Push-ups

External shoulder rotation exercises

Reverse flyes w/ Swiss ball and dumbbells
Rear delt raises w/ resistance band
Dumbbell lateral deltoid raise 

External rotator cuff exercises
Make sure to use light weight. The external rotators are small muscles that can be injured easily if you are not careful. Recommended weight is from 2-10 pounds. Limit your repetitions to 6-8 to start, working up to 12.
  • Lying ‘L’ flies – Lie on your right side on a bench. Place your right hand either under your head or on the floor for support. Your left leg should be on top of your right leg, with your knees slightly bent. Your left arm should be bent to 90 degrees at the elbow, with your upper arm to your side, with your left forearm on your lower chest region. Hold a dumbbell with your palm facing in towards your body. The weight should be light to begin with; you can even start with a can of soup. Keeping the 90 degree angle, lift the weight as high as you comfortably can, but still make sure to keep your elbow close to your body. Lower and repeat. Do the same for the other arm.
  • Lying flies – The starting position is almost the same as for the "Lying ‘L’ flies." The only difference is, instead of bending your left arm to 90 degrees at the elbow, you begin with it only slightly bent at the elbow, lying across your mid chest region. Your left palm should be facing in towards the bench as you hold a dumbbell. Slowly lift the dumbbell until your arm is pointing almost straight up. Don’t allow your body to roll. Stay on your side. Lower and repeat. Do the same for the other arm.
  • Side lying abduction - Lie on your side, on the floor or on a bench. Hold a dumbbell with your arm against your side, palm facing into your leg. Slowly raise your arm straight up to 45 degrees, with a slight bend in your elbow. Lower and repeat. Do the same for the other arm.
Internal rotator cuff exercises do not need to be performed because the internal shoulder rotation exercises are training them already. The only exception is for people who have dislocated a shoulder. If you have any questions, please post a question for the experts on the SparkPeople Message Boards.

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Member Comments

  • with my problems with my sholder i think they can help me regain some of my motion in my shoulder . it was fulled with information . thank you very much .
  • Thanks for sharing
  • I would love to work my shoulders more, I know we do some of these things in the group fitness class that I go to, but I am not sure whether or not we are covering all bases.
  • when i froze my left shoulder then 2 yrs later had to have shoulder surgerty on right shoulder in theropy they would have my upper chert with my chin resting on a swiss ball then with dumbells doing flying L's just be carefull not to go to high or use too heavey of a dumbell.
  • Having had a frozen shoulder, I can praise these exercises - but, please check with your doctor if you are having any pain because doing these wrong can really do some damage.
  • I would love to try this but they say I need my right shoulder replace and I also have pain in my left one too. So is this good for me.
  • This corroborates what my OT friend has been saying all along. I used to swim a couple hours a week and I began to have some mild shoulder pain, and when I started to mix it up with some kickboxing, the pain went away. Whatever I was doing with the KB, it was supporting my RTs enough.
  • I have been struggling with left shoulder pain for almost 2 years now - I found the explanation to excersice above very tough to visualize and would sincerely appreciate a video demonstration. thanks so much
  • What if your shoulder hurts? Can you still do exercise? My left one is hurting and I'm afraid it might get worse.
  • This is a start. What I really need is something like a "Couch to 5k" program for my shoulders.
  • Good information. I've had trouble with shoulders and neck for the last few years. As I've gotten back into strength training, I've tried to focus on safely building those areas to avoid future problems. I've saved this article and would also like to see demonstrations of these exercises.
  • This is timely. I have worked in insurance all my life and we get a lot of rotator cuff injuries just because people are not aware of this information. I really appreciate your bringing this to everyone's attention!!
  • SUELEE5
    For someone who overuses her shoulder this is helpful so that I may keep myself strong.
  • Joe, This is a great article: very informative and to the point. Thank you!
  • CATHEITE
    This article was fascinating to me. I am small boned and sometimes have issues with my elbow joints. I had no idea that the shoulders are the most unstable joint in the body. After reading this piece, I will be more mindful of that area as well. Thank you!

About The Author

Joe Downie Joe Downie
Joe, an exercise enthusiast, is a certified physical fitness instructor and high school soccer coach.

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