Exercises for Shoulder Pain

by Justin Price, MA on Nov 22, 2017

What can you do to help clients avoid shoulder damage so they can exercise regularly, enjoy daily activities, and reach their health and fitness potential? Start by learning about common shoulder problems and reviewing a range of exercises to keep the shoulders strong and ease the sting of shoulder pain.

Common Shoulder Injuries

Though diagnosing shoulder injuries is outside your scope of practice as a fitness professional, you still need to know the terminology of commonly diagnosed shoulder conditions/injuries so you can communicate effectively with clients. These are the four most common types:

  • rotator cuff disorders, such as tears or inflammation in one of the four rotator cuff muscles and accompanying tendons
  • glenohumeral joint disorders, such as “frozen shoulder” and joint inflammation
  • acromioclavicular joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis
  • referred neck pain, where neck problems cause shoulder pain (Mitchell et al. 2005) Knowing the anatomical elements of the shoulders (see the sidebar “Shoulder Anatomy”) will help you pinpoint clients’ problems, identify musculoskeletal imbalances exacerbating the conditions and design appropriate corrective exercise strategies.
  • Exercises to Correct Shoulder Imbalances

    Shoulder pain usually results from musculoskeletal imbalances in the core structures of the shoulder joints (see the sidebar “Shoulder Imbalances That Cause Pain and Injuries”). Thus, exercise programs to prevent shoulder damage or ease pain must address these imbalances.

    All shoulder-joint exercise programs should begin with self-myofascial release, progress to stretching and then embrace strengthening exercises (Price & Bratcher 2010). If your client complains of shoulder pain, assess likely causes (such as thoracic kyphosis, protracted shoulder blades, internally rotated arms and forward head), and find an appropriate exercise from the options that follow.

    Foam Roller on Thoracic Spine

    This exercise rejuvenates the muscles of the thoracic spine and shoulders by releasing excessive tension, which helps improve excessive thoracic kyphosis and protracted shoulder blades.

    1. Lie on your back over a foam roller with your hands behind your head and chin tucked in (the roller should be perpendicular to your torso).
    2. Bend your knees, tuck your hips to prevent the lower back from arching, and lift your pelvis off the floor.
    3. Roll up and down along the thoracic spine, massaging sore or tender spots for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

    Foam Roller on Thoracic Spine

    Roll up and down the thoracic spine, massaging sore spots.

    Tennis Ball Around Shoulder Blade

    Massaging the muscles that retract and depress the shoulder blades addresses protracted and elevated shoulder blades and prepares the tissues for subsequent strengthening exercises.

    1. Lie down with your knees bent, head resting on a pillow.
    2. With a tennis ball beside one shoulder blade (between the blade and the spine), pull the arm on that side across your chest.
    3. Find a sore spot and hold for 10–15 seconds to release tension, pausing on all sore spots around the shoulder blade.

    Tennis Ball Around Shoulder Blade

    Use the tennis ball to release tension and ease sore spots.

    Thera Cane® on Back of Neck

    This exercise rejuvenates the muscles on the back of the neck to alleviate problems from elevated shoulder blades, a forward head and excessive cervical lordosis.

    1. Sitting in a chair, place the hook end of the Thera Cane on the back of your neck (on the neck extensors and upper fibers of the trapezius muscle).
    2. Apply pressure by pulling the handle of the Thera Cane down and outward; pause on any sore spots you find to release tension.

    Thera Cane® on Back of Neck

    Thera Cane helps release tension at the back of the neck.

    Tennis Ball on Front of Shoulder and Chest

    This exercise releases tension in the muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest, enabling the arms to externally rotate and the scapulae to retract. It also prepares this area for subsequent stretching and strengthening exercises.

    1. Lie face down with arm outstretched straight, palm down.
    2. Place a tennis ball on the front of the shoulder/chest and scoot your body to move the ball to any sore spots.
    3. Maintain pressure for 30 seconds to relieve tension; move to another sore spot.

    Tennis Ball on Front of Shoulder and Chest

    A tennis ball on sore spots prepares the shoulder for stretching and strength training.

    “Why?” Stretch

    This exercise stretches the chest and fronts of the shoulders while strengthening the rhomboids, lower traps and external rotators of the shoulders/arms to realign the entire shoulder girdle.

    1. Stand upright with pelvis tilted posteriorly, arms externally rotated to sides.
    2. Contract the rhomboids and external rotators to help pull the arms and shoulders back while activating the lower traps to assist in pulling the shoulders down.
    3. Hold the contracted position for about 30 seconds; release and repeat.

    “Why?” Stretch

    Rotate the arms externally to your side to do the “Why?” stretch.

    For more information about anatomy and shoulder imbalances that cause pain, please see “Shoulder Pain and Injury Prevention” in the online IDEA Library or in the October 2017 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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    About the Author

    Justin Price, MA

    Justin Price, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

    Justin Price, MA, is the creator of The BioMechanics Method which provides corrective exercise education for health and fitness professionals. He is also an IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and an education provider for ACE, BOSU, TRX, PTAGlobal, PTontheNet, Power Systems and the NSCA. Certification: ACE Education provider for: ACE and NSCA