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Best Shoulder Exercises to Injury-Proof Your Upper Body

A simple, orthopedist-approved routine to make sure you can still lift stuff long after your kids are too big to be picked up.

Chances are, your shoulders are a sore spot. As if the growing burden of lifting and carrying your increasingly heavy children wasn’t bad enough, aging causes additional stiffening of the shoulder joints, making even routine lifts a potential hazard.

According to certified orthopedic manual therapist Richard Sedillo of Arizona Manual Therapy Centers, the joints themselves aren’t to blame for the stiffness of your tight shoulders. Rather, it’s the limited range of motion of the parts that aid in your upper body movements that strain your shoulders, causing them to overwork.

“For shoulder pain, it’s important to assess the whole complex,” Sedillo says. “There are 96 joints in the spine. If just one of those doesn’t move properly due to injury or strain, then the other 55 joints absorb the work to make up for the loss of motion. Initially that’s okay, but over time it creates stiffness.”

As such, protecting the shoulders needs to encompass stretching and strengthening the parts of the body that aid in overhead range of motion, namely the ribcage and hips. “If your range of motion is limited to lifting your arm only three-fourths of the way up, and treatment for your shoulders isn’t helping, it’s because these other parts haven’t been stabilized and mobility hasn’t returned,” Sedillo says. “You need to fix these other things to restore shoulder mobility.”

Here are eight shoulder exercises to protect your upper body. As with all stretches, aim to hold for 30 to 60 seconds without overstretching. “Stay within the midrange of the stretch,” Sedillo says. “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 an emergency room visit, stay at about a five. It should not be painful and you shouldn’t feel any post-stretch pain — that’s when you’ve stretched the muscle beyond its normal range and it’s contracted back.” And that would just defeat the purpose of this workout.

Anterior Shoulder and Biceps Stretch

Why: This stretches the front of the shoulders, the back of the ribcage, and the erectors of the thoracic spine, as well as your hamstrings. “Make sure your rib cage can go up and down without restriction,” Sedillo says. “This stretches the back and lets the ribs go down toward the pelvis so you can go up higher.”

How to do it: Sit on the floor with your hands resting behind your body. Slowly scoot your lower body forward, keeping your hands in place. Once you feel a stretch in your shoulders, hold this position. Tip: Make sure to keep your back and elbows straight during the exercise.

Child’s Pose Stretch

Why: This stretches the lats, triceps, scapulas, and ribcage as well as the posterior parts of the shoulders. “This expands the ribcage outward like it’s an accordion and stretched the interior and exterior capsules of the shoulder,” Sedillo says. “The capsules are the leathery covers of the joints that hold the synovial fluid in. If you damage one of these and don’t move it, the muscles around it shorten and your movement will become limited.”

How to do it: Begin on all fours. Sit your hips back while reaching your arms overhead and lowering your chest to the ground. Hold this position. Make sure to relax into the pose and try to sit your bottom back to your heels as much as possible.

Cross-Body Shoulder Stretch at Wall

Why: This stretches the shoulder without over-rotating the joint and helps with impingement. “It’s hard to maintain an anchor when you’re going across the body,” Sedillo says. “The wall stops some of the rotation motion. You’re also getting the scapula to go around the ribcage, to help the ribs move with the scapula.”

How to do it: Begin in a standing upright position next to a wall, with one arm across your body and your shoulder resting against a wall. Lift your arm in front of your body and rest your shoulder on the wall, then grasp your elbow and gently pull it across your chest until you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder and hold.

Corner Pec Major Stretch

Why: This stretch creates mobility throughout the thoracic and cervical systems. “See how your ribs expand all the way up and down, like the suspension arm of a car,” Sedillo says.

How to do it: Begin in a standing upright position facing a corner. Place your forearms flat on the wall on each side of the corner with your elbows at shoulder height. Slowly lean forward, taking a small step if needed, until you feel a gentle stretch in the front of your shoulders. Hold this position. Tip: Make sure to keep your upper back and neck relaxed. Do not shrug your shoulders during the stretch.

Doorway Rhomboid Stretch

Why: This stretch hits the shoulder blades, pulling the ribs and lats with them. “You’re promoting a deeper stretch for the upper quadrant — the rhomboids, lats, intercostals,” Sedillo says.

How to do it: Begin in a standing upright position to the side of a doorframe. Hold onto the doorframe across your body at shoulder level with one hand, then slowly lean your body in the opposite direction. Hold, then relax and repeat. You want to maintain a gentle stretch and to avoid shrugging your shoulders.

Modified Standing Sleeper Stretch at Wall

Why: This stretch improves mobility in the ribcage as well as stretches the scapula and a portion of the lower cervical spine. “Everyone sits in a flexed position, never in an extension position,” Sedillo says. “This stretches the capsules of the shoulders to allow for normal range of motion with internal rotation. It’s not fun to do, so be mindful not to take it past a five.”

How to do it: Begin in a standing upright position with one arm bent 90 degrees across your body, and your shoulder resting against a wall. Rotate your trunk away from your arm, then apply a gentle downward pressure on your bent arm, just above your wrist, until you feel a stretch in your shoulder and hold.

Doorway Hip Flexor Stretch With Chair

Why: This stretch gets into your hips and hip flexors. “If your hips aren’t moving, your lower ribcage isn’t going to move well, either,” Sedillo says.

How to do it: Begin in a standing upright position in the center of a doorway with a chair in front of you. Place one foot on top of the chair, then slowly press your hips forward as you raise your opposite arm overhead. Use the doorframe for support as needed. Tip: Make sure to maintain an upright position and only move in a comfortable range.

Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch With Tri-Planar Reach

Why: This stretch focuses on the ribcage, lats, and shoulder capsules. “By limiting the movement of the lumbar spine, you’re stretching the hip flexors and can see how tight things are,” Sedillo says.

How to do it: Begin in a half-kneeling position. Slowly shift your weight forward and hold briefly, then reach your arm overhead bending at your side and rotating your torso. Hold, then relax and repeat. Tip: Make sure to keep your core and butt muscles engaged and your hips facing forward during the exercise.

Negative Pull-Ups

Why: While stretches are essential for injury-proofing your shoulders, you need to also focus on strength training that is a bit less rough. Negative pull-ups are the perfect shoulder-strengthening exercising, with less jerking and strain.

How to do it: Pull up a box to a bar so that you’re nearly eye-level with it. Jump up to a bent-arm hang and slowly lower yourself down to a full hang. Drop, get back on the, and repeat for three sets of 12.

Grip Strength

Why: You can give your shoulders a break — and increase your lift load— by improving your grip strength. “You need good grip strength to improve your shoulder strength,” Sedillo says. “If you’re only at 70 percent of your full capacity for grip strength, the other 30 falls to your forearms and shoulders. Weak shoulders are often actually a weak grip.”

How to do it: One of the easiest ways to improve grip strength is with a dead hang. Simply hang from a bar with an overhand grip for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, working your way up to one minute. It’s harder than it sounds.