Having fussy shoulders can make upper-body workouts challenging. If traditional shoulder exercises like the overhead press cause shoulder pain or discomfort, you’re probably not going to want to target that muscle group often. That’s where a gentle shoulder workout comes in clutch, since neglecting your shoulders—and the muscles around them—is actually not the solution that you may think it is.
That’s because strengthening key areas around your shoulder complex plays an important role in shoulder health and the ability to lift discomfort-free.
Here’s how: Many times, shoulder discomfort arises due to mobility, stability, strength, or posture issues, Katie Andrews, PT, DPT, MS, physical therapist at Pace West Physical Therapy, tells SELF. A lot of us tend to be stronger in our pectorals (chest muscles) and biceps than in our rotator cuff (a group of four small muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint) and back muscles. This is often due to habits in day-to-day life, like the hunched-forward posture many of us fall into while staring at computers or phones, as well as gym routines that favor our frontside muscles more than those in the back.
These muscle imbalances, combined with the limited shoulder and spinal mobility that lots of folks have, pull our shoulders out of optimal alignment. So when we head to the gym to do upper-body lifts like overhead and chest presses, we end up performing those moves with our shoulders in subpar positioning. This often results in the pain and discomfort we feel in our shoulders.
So what can we do about this? Building strength in those muscles that surround the shoulder muscle, stabilize it, and help it move is vital. For instance, strengthening the rotator cuff can help alleviate shoulder pain and discomfort by ensuring the shoulder is properly stabilized as it moves. Strengthening backside muscles, like the rhomboids (which retract your shoulder blades), can make a difference, too, since that helps pull the shoulder into correct positioning and counteracts the ill-effects of poor posture.
Andrews created the gentle shoulder workout below for SELF that hits on all of this. This four-move shoulder workout is ideal for people with shoulder issues: The routine doesn’t include any overhead pressing—a movement that commonly bugs folks with sensitive shoulders—and focuses instead on those exercises that may even help alleviate some of your shoulder pain. It’s a gentle workout focused on improving mobility and strengthening the small muscles that surround your shoulder, rather than a super-intense routine aimed at lifting heavy or hitting PRs.
The exercises in this workout are gentle enough that you can do them five days a week, says Andrews. It’s also fine to do these shoulder moves every other day, she adds. (Additionally, if you’d like, you can keep doing other upper-body exercises, like bicep curls and triceps extensions, as part of your routine as well, as long as they don’t bug your shoulders.)
Quick caveat: If your shoulder pain is bad enough that it disrupts your activities of daily living (say, it hurts to put on a shirt or wash your hair) or stops you from participating in things you enjoy (like sports), check in with a doctor or physical therapist before trying this routine. They can help determine the underlying issue, and ideally develop an individualized program to remedy your discomfort. (Here’s how to tell when you should see a doctor for shoulder pain.)