Your shoulders are to your upper body strength, what Harrison Ford is to a ’90s blockbuster: essential for success. It’s an extremely complex joint and while some joints need mobility, others require stability – your shoulders are sat firmly in the former category and we’re going to look at some effective exercises for shoulder pain to keep them mobile and happy.
This requirement becomes even more evident as you surpass your 40th year. If you’ve ever nursed a shoulder injury, you’ll be amazed how much is involved in the joint and the muscles that keep it intact. While most people look at the shoulder and might think that all it’s used for is pressing weight overhead, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s what you need to know about understanding your most complex and important upper body joint structure so it keeps doing its job for decades to come.
TRAINER: Kevin Kearns – nutrition consultant and strength and conditioning coach specializing in aging at burnwithkearns.com
Exercises for shoulder pain weren’t needed in the good old days
If you look at your ancestors you’ll note the combat perspective of your shoulder. The first weapon known to man was a rock and then a stick. It does not matter where your DNA is from, at some point your ancestors were throwing things to gather food or fend off enemies.
When you look at the complexity of the movements that you need to do all the tasks required for life, huge shoulders that only move in one plane of direction can definitely lead to an untimely death in a variety of ways. This means endless hours of shoulder pressing should not be your first choice for developing the endurance, grip strength and elasticity you needed back then and now.
One of the first instances of people strengthening them in a rotational way involved Indian clubs that popular in the late 1800s. Fluidity of movement was important when people first started to train them, largely because the movements themselves done with the Indian club implements were oddly similar to sword fighting 300 years prior.
Kettlebells were also on the menu and many of the movements were similar to yoga poses and wrestling moves popular in the 1800s.
How our shoulder health deteriorated with time
This was the smart approach, but then we lost sight of that and our obsession with heavier weight and behind-the-neck presses came to the forefront. The kettlebells and Indian clubs were pushed aside to make way for sitting down supported and pressing weight overhead. This lends itself to being completely non-functional and decreases the amount of muscles engaged.
The challenge with pressing motions is there is only one range of motion versus three. The shoulder being mobile likes to move in three ranges of motion (forward, lateral and rotational). Flexion and extension are all necessary and so are adduction, abduction and rotation. If you don’t train these ranges of motion weekly, if not daily, you are doing a disservice to your shoulder joint.
A paper in Sports Health found older athletes are at a greater risk of rotator cuff pathology and stiffness (often known as frozen shoulder), which may limit participation in exercise.
So what is a guy to do to keep his shoulders healthy in the long term? Well, here’s how to fill you in with some specific ways to keep your shoulders healthy so you can do the same for the rest your body.
Pillars of shoulder health
1. Rotational strength
3. Grip in both the hand and the joint
Building your pillars with the best exercises for shoulder pain
Best shoulder health exercises: Indian Club-bells
- Increased range of motion
- Core strength
- Ligament flexibility
- Strengthen supporting muscles
If you don’t have a set of Indian clubs, get some. If West Point is using it for cadets, it’s a safe bet everyone should be. The challenge is that as you buy Indian clubs that go north of weighing 5lb, they can get expensive. As a work around you should get small a set of 2-4lb sledgehammers. Many of the same movements that are done with Indian clubs can be performed with small sledgehammers.
Yes, care has to be taken not to hit your head but you will get all the benefits of Indian club work without the expense of the fancy wooden ones. Once you have your hammers employ the following hammer time workout twice a week. Here’s a video demo of the exercises below:
1. Shoulder swings
Take the hammers in front of you while you are standing and swinging them in lateral motion from right shoulder height to left and right. Do 1-3 sets of 20 reps.
2. Roof block
Start in a standing position with the hammers extended in front of you then perform a half circle around the head one side at a time. Very similar to stick fighting block. Do 1-3 sets of 20 reps.
3. Iron T
Start in a standing position with the hammers dropped behind your back and elbows pointed at the ceiling. Now extend both arms to sides in a “T” fashion. Do 1-3 sets of 20 reps.
4. Cut up and cut down
Start in a standing position with the hammers at thigh height then do slow slash cut on the up and then reverse the cut on the way down. Alternate hands. Do 1-3 sets lasting 60 seconds each.
Second best shoulder health exercises: Kettlebells
- Increased range of motion
- Resistance is always changing
- More fluid movements
- Strengthen supporting muscles
- Serious grip strength
Kettlebells are excellent tools for shoulder stability, rotational strength, grip and full body connectivity as well as flexibility. Use the following circuit twice a week.
1. Kettlebell snatch
Why it works: As far as a full body and shoulder workout there is little comparison. The kettlebell is preferred because it’s single arm work and it’s contralateral rotational force to the whole body. It also takes much more control with the kettlebell versus the dumbbell. Hold the kettlebell between your legs as you squat down. Now in explosive motion jump and pull the kettlebell up your body and your arm should be fully extended when kettlebell lands. Do 1-3 sets 10- 20 reps.
2. Turkish get ups
Why it works: This is an oldie but goodie especially for overall shoulder strength and flexibility. Plus it will raise your heart rate like no other lifting exercise. Now if you are not able to perform the full exercise there is still tons of benefits in half Turkish Get Ups in the realm of shoulder strength and flexibility.
You can also use other implements other than kettlebells such as medicine ball or water jug to enhance central nervous demand. These are a beast and are very similar to a wrestling or MMA move. Lie on the floor with the kettlebell extended in one hand.
Now roll to our opposite elbow as you push down on your same leg. Now the fun part with the kettlebell fully extended stand up while you keep your eyes on the kettlebell. Then return to the floor.
Do 1-3 sets 3-5 reps each side.
3. Push press
Why it works: This is excellent at increasing strength, balance and grip strength. What’s more, it relates well to the later movements by enhancing their productivity. This is very similar to a kettlebell snatch and will prepare you for heavier snatches. Start with the kettlebell in one arm and your arm in a bent position. With an explosive motion squat down and explosively press the kettlebell upwards. Do 1-3 sets 5 -10 reps
Third best shoulder health exercises: Bodyweight
Why is bodyweight your best option? That is really simple, its’ always with you. Bodyweight training for stability, mobility, endurance, and strength is one of the smartest ways to train. There’s no excuse that you don’t have it with you or don’t have time. With a little imagination you can get a great workout in every plane of motion.
Why it works: These are a time tested shoulder strength and shoulder integrity exercise. This also can be manipulated with and without equipment. 1-3 sets start with 10 reps and build up to your age.
2. Lateral push-ups
Why it works: This is a great way to work the shoulder in a dynamic way in the frontal plane. 1-3 sets 10-20 reps.
3. Rotational push-ups
Why it works: Just as the name sounds you can add a traverse plane motion to this exercise which raises the range of motion as well as the functional strength of the shoulder.
1-3 sets 10-20 reps.
4. Stability ball push-ups
Why it works: Putting your feet on the stability is great for increasing core strength. Placing the hands on the stability ball seriously increases the dynamic strength on the complete shoulder girdle. 1-3 reps 10-20 reps.
5. Pull ups
Why it works: To keep your shoulders healthy pull ups or inverted rows are necessary to keep your shoulders healthy for the long term. We could go into detail but just do them without throwing yourself over the bar. 1-3 sets 5 -20 reps.
Why it works: There are many moves from yoga that will keep you shoulders healthy and more fluid as you get older. Try doing 1-3 sessions each week to maximize your shoulder health. 20 -90 minutes.
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