When it comes to workout routines, most people tend to focus on muscle groups that they can see or feel working immediately—think legs, butt, abs, and arms. Smaller muscle groups, on the other hand, tend to be an afterthought (if they're even a thought at all).
Take your shoulders, for example. While you might think about working the visible muscles, the deltoids, it’s less likely you spend time in the gym thinking about how to do exercises that work the smaller muscles that stabilize your shoulder joint, Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness in New York City, tells SELF.
Unfortunately, ignoring the less-obvious stuff might be a mistake. As far as aches and pains go, annoying shoulder trouble is common, and shoulder injuries can happen gradually or all of a sudden. And like many other injuries, it's tougher to fix the damage once it’s done than it is to prevent it.
Granted, a well-rounded workout program will incorporate shoulder work through overhead exercises and compound upper-body moves. And for the average person, this totally can be adequate shoulder training. But it may not be enough if your go-to exercises and activities involve lots of shoulder effort, which you may not even realize they do.
To be clear, if you experience any sort of sharp, stabbing, or persistent pain in your shoulders, you should absolutely consult a doctor or a physical therapist. (Here’s how to tell the difference between normal soreness and a potential injury.) But for some people, the shoulders are just a persistent weak spot and may cause discomfort during workouts if they aren’t quite strong enough to keep up with the bigger muscles during a move.
Here's the lowdown on why shoulders are so susceptible to discomfort and how to strengthen and stabilize them—and, importantly, how to know if you should be paying more attention to yours.
The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body—which makes stability a challenge.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but there's more going on in the shoulder than you might think. Anatomically, the term "shoulder" technically refers to the joint itself, so we're talking bones here. Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint (like the hip), which means the head of bone has a round, ball-shaped surface that fits into a cup-shaped depression in another bone.
As far as joints go, "your shoulder has the most range of motion and is structurally the least stable," Dave Del Vecchio, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., regional clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy, tells SELF. (Think about it: You can move your shoulder in a whole lot of ways.)
This is where the rotator cuff comes in. The rotator cuff is made up of four little muscles that keep the ball in the socket, and they wrap over the shoulder and attach to the bone in the space in between the ball and the socket. Having strength and stability in these muscles is crucial for keeping your shoulders in place and working the way they should, but there are a few things that can get in the way of this healthy functioning.
Shoulder issues often stem from poor posture over time.
There's no sugar coating it: Many of us spend big portions of our days hunched over a computer or desk or leaning forward while driving. And while you might think this contributes more to problems like neck and back pain, the body is one big connected chain, so this position can set off a ripple effect of problems that can have a major effect on your shoulders.
When you hold a muscle in one place for an extended period of time, it starts to tighten up, or shorten. When you spend your whole day hunching in a forward position, "this creates shorter muscles in the front of the body and the pecs, and that will create dysfunction in the shoulder," says Tamir.
This is because the tight muscles then pull down on your shoulders, and as they round forward, the space between the ball and the socket gets smaller, explains Del Vecchio. When this happens, "it leaves less room for the rotator cuff to glide and move around," he says. This creates a pinching sensation on the ligaments of the rotator cuff that attach there, so small tears (or micro-injuries) can happen over time (and can lead to a more serious tear down the line).
Sports that require overhead motions, like swimming and tennis, are tough on rotator cuffs, too.
Any activity that has you repetitively moving your arms overhead can also create wear-and-tear in your rotator cuffs over time. Think tennis, swimming, baseball, softball, and even dodgeball. "If you put your arm over your head and start trying to create a movement or a function above your head, your rotator cuff has to work harder [because] the ball wants to ride up in the socket, and the rotator cuff is meant to keep it down," says Del Vecchio.
And if you're throwing something, it has to work even harder to stabilize the shoulder and control its range of motion. "You're basically moving your arm as fast as you can overhead, so [the rotator cuff] has to slow down that movement so your shoulder doesn't pop out of your socket every time you throw a ball," Del Vecchio explains.
Boxing is another sport that can wreak havoc on your rotator cuffs if you're not careful, because there's actual impact. "Boxing's not an overhead sport, but you are hitting things, so you do need that strength and stability in the rotator cuffs when you're doing uppercuts and things like that," says Tamir.
Of course, sports and activities like these aren't bad to do. But if you do them regularly (or any kind of motion that relies on your shoulders, for that matter), it's especially important to make sure your rotator cuffs are strong to avoid quick impact injuries or gradual wear-down over time.
There are a couple of simple exercises you can do to help keep your shoulders healthy.
If your shoulders do tend to give you trouble or you participate in overhead activities, there are ways you can—and should—build up rotator cuff strength (in addition to being mindful and trying not to sit in a hunched position as much).
"Our rotator cuffs usually act isometrically, which means they're holding the contraction when the bone is in the socket," says Del Vecchio. (When a muscle works isometrically, is basically means that the work is done by contracting and holding the muscle in place for a period of time—a plank is a great example of an isometric exercise.) "If you build up the endurance and strength of your rotator cuff, it'll enable your body to hold the ball in the socket for a longer period of time, in the right place, in the right posture."
There are a couple of effective exercises to help with this, according to Tamir. Incorporate them into your warm-up a couple times a week (especially before overhead activities), and aim for 12 to 15 reps each. Feel free to start out with fewer reps if you need to, and build up to more as you get stronger.
- Start by lying on your right side, with your head resting on your right arm.
- Place a rolled-up towel under your left upper arm and on top of your left ribcage. Hold a light dumbbell—start with 2 pounds—in your left hand.
- Bend your left elbow so that your arm forms at a 90-degree angle at the elbow and your left hand is in front of your body.
- Keeping your upper left arm pressed into the towel, slowly rotate your left hand toward the ceiling, then lower it back to the starting position.
- Do 12 to 15 reps, then switch sides.
- Stand with your upper back and arms against a wall with your elbows bent (so your fingertips are facing the ceiling).
- Without letting your shoulder blades or arms break contact with the wall, slide your hands up the wall, straightening out your elbows.
- With control, reverse the movement to bring your arms back to the starting position.
- Do 12 to 15 reps.