Being Proactive About Shoulder Pain: Exercises to Prevent Pain

Whenever I see someone in the gym moving their arm in big circles while holding their shoulder, I know they’re not stretching or exercising. It’s a telltale sign of shoulder pain. While no amount of arm circling will make the pain go away, there are exercises you can do to prevent pain in the first place. And you should do them regularly, along with your usual weight training routine.

It’s a fact that when you lift weights regularly, you put stress on body. Repetitive motions and underdeveloped muscles that are trying to compensate for imbalances can cause inflammation and friction in vulnerable spots such as shoulders, knees, and back. While you may think that strength training alone is enough to protect yourself from injury, in reality you need to take special measures to protect vulnerable areas.

Taking Charge of Your Shoulders

Last winter after about two months of pain on the outside of my shoulder, I realized it wasn’t going to go away and I’d better address it before it got worse. Thankfully, x-rays showed that I had some minor impingement and no ligament tears, so I began physical therapy. It’s a good thing I did, because after only about six PT sessions and ongoing maintenance exercises, I no longer have any pain.

A few months ago a personal trainer saw me doing rotator cuff strengthening exercises and commented that I was smart for preventing shoulder surgery. I guess if wanting to continue doing what you love is smart, then that’s me!

I always cringe inside when I hear about someone needing shoulder surgery. While it often solves the pain problem, it’s not a pleasant experience and the recovery is long. So if you experience shoulder pain over a period of weeks, go to your doctor. If you don’t wait too long you’ll probably be able to recover with physical therapy and ongoing exercises/stretching. If you’re not experiencing pain, do these exercises regularly to strengthen your rotator cuff. Incorporate them into your weight training routine three times a week (if using very light resistance bands, you can do them every day).

My Favorite Preventative Exercises

My favorite rotator cuff strengthening exercises are the ones my physical therapist prescribed for me. You’ll need a light-resistance Thera-Band or a cable machine using light weight. See the Thera-Band Academy web site for descriptions and photos of these exercises.

  • Shoulder External Rotation
  • Shoulder Internal Rotation
  • Shoulder Extension
  • You can also do the Shoulder Extension from the back. Stand with your back to the tubing. Grasp the handle and pull it towards you, keeping your elbow and wrist straight. Don’t pull the tubing past your body.

Important: With all these exercises, keep your shoulders back and down. Avoid overhead motions until your shoulder is better.

Stretching is Important Too

Here are a couple of my favorite shoulder stretches:

Walking Wall Stretch: Stand a few inches from a wall (facing the wall). Slowly raise your arm overhead and walk your fingers up the wall. Once you feel a stretch, lean into it slightly and hold for a few seconds. Lower your arm and repeat 10 times. Repeat with the opposite arm.

Cane Stretch: Lie on your back. Hold a stick or cane with one end pressing into your left hand and your left elbow bent. Press the cane gently into your hand and allow your arm move externally while keeping the bend in your elbow. Return to the starting position and repeat slowly 10 times. Repeat with opposite arm.

Question: Do you have shoulder pain? What have you done about it, if anything?

14 thoughts on “Being Proactive About Shoulder Pain: Exercises to Prevent Pain

  1. Preventative exercise is key! I’m keeping my recurring back pain at bay by doing regular preventative exercise. Great post, you really nailed it.


  2. Just discovered your blog– love the common sense approach to exercising and injury prevention. I know I’ll get a lot out of it and look forward to more reading!


  3. Doh! So now I’m thinking that my lack of stretching the shoulder region may have contributed to that injury. And I still don’t think I stretch the shoulders good enough currently. I’m fixing that as of right now. Thanks, Suzanne!


  4. really good article. Its so important to use exercise to actually help prevent injuries before they creep up on you. Your shoulders can play a massive part in this as they are also linked to back and neck pain.


  5. I have been experiencing BIL sholder pain for some time. I workout regularly( a mix of strength training w/ weights and crossfit). I have gone to my orthopedic doc and have no tears but some impingement in my acromioum process(where most of my pain is). I have had three rounds of cortizone shots in both shoulders w/ little effect. The next step is an orthoscopy which I really don’t want to do. I am a career firefighter and don’t want to be on “light duty” for any extended period of time. I am wondering…would these excersised work for my problem???


    • Hi Stephen, have you tried rest and physical therapy? I’m not a medical professional, but when I had shoulder impingement three years ago those were the two things that worked.


  6. I have tried rest and “self” physical therapy but I have never gone to a professionsal. Im probably being stubborn but after not getting much help out of seeing the ortho guys and decided to just venture on my own. I have not tried the specific excersises you have listed above but have done some other light weight shoulder excersises. The road will probaby take me to therapy but I wanted to exhaust all my options before going to spend money and possibly having to take time of full duty.


    • I understand that perspective; everyone has to find the right way for them. My approach with any injury has been to do PT first. It’s time-consuming (1 to 2x/week) and can be expensive without insurance. But I’ve found that within about six weeks the injury has healed and I’m ready to do some self-maintenance. Worked that way with my knee, shoulder, and most recently my elbow:)


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