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Shoulder shape-up: Keep your body’s most flexible joint in top condition

Add strengthening exercises to your regular workout. They also help to recondition stiff and painful shoulders.

The shoulders are extraordinarily flexible and have many moving parts, but this also leaves them vulnerable to the effects of disuse. “The shoulder joint has very few bony constraints, so it’s happiest when it’s moving a lot,” says Dr. Matthew T. Provencher, chief of the Sports Medicine Service at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. You can keep your shoulders strong and limber by including some simple stretches and strengthening moves in your regular workout.

When shoulders are in shape

The shoulder is actually made up of four different joints. They connect the upper arm bone (humerus), shoulder blade (scapula), and collarbone (clavicle). A network of muscles, tendons, and ligaments allow the bones to swing, swivel, and twist.

“There are at least 17 muscles around the shoulder joint that need to be coordinated and working well together for optimal function,” Dr. Provencher says.

When everything is in good shape, you can hang a picture, lift heavy boxes onto high shelves, whack a baseball, swing a golf club, and tote groceries like a champ without pain. A physically active life, incorporating a variety of motions at work and play, keeps the various components of the shoulders working well.

Preventive maintenance for your shoulders

Add these exercises to your regular routine to keep your shoulders fit. Do them using an elastic resistance band or gym equipment. Use enough weight or resistance so you can do 8 to 12 repetitions without straining too much. Do two to three sets, with brief rest between.


Standing row

Pull the handle toward your mid abdomen while keeping your forearms level.

Illustrations: Alayna Paquette

External rotations
Without jerking, slowly rotate your arm away from your abdomen.


Internal rotations

Rotate your arm toward your abdomen.

Causes of shoulder problems

You are not likely to develop shoulder problems if you spend your days picking berries, hurling javelins at antelope, or hoeing rows of corn. But for many men today, shoulder motion ends up being confined to a box-shaped space in front of them. “Computer work, desk work, and leaning over for long periods while reading—these all put the shoulder in a very disadvantaged position,” Dr. Provencher says.

As a result, muscles, tendons, and ligaments get out of shape and unbalance the forces in the shoulder. This leaves you open to injuries when you attempt to push, pull, lift, and carry. “As we get older, it’s even more magnified, because we lose a bit of strength in the muscles and things can get very tight,” Dr. Provencher says.

Red flags of a deconditioned shoulder include pain in the back of the shoulder blades and along the sides of the shoulders. Overhead lifts, like when you put things onto an upper shelf, may be painful. “It’s usually activity above shoulder level, with your arms raised, that really sets it off,” Dr. Provencher says.

Keeping shoulders in shape

If your shoulders are stiff or sore from inactivity, Dr. Provencher says, they can benefit from a wake-up call. “You need to stretch muscles that are too tight and exercise and stretch muscles that are not strong enough.”

Try these stretches:

  • Cross-body stretch: Gently pull each arm across your chest. Hold for 10 seconds.

  • Lateral walk-ups: Stand next to a door or wall and use your fingers to slowly walk your arm upward.

  • Shoulder blade squeezes: While sitting or standing, push your chest out and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for 10 seconds.

Don’t rush into a lot of intense stretching, lifting, and pulling. Give your shoulders time to loosen up. Applying some heat before exercise and/or a cold pack after can help.

Also, add some shoulder-strengthening exercises to your daily fitness routine. You can find many other moves to try in books, online, or by consulting with a certified health club trainer.

Of course, if you have an existing shoulder condition like arthritis or bursitis, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. A physical therapist can provide guidance for your specific problem.

If you have any signs of a more serious shoulder condition, see a doctor. Red flags include pain that intensifies over time, lasts more than four to six weeks, gets worse at night, or prevents you from carrying out normal shoulder motions.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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