Your body’s most versatile joints are also the most vulnerable to long-term wear and tear. Here’s how to limit the damage and keep your shoulders strong.
Our shoulders and their ability to move in virtually every direction are pretty amazing. In youth, they help us swing across monkey bars or throw a ball. In adulthood, they help us do chores around the house and enjoy hobbies like golf, swimming, or Zumba.
But this versatility comes with a trade-off. Our shoulder joints are held together with the equivalent of rubber bands. And what happens to rubber bands over time? They wear out.
“The biggest challenges to your shoulders come from decreases in tissue strength and elasticity as the body ages,” says Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer who specializes in injury rehab in Edmonton, Alberta.
As those muscles and connective tissues get weaker and more brittle, Somerset adds, we change the way we use them. “The shoulders end up in less than ideal positions to reach overhead or to do different daily activities,” he says. Movements that felt easy and effortless when we were younger start to feel awkward and often painful.
Consider, for example, your rotator cuff, a set of four muscles that help lift your upper arm from your side and turn it in or out. According to one study, rotator cuff problems hit 30 percent of us in our 60s, rising to 62 percent in our 80s.
And rotator cuff damage is just one of several potential problems. The more we use our shoulders for lifting or reaching overhead, the more we wear down the protective cartilage in our shoulders, making us susceptible to osteoarthritis.
There’s also bursitis. Repeated overhead movements can irritate and inflame the bursa, which are small fluid-filled sacs that act as a joint’s built-in shock absorber.
Your best defense against this wear and tear is to avoid exercises that exacerbate it, Somerset says. So because of that, we’ll start with warnings about what not to do. The next best thing is choosing exercises that can help your shoulders stay both strong and mobile in the long run.
Of course, if you have a shoulder injury or recurring shoulder pain, check in with your doctor to get proper diagnosis and treatment.
The Worst Exercises for Your Shoulders
The simplest workout rule is also one of the hardest to follow: Don’t do anything that hurts.
Why is it so difficult? If you’re an experienced lifter, you probably don’t like to be told that you can’t do an exercise that worked when you were 30 or 40, even if it now irritates your shoulder. Or if you’re new to strength training, you may not realize you rubbed your joints the wrong way until it’s too late.
To avoid shoulder pain, Somerset recommends two guiding principles.
1. Avoid Exercises That Keep Your Shoulders from Moving Independently
“The more restricted the movement is, the harder it can be on the shoulders,” Somerset says. That’s because our shoulders aren’t precisely symmetrical, either structurally or functionally. One may sit higher than the other, and because you use one side more than the other, there will be differences in the size and strength of the muscles acting on the joints.
At the top of the no-try list are shoulder and chest presses with a barbell. Some machines are even more restrictive. For example, the Smith machine, a barbell that slides on rails, locks your shoulders into a fixed vertical path—something human shoulder joints are not meant to do.
Other machines are a mixed bag. The ones with independent levers, rather than a single fixed arm, may work well for you. The only way to know is to try each one using no or low weight and see if your shoulders feel better or worse after you finish. You can always add weight gradually.
2. Avoid Extreme Ranges of Motion
Just because your shoulders can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, Somerset says, especially with weights in your hands or when you’re working against your bodyweight.
For starters, avoid any exercise that puts your arms in what researchers call the high-five position, with your upper arms parallel to the floor, your elbows bent 90 degrees, and your forearms parallel to your torso. The most notorious are behind-the-neck shoulder presses and behind-the-neck lat pulldowns.
A better approach: Perform a lat pulldown so you’re pulling the bar down in front of you and toward your chest. Get started with our beginner’s guide to the lat pulldown.
Even a pushup can hurt your shoulders if you exaggerate the range of motion. Start by trying easier variations like an incline pushup against a wall or counter, and focus on mastering the form. If you’re doing traditional pushups on the floor, stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
The Best Exercises for Your Shoulders
Fortunately, there are some movements that help build up the muscles and connective tissues that age typically wears down.
1. Seated Row with a Machine or Band
The basic motion of a rowing exercise is pretty simple: You pull your hands toward you and then release. But the magic—and risk for error—is in controlling the movement of your shoulder blades.
Your goal, Somerset says, is to pull your shoulder blades together in the middle of your back on each repetition and then let them slide forward as you extend your arms to release the tension. What you must avoid: letting your shoulders rise up toward your neck.
How to do it: Adjust the seat so your hips are slightly above your knees. Choose a light weight to start. Grab the handles, sit up tall, and make sure your shoulders are down and back.
From here, pull your hands toward you, making sure to keep your shoulders down. Pause, and then release to starting position. Do two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
2. Band Pull Apart
Like the row, the basic movement is simple, but the trick is in your shoulder blades. You want to keep your shoulders down and back, and you want to squeeze your shoulder blades together to pull the band apart. It may help to perform this exercise in front of a mirror so you can check your form.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, arms straight out in front of you, and palms facing down, holding a resistance band with both hands. Your hands should be far enough that the band is taut, but not stretched tight.
With control, squeeze your shoulder blades together to pull your hands farther apart. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do one to two sets of 10 to 15 reps.
3. No Money
This is another small, subtle movement with big benefits. Without any equipment, you train your shoulder blades to keep your shoulders down. That creates a solid platform for you to do more challenging exercises with more control and less risk of injury.
How to do it: Stand against the edge of a wall, making contact with your butt, upper back, and the back of your head. You’re going to maintain all three points of contact throughout the exercise.
Squeeze the wall lightly with your shoulder blades, pulling them down as you bend your elbows so your forearms are parallel to the floor. Your palms should be up, and your elbows should be at your sides.
Keeping your elbows steady, gently rotate your arms out to the sides. Go only as far as comfortable, even if it’s only a small rotation. Pause, then return to starting position.
Try to do at least one set of the no money exercise every day. You can do it with or without a wall. Gradually work up to 20 or more reps per set—without sacrificing good form.
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