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.
If you want to understand why so many older adults have shoulder problems—why, in fact, they’re almost inevitable if you live long enough—it helps to look at the chimpanzee, our closest evolutionary relative. The average chimp is much stronger than the average human, with shoulders that easily propel it from branch to branch with an ease that only a trained acrobat could replicate.
But if a chimp tried to throw a baseball like a human, it’s the chimp who would look weak. That’s because our bodies evolved to be really good at throwing things like rocks and spears. Hurling projectiles from a distance allowed our ancestors to kill much larger animals without having to get too close or to stop predators that could easily tear us apart if they got within striking distance.
Alas, an evolutionary process that favored the mobility to throw like Koufax over the strength to swing like Tarzan came with a tradeoff: In exchange for shoulders that can move in every direction, we got joints 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 and injury-rehab specialist 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. A terrifying and often-cited 1995 study found that rotator cuff tears increase dramatically in late middle age, eventually affecting 80 percent of those over 80. A more reassuring study, with a much larger range of subjects, found that 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 (in construction work, swimming, or weightlifting, for example), 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. 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 difficult? An experienced lifter hates to be told he can’t do an exercise that worked when he was 30 or 40, even if it now irritates his shoulders while he’s doing it. Meanwhile, someone who’s new to strength training may not realize she’s rubbed her joints the wrong way until she wakes up in the middle of the night with throbbing pain. By then, it’s too late to figure out which exercise caused the problem.
To avoid shoulder pain, Somerset has two big rules.
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. (A safer way to strengthen your chest: rotary chest press.) 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 body weight.
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. (Keep reading for a safer way to do lat pulldowns.)
Another bad idea: exercises in which your upper arms are behind your torso. At the top of Somerset’s list are dips, including the ones with your hands on a bench. “Not many people can control their shoulders well enough to avoid injury,” he says.
Even a pushup can hurt your shoulders if you exaggerate the range of motion. Start by trying easier variations—wall pushups or pushups against a counter—to master 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. Row With a Band or Machine
Rowing exercises can be more complex than they look and are often done incorrectly by inexperienced. The youngest and oldest people in the gym seem to struggle the most with a key part of the exercise: controlling the movement of their 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 weight. What you must avoid: letting your shoulders rise up toward your neck. Get more pointers with this beginner’s guide to the seated row.
You’ll often see a similar problem on a similar exercise, the lat pulldown. Older women especially tend to pull the bar down toward their abdomen, rather than pulling it in toward their upper chest. The key to the exercise is to pull your shoulder blades down and together on each repetition. Nail the move with this beginner’s guide to the lat pulldown.
The more control you have over your shoulder blades, the more you strengthen the muscles that pull them down and back—and the more stable and less injury-prone your shoulders will be.
In each workout, you want to include at least two to three sets of rows or pulldowns, usually with 10 to 15 reps per set.
2. Band Pull Apart
If possible, stand in front of a mirror to monitor your form during this exercise. Hold a resistance band with your arms bent in, hands in front of your chest, and palms down. Keeping your shoulders down and level with each other, pull your hands apart. Feel your shoulder blades squeeze together. The band should offer just enough resistance so you feel the muscles working in your upper back, but not so much that the movement becomes uncomfortable or your arms move unevenly. Do one or two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. Check out a demonstration in the video below.
3. No Money
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, with your palms up and elbows at your sides. Keeping your elbows steady, gently rotate your arms out to the sides, and then return to starting position.
It’s a small, subtle movement, but one 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.
Try to do at least one set of the no money exercise every day, with or without a wall. Gradually work up to 20 or more reps per set—without sacrificing good form. See how to do it below.
As useful as these exercises are, it’s worth repeating a key point: The single best thing you can do for your shoulders is to avoid hurting them in the first place. If it’s too late, the next-best practice is to avoid hurting them more.