Shoulder pain is among the most common physical issues people experience. An intricate, delicate joint that's involved whenever you use your arms, it experiences huge amounts of wear and tear.
Issues like labrum and rotator cuff tears, shoulder impingement, frozen shoulder, and other shoulder joint issues are extremely common. While shoulder pain can sometimes be a sign of something more serious, it's luckily often easy to treat.
With a mix of mobilising, stretching, and strengthening exercises, many people can relieve shoulder pain without needing invasive procedures or physical therapist sessions. In this article, we'll show you the best options to do just that.
Shoulder mobility exercises help the shoulder joints and rotator cuffs to comfortably work through their natural range of motion (1). Some can be done with dumbbells but, for optimal results, you should use a resistance band.
Lateral Shoulder Rotations (Internal & External)
Lateral shoulder rotations are fantastic exercises to mobilise and strengthen the rotator cuffs, as they work these joints directly.
To perform an external rotation, secure a resistance band around waist height. Stand with a 90 degree bend in your arm, with your elbow tucked into your side. Grip the band between your fingers, so your forearm lies across your abdomen.
Moving only your forearm, pull the resistance band across your body, causing your shoulder joint to slowly rotate outwards. Go as far as possible without causing pain.
To do internal rotations, turn round and grip the band so you're at the end point of an external rotation. Now perform the movement you did before in reverse, rotating your shoulder in and using just your forearm to pull the resistance band across your torso in the opposite direction.
Horizontal Shoulder Rotations (Internal & External)
Horizontal shoulder rotations are another extremely effective way to mobilise the rotator cuffs.
To perform external horizontal shoulder rotations, stand on one end of a resistance band and grip the other in one hand. Raise your upper arm out to the side, until it is parallel with the floor, and bend your elbow 90 degrees, so your fist points forwards.
Keeping your upper arm still, slowly rotate your shoulder so your fist and forearm rise. Go until your forearm is vertical and pause before lowering it back down.
For internal horizontal shoulder rotations, secure one end of the band in the top of a door and position yourself at the end of an external horizontal rotation. This time you'll do the movement in reverse, pushing your fist down towards the ground.
Horizontal Shoulder Abductions & Adductions
Shoulder abductions and adductions feature the same movement as horizontal shoulder rotations and again focus only mobilising the rotator cuffs. The difference is that your forearm goes up and down in front of your face, rather than beside your head.
Shoulder Blade Retraction
Shoulder blade retraction is a great option to mobilise the shoulder girdle and strengthen the back muscles and rear deltoids.
Secure the middle of a resistance band at shoulder height. Grip one end in each hand and stand back until your arms are parallel with the floor and there's tension in the band, then squeeze your shoulder blades together. Your hands should be a head width apart.
Pull both hands towards your face, keeping them in a straight line by flaring your elbows out to the sides. Go as far as your range of motion allows then pause and really squeeze the shoulder blades.
Strengthening exercises are useful if your shoulder pain comes from instability in the joint, or if there's weakness after recovering from an injury (2). Some of these exercises can again be done with dumbbells, but are best performed with resistance bands.
High To Low Rows
High to low rows work the whole shoulder joints. They're particularly good for strengthening the rear delts and back muscles surrounding the shoulder joints.
Shut the end of a resistance band in the top of a door and grip the other end between two fingers, with your palm facing across your body. Move back until there's tension in the band and your arm is above horizontal.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together then row the band in and down, bending your elbow to bring your hand to your waist. Ensure you keep your shoulders back throughout and pause at the end of the movement.
Straight Arm Pulldown
The starting position for straight arm pulldowns is the same as for high to low rows, only your palm will face downwards. It also works the same muscles, just in a different plane of movement
Keep your arm straight and push the end of the band down from above shoulder height to beside your waist. Make sure to stay upright and keep your shoulders back throughout, then hold this position for a few seconds.
A rear fly is great for isolating the posterior deltoids, while also hitting the triceps.
The starting position for a rear fly sees you put a resistance band on the floor and stand on the middle of it. With knees slightly bent, lean forward until you're almost parallel with the floor.
Take the right end of the band in your left hand and the left end in your right. Engage your rear delts, keep both arms straight, then raise them up and out, so the band crosses in front of you. Go until your arms are parallel with the ground, before slowly lowering them back down.
Front raises are great for isolating and strengthening your front (anterior) deltoids.
Stand on a resistance band so that when you hold the end by your waist there's tension in it. Keep your arm straight, engage the front delt, and slowly raise your hand until it's parallel with the floor. Hold this position for a second before you slowly lower your arm back down.
Stretching exercises are very useful for mobilising joints that have become stiff or immobile. Shoulder stretches are also really good at helping you restore your range of motion after an injury, and can even relieve shoulder pain that's directly caused by tension in the joint (3).
Downward Dog Pose
Downward dog pose relieves tightness in the shoulders, chest, and back, as well as the legs.
Get on all fours with your feet together, knees just behind your hips, and hands shoulder width apart with your fingers spread. Pull your shoulders together and drive your buttocks into the air, straightening your knees and creating a 90 degree angle at your waist.
Your body should form a triangle with the floor. Breathe deeply while holding the stretch, trying to go as deep into it as possible before you slowly lower your knees back to the ground.
Child's pose relieves tightness in the same areas of the upper body as downward dog, perhaps even more effectively, but doesn't work the lower body. The two poses also use virtually the same starting position, only in child's pose you'll have your knees slightly wider apart.
Slowly sit back onto your heels, keeping your hands still so your arms extend out in front of you. Try to bring your face as close to the floor as possible while keeping your spine straight and directly in line with your arms.
Hold this position for at least 30 seconds, slowly taking deep breaths in and out, then gradually ease out of the pose.
The doorway stretch is designed to stretch the chest, relieve any tension it's placing on the shoulder, and mobilise the entire joint.
Stand in a doorway, raise your upper arm out to the side until it's parallel with the floor, and bend your elbow to a 90 degree angle, so your fingers point at the ceiling. Place the palm of your hand and forearm on the doorframe.
Slowly rotate your torso away from your hand, until you feel a deep stretch in your chest. Hold this position for at least 10 seconds before slowly easing out of it.
Scapular protraction is a great way to stretch out the back and rear shoulder muscles.
Stand facing a wall and place your hands flat on it, straight out in front of you, ensuring you keep each elbow straight. Squeeze your shoulders together then push them forward, stretching your arms further out in front of you and rounding your back.
Slowly go in and out of the stretch, ensuring you create a deep stretch in your back each time.
Final Thoughts On The Best Exercises To Relieve Shoulder Pain
Most people will experience shoulder pain at some point. Gently stretching, mobilising, and strengthening the joint using these exercises to relieve shoulder pain usually produces great results extremely quickly.
Those wanting to ease shoulder pain even faster should consider taking joint supplements too, to maximise the effects.
If, however, you're experiencing severe pain or lack of shoulder motion, the pain worsens, or these exercises don't relieve pain at all, seek medical attention as you likely have a more serious issue.