Six Shoulder Exercises to Help Lift Your Kids and Luggage and Prevent Injury

Your shoulders may not need to withstand a collision with a 200 pound hockey player. But they need to be stable enough to withstand everyday wear and tear, like lifting a grandchild or placing your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment of the plane.

In hockey, having strong, healthy shoulders is key to avoiding injury, says Sean Skahan, strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Wild NHL team.

“Our sport involves a lot of physical contact,” he says. “We focus on strengthening the muscles around the shoulders to help players avoid common injuries such as shoulder separations, dislocations and rotator cuff strains.”

Shoulder health is just as important if you spend more time at a desk than on the ice. Building shoulder strength can help undo the hunched forward posture that comes from sitting at a computer all day. And having good shoulder mobility will make everyday tasks easier, like reaching out to grab the subway handle for balance.

The shoulder is a movable, but also unstable ball joint. The rotator cuff muscles move and stabilize the shoulder. The muscles that support the shoulders, including the rhomboids, trapezius, and deltoids, are much smaller than the quadriceps and hamstrings, the large muscles that stabilize the knee joint.

To avoid overworking these muscles, focus on form and start with bodyweight or very light weight, says Skahan. These six exercises can be done as a shoulder workout or you can incorporate stretching into your daily routine.

T-Spine Foam Roller

Why: When our thoracic spine, the 12 vertebrae between the neck and lower back, is tight or stiff, it can inhibit shoulder mobility. It affects everything from our posture to our ability to move our arms overhead.

How? ‘Or’ What: Lie on the floor face up with a foam roller placed horizontally under the middle of your back. Your knees will be bent, feet flat on the floor, and hands can be crossed over your chest or joined at the bottom of your neck to support your head. Lift your hips to move the roller up your back. Stop just below the neck. Roll along the spine. Repeat 10 times.

A foam roller can help relax the thoracic spine.

Door Chest Stretch

Why: Sitting hunched over a computer for hours a day can cause shortened, tight pectoral muscles that can pull the shoulders down and forward, Skahan says. This simple stretch helps open the chest.

How? ‘Or’ What: Stand in front of an open door. Raise each arm out to the side, elbows bent at 90 degrees. Rest your palms on the door frame. Step forward with one foot until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders. Don’t lean forward. Keep a high spine. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat three times or play throughout the day to break up long periods at your desk.

External rotation of the cable machine

Why: This exercise focuses on strengthening the rotator cuff muscles that rotate the shoulder outward.

How? ‘Or’ What: Stand with your left side facing a cable machine. The height of the cable should be adjusted to match your elbow height and the weight should be light to start with. Grab the handle with your right hand and bend your right elbow 90 degrees so your right forearm is parallel to the floor. Keep your elbow close to your hip and twist your right arm away from your body just past 90 degrees. Take a break and return to the beginning. Perform three sets of 10 to 20 reps per side.

Option: You can perform this exercise using a resistance band anchored to a doorknob in a closed door.

The external rotation exercise focuses on strengthening the rotator cuff muscles.


Why: Pull-ups work the biceps and lats and help improve grip strength. Because the exercise requires a decent amount of core strength to perform, it’s a good metric to track the increase in your upper body strength.

How? ‘Or’ What: Grab a pull-up bar from below, palms facing you, hands shoulder-width apart. You can also use the monkey bar rungs in a playground. Slowly pull your chin above the bar. Descend slowly with control. Complete as much as you can without losing shape.

Options: If you can’t do a pull-up, focus on the eccentric or lowered part of the exercise first. “The harder you get to lower, the stronger you’ll get to pull your chin up on the bar,” says Skahan. Start with your chin above the bar, then lower as slowly as possible until your arms are straight. Drop to the floor and repeat. If you’ve already mastered the pull-up and want an extra challenge, perform the exercise while wearing a weighted belt.

YTWL Series

Why: This series of exercises isolates the upper back and rotator cuff muscles, says Skahan. They contribute to the strength and mobility of the shoulders, as well as improving posture. Repeat three sets of 10 reps of each exercise or perform one set throughout the day.

How? ‘Or’ What: Lie face down on a weight bench with your arms hanging below your shoulders, chin resting on the bench. Your arms will move to resemble the shape of each letter. Engage your core and pinch your shoulder blades as you perform the movements.

Y: Raise your arms straight up and out at 45 degrees, palms facing each other. Pause at the top, descend slowly.

J: Raise your arms out to the sides, thumbs up, until they are parallel to the floor. Pause at the top, descend slowly.

W: Bend your elbows so that your palms are touching under the bench. Raise your elbows up to a 90 degree angle, palms down at the top of the movement.

L : Bend your elbows 90 degrees so they are aligned with your shoulders, palms facing your feet. Raise the hands toward head height, so that each arm looks like a letter “L” at the top of the motion. Descend slowly.

Options: If that sounds easy to you, hold a light weight no more than 5 pounds in each hand. To challenge your core, you can perform these exercises while lying face down on a stability ball.

The YTWL series isolates the upper back and rotator cuff muscles.

Farmer’s Carry

Why: This loaded carry improves upper back, grip and single leg strength while working on hip and core stability. The muscles used to grip the weights activate the rotator cuff muscles and, therefore, help stabilize and strengthen the shoulder joint, Skahan says.

How? ‘Or’ What: Grab a kettlebell, dumbbell, jug of water, or even a small, full suitcase with a handle in your right hand. If you slump on your right side before you even start walking, use a lighter weight. Walk 20 yards at a slow pace, then shift the weight to your left hand and return to start. As you walk, keep your shoulders pulled back and your core tight. Remember to maintain a firm grip on the weights throughout the exercise. Repeat three sets.


What are you doing to strengthen your shoulders? Join the conversation below.

Write to Jen Murphy at

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