Build Stronger Shoulders

Add two small moves to boost your upper-body workout, gain strength and keep your shoulders in tip-top condition.

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Like a sincere public apology from a Hollywood bad boy, a rotator-cuff problem is never expected. Imagine: You’re trying to squeeze in a few more overhead presses when scorching pain suddenly shoots from your shoulder to your upper back. The discomfort that accompanies the slightest arm elevation makes it impossible to continue your set, let alone any other upper-body exercises.

What we have here may be a rotator cuff impingement, inflammation or injury, and depending on the severity, it’s something that can sideline your training efforts for quite some time. But with a bit of shoulder-anatomy knowledge and Oxygen’s rotator-cuff strengthening exercises you can reduce the risk of creating this fitness fiasco in the first place.

Why Bother With the Rotator Cuff?

Like the old saying goes: An ounce of prevention – provided here in the form of Oxygen’s moves – is worth a pound of cure. According to James Dreese, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center and Kernan Hospital, exercising your rotator-cuff muscles provides a threefold advantage: Improved muscle strength, decreased muscle fatigue and stronger tendons. “Research has shown that muscle tendons that are regularly exercised are stronger and less prone to injury than those that are not,” he says. While tendons generally grow in strength along with their associated muscles, a rapid increase in muscle size can leave the tendons scrambling to catch up – and that can cause distress on joints.

Because your shoulder joints have the largest range of motion in your body — they’re able to rotate 360 degrees, like a windmill — the likelihood of injuring the tiny muscles and tendons that comprise the shoulder capsule is high, especially when lifting weight above your head. Women in particular are prone to shoulder injuries because hormone fluctuations that occur during menstruation and menopause can actually increase joint inflammation.

“Females also generally possess less muscle mass than men,” says Karl Knopf, EdD, professor of adaptive fitness therapy at Foothill College, in Northern California. Due to the smaller size of the female body – that’s you, sister – any weight you raise overhead will be more difficult to move than if a man lifts an equivalent amount. This stress can cause instability and muscle imbalance in your shoulder girdle, namely in the small muscles of the rotator cuff. But you can reduce much of this stress by isolating your rotator-cuff muscles through appropriate exercises, which will ensure that they are functioning properly and that the associated tendons are strong and limber. Such direct strengthening of your rotator-cuff muscles can help prevent accidents not only during your workout, but also in your everyday life – like pushing that carry-on into the overhead luggage bin or lifting something heavy from the top shelf of your cupboard. Strong shoulders are not only attractive – they can help you maneuver through the hustle bustle of daily life.

A Long List of Benefits

Strengthening the shoulder-capsule muscle group may not initially reward with the physical payoffs you are used to — round, sexy muscles, worthy of that little black dress — but the hidden benefits of a strong shoulder joint will aid you physiologically and aesthetically in the long run. In fact, a few well-placed moves at the beginning of your shoulder routine will increase the effectiveness of future workouts: Strong rotator-cuff muscles establish a foundation for all your upper-body training, heightening your ability to move weight during push exercises, whether they’re bench presses or overhead presses.

Also, since these delicate shoulder muscles play a significant role in shoulder, chest and back moves, Knopf observes that keeping them strong and flexible can ensure shoulder stability and proper form — which leads to improved results — throughout your entire upper-body routine. “Understand that it is not just the amount of weight you lift during your workout that will guarantee good results,” he says. “Performing every move correctly is more important for strength gains and injury prevention.” Healthy rotator cuffs stabilize retracted shoulder blades through every press, push and curl – helping you stay injury-free.

Rotator Cuff 101

Your rotator cuffs connect the scapula to the humerus on the right and left sides of your upper back, and are made up of four small but important muscles: Supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis (SITS for short). Anytime you lift a weight above your head – or raise your arm, for that matter – this muscle group is hard at work.


How Do I Recognize a Rotator Cuff Injury?

n addition to the searing pain radiating from your shoulder, there are a few telltale signs that you’ve done some damage, such as a shortened range of motion and discomfort when lying on or using your shoulder. Never hesitate to consult your doctor for any pain. According to recommendations from the Mayo Clinic, you should head to your doctor if you are unable to move your arm without pain or if the pain persists for longer than seven days. Reduce the pain with ice and an anti-inflammatory, and cease activities that irritate the area. Keep in mind that it may take up to three months before the joint is 100 percent healed — an important point to remember if you have sloppy form or speed through sets.

Your Shoulder-Strengthening Moves

To warm up and strengthen your shoulder-capsule muscles correctly, you’ll need to do two simple but effective exercises: Dumbbell internal and external rotation moves.

The dumbbell internal rotation emphasizes your subscapularis, and will help improve your everyday and athletic functionality. When you cross your arms during a breaststroke or reach across your body to give your friend a high five, this tiny muscle rotates your shoulder inward. In the second move, the dumbbell external rotation, your infraspinatus and teres minor are engaged. As you swing your arm back to hit a tennis ball or reach up to grab a box of food on a high shelf, both of these muscles work to stabilize your shoulder joint.

Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps of each move as part of your shoulder routine warm-up.

Dumbbell External Rotation


Target Muscles: infraspinatus, teres minor

Set Up: Lie on your side on the floor or a bench with your legs stacked, holding a dumbbell in your upper hand with your palm facing down. Position your dumbbell-wielding arm at a 90-degree angle, resting your upper arm along the side of your torso and holding the weight so it is close to the surface of the bench or floor.

Action: Exhale as you hinge at your elbow to bring the dumbbell above your body, being careful not to lift the weight farther than perpendicular to the ground. Keep in mind that your upper arm should maintain contact with your side throughout the motion. Pause, then inhale and slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Internal Rotation


Target Muscles: subscapularis

Set Up: Lie on your side on the floor or a bench with your legs stacked, holding a dumbbell in your lower hand with your palm facing up. If using a bench, bend your legs to fit your entire body on its surface. Position your arm holding the dumbbell so that your upper arm is tight to your body and your forearm forms a 90-degree angle with your torso.

Action: Exhale as you hinge at your elbow to bring the dumbbell toward your opposite shoulder, keeping your upper arm stationary throughout the move. Pause, then inhale and slowly return to the starting position. Don’t let the weight touch the floor or drop farther than the surface of the bench.

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