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Shoulder Pain Exercises

Shoulder Pain Exercises

Shoulder pain or tightness in the shoulders is more common than most people realize. This problem is so prevalent that according to surveys, more than 20 percent of adults experience shoulder pain at some point in time. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of exercises that help minimize tightness and pain in the shoulders. 

More specifically, strengthening, lengthening, and stretching exercises are quite effective at enhancing flexibility, reinforcing robust muscles and tendons, improving range of motion, and supporting more fluid movements. If you’ve been struggling to perform daily tasks due to shoulder pain, incorporating shoulder exercises can also help restore your comfort and mobility. Let’s take a closer look at simple shoulder exercises that offer optimal pain relief.

Exercises for Shoulder Pain

Performing the following exercises three to five days a week can help reduce your pain, keep your muscles flexible, and let you return to your normal routine.

Internal and External Rotation

This exercise works almost all of the muscles in the shoulder. You will need a light weight that does not cause you to strain when you lift it. The technique involves doing the following steps:

Step 1 – Lie down flat on your back. 

Step 2 – Hold the weight in your hand and extend your arm out to the side, at shoulder height. Bend the elbow so that your fingers are pointing upward. 

Step 3 – Keep your elbow bent and pressed gently against the floor.

Step 4 – With the hand and weight facing forward, slowly begin to move your arm forward 45 to 90 degrees, making sure to stop and adjust your range of movement if you experience pain. 

Step 5 – Relax the hand for several seconds and then perform the same movement, but this time slowly move your arm backward 45 to 90 degrees. 

Step 6 – Do three to four sets of 10 repetitions. If pain develops, do fewer repetitions.

Begin this exercise with a light weight (e.g., 1 or 2 lbs) to help reduce the risk of developing pain while performing this technique. As your ability to do this exercise with ease improves, consider adding more weight (e.g., 2 lbs), but make sure you do fewer repetitions each time you add more weight. The maximum recommended weight is between 5 to 7 lbs, as too much weight can lead to tissue damage or an injury. While performing this exercise, you should feel a gentle pull in the front and back of your shoulder, your upper back, and your chest, but it should not cause pain.

Scapular Retraction-Protraction

This exercise works shoulder muscles, the shoulder blades, and the upper back. You will also need a light weight that does not cause discomfort when you lift it. Follow the steps below to perform this technique:

Step 1 – Lie flat on your stomach on a bed or table and let your arm hang over the side.

Step 2 – While holding the weight, slowly squeeze and shift your shoulder blade inward. Your elbow should remain straight as your shoulder blade does all the work.

Step 3 – Slowly return to the starting position. 

Step 4 – Do two to three sets of eight to 10 repetitions, three times a week. 

It is important to begin this exercise with a light weight (e.g., 1 or 2 lbs) as well. When you can perform three sets of 10 repetitions easily, begin to add more weight in one-pound increments and gradually work your way up to three sets of 15 repetitions. The maximum recommended weight is 5 lbs. You should feel a gentle stretch in your upper back near your shoulder blades while doing this exercise.

Exercises That Strengthen the Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff has four main muscles:

  • Supraspinatus — Allows you to lift and rotate the arm
  • Infraspinatus — Promotes the rotation of your arm and shoulder pocket
  • Teres minor — A small muscle that also supports arm rotation
  • Subscapularis — Allows you to point your arm in a straight line away from the body

The following exercises help relieve pain by targeting one or more of these muscles.


Pendulum swings work the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and subscapularis. Follow the steps below to perform this exercise:

Step 1 – Place one hand on a tabletop or counter for support and lean forward. 

Step 2 – Let your free arm hang down at your side.

Step 3 – Gently begin to swing your arm forward and backward. 

Step 4 – Repeat this exercise by moving your arm side to side and then repeat the movement again in a circular motion.

Step 5 – Repeat each of these steps with your other arm.

Remember to keep the knees locked and back straight while doing this exercise.

Passive Internal Rotation

This exercise works the subscapularis, which is located in the front of the shoulders. You will need a small stick to hold for this stretching exercise. Perform the following steps:

Step 1 – Hold the stick behind your back with your left hand and then grasp the other end of the stick with your right hand.

Step 2 – Slide the stick sideways to passively stretch your shoulder muscles as far as possible without causing pain.

Step 3 – Hold this position for about 30 seconds and then relax.

Step 4 – Repeat this stretching exercise in the opposite direction. Perform about 10 repetitions on both sides.

Do not twist the body or lean over to the side while sliding the stick. You should feel a slight pull in the front of your shoulder, but it should not cause pain.

Passive External Rotation

This exercise works the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles in the back of the shoulder. You will also need a small stick for this technique. Follow the steps below:

Step 1 – Grasp the stick with the right hand and cup the other end of the stick with your left hand.

Step 2 – Keep the elbow of your right arm gently pressed against the side of your body. 

Step 3 – Slowly begin to push the stick sideways with your left hand until you feel a slight pull in your right shoulder.

Step 5 – Hold this position for 30 seconds and then relax both arms.

Step 5 – Repeat this stretching exercise with your left arm. Perform this technique about 10 times.

Remember to keep your hips facing forward. Do not twist your body as you push the stick sideways. You should feel a gentle stretch in the front of your shoulder, but it should not be painful.

Sleeper Stretch

This exercise also works the infraspinatus and teres minor. Perform the following steps for this stretching technique:

Step 1 – Lie down on a flat, firm surface on your side with the affected shoulder placed against the flat surface and the arm bent up at the elbow. You can place a pillow under your head for extra support or comfort.

Step 2 – Use the opposite arm to gently push your straightened arm down.

Step 3 – Stop pushing downward when you begin to feel the muscles in the back of your affected shoulder begin to stretch slightly.

Step 4 – Hold this position for about 25 seconds and then relax your arm for another 25 seconds.

While performing this exercise, you should feel a gentle stretch behind your shoulder near your upper back. It is also important to avoid bending or pressing down on your wrist as this can lead to an injury.

Exercises for Arthritis-Related Shoulder Pain

Arthritis is a common problem that often affects people as they age. It may develop in any joint, including the shoulders, but doing specific exercises regularly can help relieve shoulder pain and swelling due to arthritis. 

Arthritis causes inflammation that is linked to soreness and stiffness. This type of constant discomfort can make it challenging to move the arms freely or exercise. However, it is important to keep the joints limber because remaining active can help lessen the severity of arthritis pain.

Here are several exercises that minimize shoulder pain by targeting inflammation in the shoulder joints. 

Shoulder Elevation Stretch

This exercise stretches the shoulder muscles and helps restore full range of motion. You will need a walking stick or pole such as a broom handle. Follow these steps to do this stretching exercise: 

Step 1 – Lie down on your back.

Step 2 – Hold the pole with both hands and make sure your arms remain shoulder-width apart.

Step 3 – Raise the pole upward slowly past your chest and then over your head until it almost touches the floor. Try not to bend the arms while raising the pole.

Step 4 – Lower the pole back down toward your thighs.

Step 5 – Do three to four sets of 10 repetitions daily.

As you raise the pole over your head, you should feel a mild stretch in your chest, shoulders, and back. Doing this exercise on a regular basis can make it easier to carry out daily tasks such as reaching upwards to retrieve an item off of a shelf.

Shoulder Outward Rotation Stretch

This exercise improves shoulder joint flexibility and also requires a walking stick or pole. To perform the rotation stretch, follow these steps:

Step 1 – Lie down on your back.

Step 2 – Hold the pole in your hands with your arms shoulder-width apart. While keeping the upper portion of your arms close to the body, bend your elbows until the pole is just above your chest.

Step 3 – Slowly shift the pole to the left side until you begin to feel a slight stretch in your left shoulder.

Step 4 – Bring the hands back down to the starting position.

Step 5 – Repeat the entire routine on the right side of the body.

Step 6 – Do three to four sets of at least 10 repetitions every day. 

You should only feel a mild stretch in your shoulder as you do this exercise. Discontinue this exercise and seek professional guidance if intense pain or discomfort develops.

Shoulder Blade Rotations

This exercise aims at increasing range of motion by gently stretching the shoulder muscles. It involves the following steps:

Step 1 – Stand in an upright position with your hands at your sides.

Step 2 – Lift your shoulders toward your ears and hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Relax your shoulders.

Step 3 – Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold this position for another 5 to 10 seconds. Relax your shoulders

Step 4 – Press your shoulders downward and hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Relax your shoulders.

Step 5 – Repeat the entire routine about 10 times.

Doing this simple exercise daily can help keep the shoulders agile, which is important if you’re experiencing pain or stiffness due to arthritis. There are several additional exercises that promote relief from arthritis pain such as pendulums, the door lean, and door presses. For additional guidance regarding the appropriate types of exercises for shoulder pain, consider speaking with a physical therapist.


Mild shoulder pain can be a nuisance, especially if the discomfort makes it hard to perform the simplest of tasks. Doing shoulder exercises at home or with guidance from a physical therapist can help relieve your pain. It is recommended to perform these easy exercises about three to five times a week for about 10 minutes each. As your shoulders become stronger and less stiff, you can gradually begin to increase the duration of each exercise.

It is important to avoid stretching the shoulder muscles to the point of pain as this can increase your discomfort or even cause an unexpected injury. The exercises are meant to gently relax tense muscles, improve circulation, and target inflammation in order to promote healing. Stretching the shoulders too far may counteract the benefits of shoulder exercises. This means that you should discontinue any exercise that causes moderate to severe discomfort.

If you are not sure how to perform a certain exercise or are worried that doing it incorrectly will worsen your shoulder pain, you should consider working with a physical therapist. Our team of highly qualified therapists at FYZICAL can demonstrate the proper way to perform shoulder exercises and ensure that you feel confident in your ability to do them safely while at home. When performed carefully, therapeutic exercises minimize stiffness and soreness, while improving flexibility and range of motion. 

FYZICAL offers a wide variety of physical therapy services by qualified providers across the U.S. To find a FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Center near you, visit our website at Our highly skilled therapy providers are 100% focused on your optimal health so you can Love Your Life®!

To learn more about how FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers can help you, download our free e-book.