Why bother strengthening the shoulders and arms?

There are very few parts of your body that act in isolation. This is especially true for the shoulders and arms. Weakness of the shoulders can often lead to elbow and neck problems. People who have weak arms and shoulders are far more likely to injure their necks when lifting heavy items or with repeated movements such as occurs when gardening. If you are lifting something heavy, often your head will come forward. This can injure the neck because there is too much strain through the neck tissues and joints while in an awkward position. Additionally, when lifting with the arms extended, the shoulder muscles are often in a lengthened position. In the lengthened position, the muscles are weaker, and they are more vulnerable to injury.

There are several major factors that predispose the shoulders and arms to pain and injury:
– gradual age-related loss of strength that is accelerated with disuse, and
– repetitive movements.

1. Age-related loss of strength: It is well recognized that as we grow older, from about 40 years onwards, we experience age-related loss of strength. The muscle fibres become smaller and generate less force. Also, some fibres die because the nerve that innervates them dies or the connection between the nerve and the fibre disintegrates. Together with the loss of muscle fibre size and number, the muscle becomes smaller and loses strength. This age-related loss of strength is further accelerated with disuse. The good news is that some of the age-related loss of strength can be offset by targeted exercises to improve strength.

2. Repetitive movements will fatigue the involved muscles and, over time, will wear and tear joint surfaces. These factors can lead to muscle imbalances in the shoulder system such that one group of muscles will become stronger, shortened, and tighter, while the opposing muscles become lengthened and weaker. A common example is using the computer mouse with repetitive movement of hand and wrist leading to overuse, strain, and pain of the forearm muscles near the elbow joint (sometimes referred to as tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis).

In addition, repetitive movements such as reaching forward when lifting and carrying boxes, or when sitting at the computer (slightly leaning forward) can lead to muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest – the pectoralis muscles – becoming tight and shortened. The opposing muscles at the back of the shoulder and shoulder blade (such as the rhomboids) however, become lengthened and weak. This will upset the equilibrium and biomechanics at the shoulder joint, leading to subacromial bursitis (in the shoulder joint) and pain (sometimes called shoulder impingement).

Stretching the muscles around the shoulder complex plays an important part in protecting against injury.


Below are several tips and exercises that will help you gain shoulder and arm strength.

Strengthening your upper body will help protect your neck, however there are a few things to consider:

    a.  When exercising your arms and shoulders, keep your neck in good alignment with your shoulders. Tuck your chin slightly and keep your neck long.

    b.  Build up your arm /shoulder strength gradually – increase the repetitions and start with a low load.

    c.  Start with closed-chain exercises rather than open chain exercises. Closed chain exercises are less likely to cause injury, particularly if your muscles are weak. We featured the differences between closed- and open-chain exercises a few weeks back, but below is a brief explanation.
o Closed-chain exercises involve keeping the hands fixed or stationary and then moving the rest of the body. An example of a closed chain shoulder strengthening exercise is a push up. The hands are stationary and fixed to the floor (or wall) and the body moves in relation to them using the body weight to maximize strength.
o Open-chain exercises of the arms involve moving the segments furthest away from the body —in this case the hand and wrist. An example of an open chain shoulder strengthening exercise is holding a weight in the hand and lifting the weight overhead to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder.
o Open-chain exercises can allow shearing of the shoulder complex if the load is too heavy, leading to instability, damage, and pain. A real-world example is carrying a heavy shopping bag. Closed-chain exercises will reduce the chance of joint shearing and injury during repetitive strengthening exercises.

d.  Breathe evenly and try not to hold your breath as you are exercising and strengthening your upper body.


Following are examples of closed-chain exercises to strengthen your shoulders and arms:

1. Wall Push-Ups

Face a wall with arms outstretched, shoulder width apart and hands on the wall, bend your elbows and lower your chest towards the wall with your body straight. Push against the wall, extending your arms to the starting position and repeat.

2. Push-Ups (from the knees)

Lying face down, push through your arms, lifting your body off the floor from your knees until you are in a plank position. Then lower your body to the floor by bending at the elbows. Keep your core tight and repeat.

As you gain strength you can transition to push-ups from the toes with your knees straight.