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June 29, 2021 10 min read

The shoulder joint is one of the most complex joints in the human body. It’s extremely mobile, allowing us to move our arms in almost any direction. But all that mobility comes at the sacrifice of strength and stability.

That’s why it’s especially important to give this area of your body some extra attention. Down below we have the seven best shoulder stability exercises you can use to safeguard this crucial joint.

rear view of bodybuilder training with dumbbells on black background

Why You Want Healthy Shoulders

Because of the complexity of our shoulders, there’s a lot that can go wrong with them. A few examples include frozen shoulder, rotator cuff tears, tendinitis, and shoulder impingement. And shoulder problems aren’t rare either: as much as 67% of people experience some sort of shoulder discomfort over their lives.

But outside of comfort and general wellbeing, a more stable, mobile, and powerful shoulder joint can help us with a wide manner of daily tasks. Almost any movement utilizing our arms in some way is going to also need our shoulders to pull off successfully.

A more stable shoulder joint can also have great carry-over effects to other lifts in the gym. Increasing your range of motion, your strength, and your stability in this area can help you get more out of your lifts. Ultimately, this will mean you’re getting more out of working out and developing more efficiently.

The Muscles Involved in Proper Shoulder Function

These are some of the major muscle groups that will be engaged with the exercises found below:

  • Deltoids (anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids)
  • Trapezius muscles
  • Rhomboid muscles
  • Teres minor and major
  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Subscapularis
  • Abdominals, being used as stabilizers

These consist of rotator cuff muscles and back muscles, but due to the way these movements are performed, you’ll also be engaging your arms, forearms, and chest muscles.

Shoulder Exercises to Include in Your Exercise Program

Below we have a list of the best strengthening exercises and the best stabilization exercises for all your scapular stabilization needs. The way you incorporate these into your routine is dependent on your starting level and fitness goals. If your goal is stabilization or shoulder pain relief, it’s best to also seek medical advice from a physical therapist.

You’ll also want to warm up for these movements. One good way is by doing shoulder packing, which consists of scapular retraction. Just bring your shoulders down towards your lower back, and hold for a few seconds. This will get the necessary muscle groups ready for the workout ahead, leading to better results.

1. Internal & External Rotations

Although these two exercises are similar in concept, they target different problem areas. Nevertheless, they’re both beneficial in a well-rounded shoulder stability workout program, so it’s a good idea to do them together.

The first is the internal rotation. It’s especially useful for those whose shoulders feel frozen or are dealing with rotator cuff injuries that impinge on their forward motions when moving their arms. It’s a great way to strengthen this area and develop mobility. To do these movements, you’ll need a towel (or a different sort of spacer) and a resistance band. Connect the resistance band to something sturdy, at the same height as your elbow when you’re standing up.

To begin, place the rolled-up towel in between your elbow and your ribs, putting enough pressure on it so it stays in place. Stand to the side of the resistance band, connected at elbow level. You want to be standing far enough away so that you get a decent amount of tension from it. Grab onto the band and stand tall, with your core engaged.

Keep your elbow stationary and locked in place, and then pull the resistance band towards and across your body, trying to get your hand to the opposite side. Keep your thumb up as you grip the band and ensure that your shoulder isn’t moving.

The external rotation works in a similar way, but instead of bringing the band towards your body, you’ll be pulling it out and away. This is an extremely helpful movement in addressing many rotator cuff issues. It also helps with fixing poor posture that makes you look slouched. The setup will be the same as with internal rotation.

This time, stand with the resistance band on the opposite side of your body from the arm that you’ll be pulling with. If using your right arm, the band should be on your left-hand side. Using the towel as a spacer, grab onto the band and slowly rotate your arm out and away, as far as you’re able to. Remember to keep your shoulder stationary and back straight.

2. Push-Up Plus

Everyone knows the classic push-up—a mainstay of gym classes everywhere, this ubiquitous movement is terrific for working a range of upper body muscles, including your pecs, triceps, and deltoids.

However, push-ups also develop an often ignored muscle: the serratus anterior. Although it doesn’t get much attention, the serratus anterior is necessary for moving your shoulder blades, keeping them stable, and helping improve posture. And while the push-up is useful for engaging them, the exercise can be improved to give even more attention to these muscles.

This is where the “plus” of “push-up plus” comes in. It’s performed like a normal push-up, but at the top of the movement when your arms are locked out, you’re meant to press through your arms and raise your chest further.

This twist on the conventional push-up forces your serratus muscles to tighten and kind of reach around your ribcage, engaging them more than in the conventional format.

Begin by getting down on the floor, on all fours. Your hands should be planted just slightly wider than your shoulders, with your hands directly below the shoulders. Straighten your body so your feet are stretched out behind you, and keep them close together. At this point, your arms should be locked out, hands directly beneath your shoulders, and your entire body in a straight line. Before initiating the movement, brace your abdominals and your glutes.

Then, slowly bend at the elbows and lower your body until your chest is almost touching the floor. Pause for a moment before pushing yourself back to the starting position. But once there, try to push your upper back even further towards the ceiling—but don’t expect to go very far. Reverse the movement and repeat.

3. Seated Press Ups

Also called the seated push-up, this exercise has many of the same benefits as the push-up plus. Depending on what difficulty level you perform it, there’s even more muscular development that can be garnered.

Along with your delts and rhomboids, the seated press-up also works your pectoralis minor, pectoralis major, and the latissimus dorsi. This movement can also help to relieve spinal compression, making it useful if you’re stuck at a desk all day.

Begin by sitting in a chair, both feet firmly flat on the ground. Place your palms down on the sides of the chair, either on the armrest or holding onto the sides. Then, simply engage your core, glutes, and press down through your hands. Continue pressing until your elbows lock out and your body is off the chair. It’s important to keep your back straight, your head looking directly forward. Hold this position for a few seconds before coming back down.

You can either come back down all the way to sit before starting your next rep or, continue pressing up without giving yourself a break in between reps. The latter will obviously be more difficult, but it’ll also give you more benefits.

You can also do away completely with the pressing up and make it into a hold instead, which is sure to challenge your triceps. And if you’re looking for a bigger challenge, try taking your feet off the floor as well.

4. Scaptions

Also called Scapular Plane Elevation, scaptions are a simple movement with a host of benefits behind them. Although they’re similar to the next two movements we’ll be looking at below, they have the added benefit of angling your arms in such a way as to engage your shoulder more effectively.

The angle of your arms aligns the movement within the normal anatomy of the shoulder joint, which makes this exercise a useful way to both assess shoulder health and to develop mobility and strength. Along with engaging the deltoids, scaptions also work the serratus anterior, further helping to stabilize your shoulder blades.

You can also expect to see marked improvements in your posture and your physique since broad shoulders help to create a powerful-looking upper body. For this exercise, all you’ll need is a pair of dumbbells. Keep them relatively light, anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds—especially if you’re just starting out since this exercise is deceptively difficult.

Begin by planting your feet around shoulder-width apart, chest out, and back straight. Holding onto the dumbbells, have your palms facing in towards your body. Then, angle the dumbbells slightly outward, between 30 and 45-degrees. Engaging your muscles, slowly lift the dumbbells up.

Your elbows should have only a slight bend in them, but otherwise, keep them locked in place. As you come towards the top of the movement, your arms should be making a Y shape with an angle of 30 to 45-degrees. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly bringing the dumbbells back down, exhaling as you do. Repeat for the desired amount of reps (anywhere from 8 to 15 should be good).

Young Man Preforming Dumbbell Lateral Raise

5. Side Lateral Raises

Another simple yet effective movement, lateral raises are extremely useful when trying to build powerful shoulders with full mobility. Although it’s a simple movement in that it only has you “winging” out your arms, it’s effective for both muscle conditioning and rehabilitation purposes.

The biggest emphasis of the side lateral raise is the lateral head of the deltoid. However, both your anterior and posterior heads are also used to some extent. But when it comes to working the lateral part of the delts, there’s nothing better you can use than lateral raises.

With all of these benefits, it’s no surprise that this movement isn’t easy to do. In fact, make sure you go lighter than what you think you can do—especially if it’s your first time. A dumbbell between 5 and 15 pounds is probably enough for most people.

Along with improving shoulder mobility and strength, you can also expect to see abdominal gains due to the bracing, with your arms, neck, and upper back also being engaged. Standing tall, chest out, and a dumbbell in each hand, your palms should be facing in towards your body. Plant your feet hip-width apart and maintain a braced core. You’ll also want to try to keep your shoulders down and back throughout the entirety of the exercise.

Begin by lifting your arms outward to your sides—but only for a few inches. Pausing here will disengage your trapezius muscles, allowing for better targeting of your deltoids. After the pause, continue upward while maintaining a slight bend in your otherwise locked elbows.

The top of the exercise is reached once you’ve gotten into a “T-pose,” with arms parallel to the floor. Pause at the top, and then slowly lower your arms back down into the starting position as you exhale. And really take your time on the way back down—this will increase your time under tension, and will lead to greater benefits and gains over the long term.

6. Anterior Shoulder Raises

A fancy way of saying “front raise,” the anterior shoulder raise is exactly what it sounds like. By lifting a weight out in front of you, this movement promises to isolate shoulder flexion. Through this motion, you’ll feel the burn in your front delts, with your serratus anterior, biceps, and pectoralis also putting in some work.

Although this exercise is good for physical therapy, it’s also useful to use with heavier weights. Performed with 10 to 15 reps, it’s a great way to build definition in your anterior deltoids.

With your feet about shoulder-width apart and planted flat on the ground, maintain a straight back and engaged core. Your chosen weights (which shouldn’t be too heavy: 5 or 10 pounds to start) should be in your hands, hanging down by your sides. Shift the dumbbells so your palms are facing back and the weights are parallel to your body.

Bracing the abdominals, begin lifting both dumbbells up in front of you. Remember to keep your arms straight, elbows locked, and palms facing the floor as you reach the top of the movement. Although your elbows should be locked, keeping a slight bend in them will help reduce the stress placed on your joints.

Continue upward until your arms are about parallel to the floor. Hold this position and concentrate on the contraction in the shoulders for a few seconds. Then, slowly lower the dumbbells back down into the starting position while exhaling. Repeat for your desired amount of sets and reps—this will depend on whether you’re doing this exercise for rehabilitation or conditioning. But aim for about 10 to 12 reps; if you can’t do this much, then consider using a lighter weight.

7. Scapular Pinches

While there are a few different ways to perform this exercise, they all have similar benefits. For one, this movement helps to open up your chest and pectoralis. Much like the external rotation, scap pinches improve your posture and help you avoid the slouched look.

This exercise also goes further in that it’s a great way to develop general strength in the shoulder joint area while also improving the range of motion of the rotator cuff. This is a bread-and-butter movement if you’re looking to improve this part of your body.

While the specific technique can differ, the key is to keep your shoulders back and down throughout the whole motion. You don’t want your shoulders to sneak up, even though it may make things easier in the moment.

The standard method is to stand straight with your chest pushed out. Raising your hands, lock your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Your palms should be facing forward. Initiate the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades back—imagine squeezing a pencil in between them. Hold for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.

The other method of scapula pinches is to use a resistance band, adding a level of difficulty (and benefits) to this movement. Instead of holding your arms up, hold one end of the band in each hand and keep your arms straight out. It’s important to lock your elbows, but feel free to keep a slight bend in them.

Then, pull back your shoulders and arms, mimicking the movement without the resistance bands. This time, the bands will add another level of tension and resistance, allowing you to get more out of this exercise.

Shoulder Health Means Full-Body Health

The above exercises will put you well on your way to stronger, more mobile, and more stable shoulders. Not only will this help you avoid injuries, but it’ll also carry over into your daily life and gym sessions.

But don’t forget to also train mobility and stability in other parts of your body. When properly incorporated into a routine, you’ll safeguard yourself against many injuries and setbacks that can derail your progress.

Utilize this with the proper diet and enough rest, and your shoulders will be as powerful as they are good looking.