Your shoulders need to be strong and limber so you can lift groceries, do housework, prepare meals, drive a car, and do other activities necessary to stay independent. Yet shoulder exercises are often overlooked in a workout, perhaps because they seem challenging or time-consuming. "I encourage clients to take a simple approach to shoulder strengthening, with small, easy moves they can fit in their day. Over time, it keeps the shoulders healthy and helps people avoid injuries," says Kevin Crowley, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Here are three ways to make shoulder exercises easier.
1. Exercise while seated
Yes, it's possible to strengthen your shoulders while seated at your desk or on a couch, and you don't even need complicated moves. "Just sit up tall and bring your shoulders down and back. Holding that position for extended periods strengthens small muscles that promote shoulder stability and improve hunched posture, which is bad for the shoulders," Crowley says.
If you have time for an exercise that's slightly more involved, Crowley recommends any of the following. Sit up straight while you do them.
Arm circles. These work the rotator cuff muscles. Hold your arms out to your sides, parallel to the floor. Make a few large circles in the air, then make medium-sized circles, and then small ones. Try it with your thumbs up for a few rotations, then thumbs down. Do the circles forward or backward.
Arm raises. These work the main muscles in your shoulders, called the deltoids. Hold your arms out to your sides — arms straight or slightly bent. Slowly raise your arms up toward the ceiling (no higher than your head, if you have shoulder injuries), and then slowly bring them back down. Repeat the arm raises about 10 times. You can also do this exercise with your arms out in front of you.
Hand slides. These stretch your shoulders. Reach out in front of you, and place your palms down on a desk or an ottoman. Slide your hands as far forward as you can, keeping your arms straight, and bringing your chin down toward your chest as you go. Hold the stretch, then reverse the move until you're sitting up.
2. Use resistance bands
Elastic resistance bands are inexpensive (about $10) and lightweight. A good resistance band for this purpose is a long, flat piece of elastic material (not a loop). The three resistance band exercises shown on this page are easy to do. Crowley also recommends doing any of the following exercises while sitting or standing.
Open books. This exercise works the rotator cuff muscles. Grasp the band with both hands, placing them 12 to 24 inches apart. Keep your elbows "glued" to your sides and slowly stretch the band apart, pulling your hands away from each other. Hold, then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Horizontal abduction. This works the rhomboid muscles in the upper back, which support the shoulders. Holding an end of the band in each hand, reach straight in front of you, so your arms are parallel to the ground. Slowly move your arms out to your sides, stretching the band between them, attempting to make a T shape with your body. Hold, then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Chest punches. This strengthens the serratus anterior muscles, which keep the shoulder blades in place. Place the resistance band around your back and under your armpits. Hold an end of the band in each hand. Punch forward with one hand, then bring it back to your chest and punch with the other. Or punch with both hands at the same time. Repeat 10 times.
Place a resistance band around your back and under your armpits. Hold an end in each hand, near your chest. Punch one arm out on a slight diagonal across your body, then slowly bring it back to your chest. Repeat with the other arm. Do this 10 times.
Place the middle of a resistance band under one foot, with the other foot slightly behind it. Hold an end of the band in each hand, with your arms at your sides, palms forward. Bend your elbows and raise your hands toward your shoulders, then lower your arms to the starting position. Do this 10 times.
Grasp a resistance band with both hands, with your elbows out to the sides, and arms bent 90° and parallel to the ground. Without moving your upper arms, straighten your arms, then slowly bring them back to the starting position. Do this 10 times.
3. Make the exercise fun
If you're looking for motivation to strengthen your shoulders, Crowley recommends injecting some fun into exercises. Here are two examples.
Make alphabet shapes. This exercise strengthens all of the muscles in your shoulders. Stand in front of a wall, an arm's length away. Use one hand to press a tennis ball against the wall (at shoulder height). Keep your arm straight, your hand flat on the ball, and roll the ball in small letter shapes from A to Z. Or roll the ball in circles (or up and down) for a few minutes.
Dance. Moving your arms to music (while sitting or standing) will strengthen all of your shoulder muscles. Just play music that appeals to you and let it inspire arm movements, such as swinging them left and then right or (if you don't have a shoulder injury) putting your arms overhead and pushing your palms repeatedly toward the ceiling in time to the music. Try some dance moves from the '60s, like the Swim (mimic swimming movements with your arms) or the Hitchhiker (make arm movements with your thumbs out, like you're hitching a ride). "When you enjoy exercise, you're more likely to do it," Crowley says, "and even a little bit of shoulder strengthening at a time will make a difference."
Image: © fizkes/Getty Images; exercise photos by Michael Carroll