Shoulder Exercises to Sculpt and Tighten

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Firm, chiseled shoulders not only help give you great posture but also make you look good

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Walk by the mirror and notice your posture. Do you like what you see?

Are you stooped forward and rounded at the shoulders? Is your upper back curved forward? Is your head forward of the rest of your body instead of floating atop your shoulders? If so, you may be overtraining the front of your shoulders and chest and ignoring the upper back of the body, including the rear shoulders. Training the shoulder muscles can help improve postural alignment when done in balance, say experts.

There are three shoulder muscles, explains exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese, the anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (back) deltoid. Their main function is the lift the arm up to the front, the side, and the back, and to press overhead.

Poor posture comes from overworking the anterior deltoid.

"Everything we do we do forward," says exercise physiologist Nicole Gunning. "We drive, reach to a shelf, we use the computer all day."

Calabrese agrees.

"Generally, posture really encourages this overstretching of the posterior deltoid and tightening of the anterior deltoid. The back is stretched and weak and the front is so tight," she says.

In addition, people tend to hold stress in their shoulders, pulling them up and creating tension, says Calabrese.

Balance Is Important

The most important thing to consider when working the shoulder, says Gunning, is to work all parts of the shoulder evenly.

"Overdevelopment of the anterior deltoid and chest gives you that hunched over kind of look," says Gunning, who manages Unilever Cosmetics International's corporate fitness center.

Besides working in balance, there are other considerations when training the shoulder, says Calabrese.

"The shoulder is a really vulnerable joint," she says. "It's a ball and socket joint but it's floating in the socket, held by ligaments and tendons."

Inherently, that makes the shoulder more at risk for injury.

"The shoulder is hypermobile and can easily be dislocated. It is easy to put it into a susceptible position."

When working the shoulder with free weights as in a lateral raise, the weight is far from the joint moving it, which can create instability.

"As the poundage that you're holding gets farther away from the joint your working, there is greater risk of injury," says Gunning.

The heavier the weight, the more difficult it is to keep a joint like the shoulder stable. Lighter weights are a much better choice.

"Muscles in the shoulder are small," says Gunning, "so weights should be pretty light."

Another weak part of the shoulder for many people is the rotator cuff. It is prone to injury from overuse, she says.

"People should be actively training the rotator with internal and external rotation," Gunning says. This can be done with tubing that is attached to something to hold its tension. The arm would begin bent at the elbow and holding one end of the tubing pull the forearm toward you for internal rotation and away for external rotation.

"People pay more attention to the vanity exercises that actually build the muscles but the tendons and ligaments need to be strengthened too," Gunning says.

Another reason to train shoulders is that these muscles are assistors in just about any upper body exercise, including push-ups, bicep curls, and chest presses, Calabrese explains.

Calabrese and Gunning offer these safety tips:

"Start from a neutral position, relaxed with shoulders down. Start out with a resistance that will allow you to perform the move properly," says Calabrese.

She suggests using a mirror to track and maintain proper alignment.

"Sometimes you're so misaligned that you get used to holding your body the wrong way."

"If it feels awkward, sometimes you're so misaligned that you get used to holding your body the wrong way," says Calabrese. "A mirror can help. Keep resetting yourself and realigning yourself and focus on staying relaxed."

Focus on the concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) equally, she explains. And always work slowly -- two to three seconds in each direction.

"No momentum should be involved in strength training whatsoever," she says.

Gunning advises people to work through a pain-free range of motion and progress slowly.

Flexibility can be an asset in increasing a limited range of motion, she says, so stretching is beneficial -- particularly for the anterior deltoid. Something as simple as doing reverse shoulder rolls very slowly can help open the shoulders.

These exercises came from exercise physiologist and ACE spokeswoman Kelli Calabrese, who owns Calabrese Consulting LLC.

Perform two to three sets, 10 to 15 repetitions per set, of each of the following exercises:

Lateral Raise (Works Medial Deltoid)

  • Stand with your feet together. With a dumbbell in each hand, slowly lift the arms up towards shoulder height so that you form a "T" shape.
  • Pause at the top of the range of motion and slowly return to the starting position stopping just short of the arms touching the hips. To make this exercise more challenging pause for two to three seconds at the top of the range of motion.
  • Be sure to keep your shoulders down as you are lifting your arms up.
Alternating Front Raise (Works Anterior Deltoid)
  • Stand with feet together and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing towards you.
  • Slowly raise your right hand up in front of you with a slight bend in your elbow.
  • Pause at the top when you reach shoulder height and slowly return to the starting position, stopping where there is still tension on the shoulder.
  • Complete all repetitions and then repeat on the left side.

To make this exercise more challenging, pause for two to three seconds at the top of the range of motion.

Prone Shoulder Extension (Works Posterior Deltoid)

  • Lie face down with your arms by your sides.
  • Place a dumbbell in each hand and turn your palms facing up.
  • Lift your arms up towards the ceiling pausing at the top of your range of motion.
  • Slowly return to the starting position, stopping just short of your hands touching the floor.

Tip: Always work the shoulders after your back or chest work since the shoulders are involved in all back and chest work. If you fatigue them first, you will not be fully challenging the larger muscles of the upper body.

Originally published June 1, 2004.
Medically updated December 2005.

SOURCES: Nicole Gunning, exercise physiologist; and manager, Unilever Cosmetics International's corporate fitness center. Kelli Calabrese, MS, CSCS, ACE, exercise physiologist; and president, Calabrese Consulting LLC.

©2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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