A woman does shoulder presses with both arms simultaneously holding two dumbbells while watching in the mirror.
Orthopedics & Spine

To strengthen muscles in your shoulders, try this simple exercise


November 29, 2021

Performing a few sets every other day can reduce pain

This at-home exercise is meant for stiff, achy or weak shoulders. It will stretch and strengthen the muscles and connective tissue that make up your shoulders. Doing several sets of shoulder presses per day, several days per week, will make a difference in strength and can help reduce stiffness and pain after several weeks.

This exercise is also functional — it is a movement you do every time you reach to something that is head-height or higher.

If you have shoulder problems, talk with your health care provider before doing this exercise. Ask your provider to demonstrate the exercise, if needed. Your orthopedist or physical therapist will explain how many repetitions you should do in each set, how many sets to do each day, and how much weight to start with. 

Perform this exercise while holding a weight in each hand. Using a pair of dumbbells is perfect, but if you don’t own any, substitute items you may have around the house. A can of tomatoes, for example, weighs nearly 1 lb. Place two cans of soup in a thick sock to create a weight of about 2 lbs. A full half-gallon jug of milk weighs a little more than 4 lbs. 

An alternative to working with weights — dumbbells or a substitute — is standing on a resistance band and gripping it at shoulder width, with both hands. You can buy resistance bands online or in sporting goods stores. Ask your physical therapist what level of resistance is appropriate for you to work with.

Breathe normally and use smooth movements. Stop if you feel any pain. If pain persists, call your health care provider. 

Keep your head and body still during the exercise. Feel your arms and shoulder blades move while you perform this exercise.

If your shoulders don’t have the range of motion to go all the way overhead: Performing this press in a slightly reclined position, such as sitting in a recliner chair, can help you perform the motion with less strain through your shoulders.

How to do a shoulder press

  • Hold a weight in each hand. Start with a weight that feels light to you. Or stand on a resistance band and grip it with both hands. Raise your elbows to shoulder level, palms facing inward, with your arms to the side and elbows forward at a 45-degree angle.
  • Raise both arms until they’re almost straight. Hold for one second. Lower the weights with control (don’t let your arms suddenly drop). If it is too difficult to press your arms until they’re nearly straight, try standing on the band with one foot instead of two, and press your arms upward as much as possible.
  • Repeat 10 to 15 times, if you can do them without pain. (This is one set.)
  • Do three sets, if you can do them without pain, at least every other day.

    “When choosing weights and determining the number of repetitions that are right for you, remember that joints with arthritis benefit from exercise that uses low weight but many repetitions, mimicking functional movements,” said Vanderbilt University Medical Center physical therapist Adam Meidinger, DPT. Choose a weight that feels meaningful, Meidinger said, but doesn’t cause significant pain during or after the exercise. Or don’t use any weight at all when first starting this daily or nearly daily routine. If you cannot do 10 to 15 repetitions in a row, the weight you’re using may be too heavy for you, at least to start with — or the resistance band may have a higher resistance level than you can manage at first; try one that’s easier to stretch. (Your doctor or physical therapist can supply you with a resistance band or advise you on which type to buy.)

If doing this exercise with both arms at the same time is too difficult, do it with one arm at a time. Be sure to do the same number of repetitions and sets with each arm.

Hint: Playing music while doing this exercise makes it more enjoyable and gives you a steady beat to keep pace to. Just don’t pick music that’s too fast.

A middle-aged couple take a selfie standing outdoors on a deck in autumn.

If you’ve had an injury to your shoulder or deal with painful arthritis there, there’s help for healing and regaining function. Vanderbilt University Medical Center Physical Therapy offers personalized, one-on-one care and can help you return to your normal activities as soon as possible.

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Adam Meidinger is a physical therapist. He is certified in Neurologic Dry Needling by the IDN Institute; in Kinesiology and Biomechanical Taping Certified by NASMI; and holds a HawkGrips Level One IASTM certification. Meidinger works with patients in general orthopaedic, joint replacement, spine, sports and trauma therapy.