Remember what lifting weights was like in your 20’s?
Monday, of course, you started with chest. Bench press, inclines, dumbbell flys – pumping away, no shoulder pain at all.
Shoulder rehab exercises? No healthy 20-something weight lifter thinks about those.
And then you turned 50. And all of a sudden, your shoulders start bugging you.
The same routine that was so productive and so much fun back in the day, now leaves your shoulders killing you for a couple days afterwards.
What’s going on here? More importantly, what are you supposed to do about it?
In this post, we will take a look at some of the age-related changes that could result in shoulder pain when working out. And, I’ll show you 3 shoulder rehab exercises that you can easily incorporate into your strength training program to alleviate nagging shoulder pain.
Common causes of shoulder pain in guys over 50
In order for the shoulder joint to stay pain free, the joint surfaces must remain smooth, and the humeral head must remain centered in the shoulder joint. If the joint surfaces or surrounding muscles become damaged or weakened, misalignment can occur which eventually results in shoulder pain.
This can be caused by:
Arthritic changes – Over time, the articular cartilage covering the joint surfaces breaks down, and these surfaces become roughened. Two rough surfaces rubbing together during movement can cause pain.
Instability – Since your arms hang down from your shoulders, the shoulder joint is not supported by bone, but rather by tendons and ligaments. The greater the laxity of those tendons and ligaments, the more shoulder instability there will be, and the potential for pain and injury will be higher. (In physical therapy, we see this a lot with stroke patients in the shoulder of their affected side.)
Past injuries – When I was 18, I had surgery on my right shoulder to prevent recurring dislocations caused by wrestling. The surgery purposely limited my range of motion, so my shoulder wouldn’t keep popping out of the socket. Now that I’m 61, certain movements cause me discomfort that I don’t feel in my left shoulder.
Poor posture – As you get older, there’s a tendency to develop a slouched posture, which can adversely effect your shoulder joint mechanics. You start to sit and stand with rounded shoulders, which over time tightens the chest and frontal shoulder muscles, and weakens the rear muscles that are so important for avoiding shoulder pain.
Atrophy – This means a decrease in the size and strength, due to disuse, of the lesser-known shoulder muscles we talked about earlier that you never bothered to train when you were 25. If those muscles are weak, the deltoid will pull your humerus up against your acromion, causing a painful condition known as subacromial impingement.
Alleviating shoulder pain associated these types of problems via strategic muscle strengthening is the purpose of the shoulder rehab exercises I’m about to show you.
The shoulder rehab exercises
Exercise #1: Serratus press
The function of the serratus anterior muscle is to allow the forward rotation of the arm and to pull the scapula (shoulder blade) forward and around the rib cage. The scapula is able to move laterally due to the serratus anterior muscle, which is vital for the elevation of the arm.
You can work your serratus anterior muscles during any chest press exercise where you are pushing either straight forward (chest press machine, bench press) or downward (seated dip machine). Once your elbows are straight at the end of the movement, continue pushing forward while keeping your elbows straight to rotate your shoulder blades forward (video below).
Note: this won’t work on incline or overhead presses, you have to be pushing straight ahead or downward.
Exercise #2: Low trap pulldown
The lower trapezius is one muscle that plays an important role in scapula movement and positioning, and also dynamic scapula stability. The functional scapula motions of upward rotation, posterior tilt, and external rotation increase the width of the subacromial space during humeral elevation.
To isolate this part of the traps during a pulldown, at the beginning of the movement when your elbows are straight, try to pull your shoulder blades down and together first, then begin the pulldown (video below). Repeat for every rep.
Exercise #3: External rotation
The main function of the rotator cuff is to stabilize and center the humeral head in the joint socket, the glenoid cavity. In addition, these muscles tighten the joint capsule during shoulder movements.
You’ll need to have a dedicated exercise for external rotation, the movement can’t be incorporated into another exercise like the 2 movements we just talked about. A simple way to do this is sidelying with a dumbbell (video below). A little weight goes a long way on this one, start with the smallest dumbbell you have and work your way up as needed.
The bottom line on shoulder rehab exercises
For men over 50, there’s a lot of accumulated wear and tear over the years on the shoulder joints. By integrating these shoulder rehab exercises into your routine, you can help your shoulder joints stay in proper alignment and moving freely.
You can easily strengthen your serratus anterior muscles and lower traps without adding any time to your workout. Just add the movements described in this post into your chest press or seated dip exercise for serratus, and your pulldown for lower trap.
By adding these movements to exercises you’re already doing, you avoid increasing the overall volume of your workout, which eventually will compromise the intensity of the workout and make it less effective. (See this post for further explanation of the importance of maintaining a proper intensity-duration relationship in your workout).
Include the external rotation exercise at the end of your workout as your rebuilding exercise for that day. If you’re also working on rebuilding other body parts, do external rotation every other workout.
Making these simple changes will help keep your shoulders strong in a balanced way, alleviate weakness-related pain, and set you up to reach your highest possible level of pain-free shoulder joint function.