One muscle group that is especially prone to getting weak and problematic in seniors is the shoulders. In this post, you will learn about the best shoulder exercises for the elderly.
The shoulders are a source of a great deal of our upper body strength and mobility. When you have weak or sore shoulders, many everyday activities that you don’t regularly think about become very hard.
Reach for that big book on the top shelf? Hang up the laundry? Play with the grandchildren? Pretty much anything involving the use of your hands and especially lifting things overhead or in front of you becomes difficult with weak shoulders.
Even things like putting on a t-shirt can become hard as you get older if you don’t take care of your shoulder joints and their strength.
That’s why it’s important to keep your shoulders healthy, strong, and functional. In this post, you are going to learn how to do just that!
Let’s start with a quick recap of the anatomy of the shoulder joint and the musculature.
The Shoulder Joint
The shoulder joint is our most mobile joint and thus prone to injury and weakness. The joint connects our upper arm to our torso and is capable of an extremely high range of motion.
The shoulder joint is what’s called a ball and socket joint and medically it’s called the glenohumeral joint. It connects your upper arm (the humerus) to your torso at the shoulder blade (scapula).
The joint is surrounded by cartilage and there are several ligaments that play a key role in stabilizing the structure of the joint. The high mobility of the joint is at the expense of stability.
All the veins and nerves of your arms naturally pass through the shoulder joint and inflammation or injury at the joint can cause problems with the circulation or sensation of your arms and fingers.
If you suffer an injury or have a sore shoulder with tingling, numb or cold fingers, always consult a doctor immediately. In fact you should always consult a medical professional in case of any kind of shoulder issue before trying to resolve it yourself or you might make the problem worse.
The shoulder joint can have many problems in the elderly. As we age the cartilage and synovial fluid within the joint deteriorate. This can cause discomfort and inflammation.
The most common cause of shoulder pain in seniors are soft tissue lesions, like rotator cuff tendinitis, rupture, and impingement. Osteoarthritis is also a common reason for shoulder pain.
The Muscles Of The Shoulders
When we think of the shoulder joint it can be easy to think about it consisting of only one shoulder muscle. Actually, there are several muscles that directly connect over the shoulder muscles and several muscle groups that affect the function of the joint.
The main shoulder joint moving muscles are called the deltoids. They consist of three muscles on each side. The front, the middle, and the rear deltoids.
There are also several smaller muscles within the shoulder joint, which are responsible for the rotation and stabilization of the joint. These are referred to as the rotator cuff. Due to their small size and the large range of motion of the shoulder joint, they are very prone to injury. Rotator cuff injuries are typical in throwing sports like baseball.
Other muscle groups that affect the shoulder joints’ function include the trapezius or traps for short, which are responsible for raising and stabilizing the shoulder girdle. It’s easy to think of these as part of the shoulder musculature since they are active any time you lift something with your shoulders.
On the front side of your body, the pectoral muscles and on the rear the thoracic extensors and whole upper back musculatures like Latissimus dorsi and Rhomboids affect the correct position, stabilization, and thus function of the clavicle and shoulder joint.
Weaknesses and lack of mobility in any of these muscle groups can cause trouble in the functioning of your shoulder joint and its musculature, so it’s important to think of the body as a whole.
It’s impossible to isolate every one of these muscles but fortunately, you can train all of them with a couple of simple exercises.
Shoulder Stretches For Seniors
Before you start training your shoulders, it’s important to improve mobility to prepare them for the coming work. If you have not trained the full range of motion of your shoulders in a while, this might seem like a daunting task.
Here’s a great simple routine from HASFit YouTube Channel (YouTube embed, content not created or owned by ElderStrength.com):
As I pointed out earlier, the shoulder joint is very mobile and prone to injury. In older people who haven’t previously trained their shoulders, there are practically always mobility issues that need to be corrected in order to train the movements safely.
If you have done lots of manual overhead work (an electrician for example) during your career, your mobility and strength might be pretty good but you might suffer from problems concerning the joint and nerves that pass it.
If you have any pain or numbness when raising your hands above your head, you should consult your doctor before starting to strengthen your shoulder. It’s always wise to consult your doctor when starting a new exercise routine in older age anyways.
Now that we have the mandatory repercussions out of the way, it’s time to get to the exercises!
Best Shoulder Exercises For The Elderly
I like to divide shoulder exercises into four categories:
- 1. Rotator cuff exercises
- 2. Functional overhead movements
- 3. Isolated deltoid movements
- 4. Supportive musculature exercises
1. Rotator Cuff Shoulder Exercises For The Elderly
Because the rotator cuff is so prone to injury, it’s important to strengthen and keep these small muscles mobile.
The best rotator cuff exercise for seniors is the abducted external shoulder rotation. This movement uses the full range of motion in your shoulder. It can be done without any weight in the beginning and after that, you can use very light dumbbells or for example a water bottle.
You can find a great example of this exercise on the Therapeutic Exchange Vimeo channel: external shoulder rotation
When performing this exercise it’s very important to start light and focus on the correct movement pattern. Try to keep your upper arm as vertical as possible so that the only movement is rotational around its axis.
One good movement that protects the rotator cuffs and strengthens your rear deltoids is the Resisted Shoulder External Rotation with a band.
This can be done in combination with the abducted external shoulder rotation. Again it’s important to start light and focus on the correct movement pattern.
Keep your upper arms strictly on your sides with elbows bent at 90 degrees angle. Then rotate your forearms to around 45-degree angle from the midline or until you feel a good resistance on the band. Then return to the middle and repeat 5 to 20 times. This is a great shoulder exercise for the elderly with limited mobility.
2. Functional Overhead Movements For Seniors
Overhead dumbbell press is a great overhead movement that builds functional strength both in the deltoids and triceps. It will also train all the smaller muscles of the shoulders and the traps.
You simply take a dumbbell and hold it at your shoulder level. You then raise it in a straight line until it’s above your head with a straight arm.
The trick is to have a straight line from your midline. The most common mistake especially with older people is to raise it slightly in front of you. So watch yourself in a mirror, use a training partner and take a video if you have to.
It can be difficult at first but don’t get discouraged. Keep trying to move it in a straight line until you can get it consistently. Then start progressively adding weight or reps each workout. Start with very light dumbbells or even with empty arms.
The dumbbell press can be done single-handed or with both hands at the same time. Seated and standing are also possible. I recommend doing them standing as this improves balance and core strength. Just remember to activate your core to keep your back safe.
Seated overhead machine is a great finisher after the overhead dumbbell press or if you have problems with balance or standing up. Just make sure to keep your abs and core activities and start with lightweight.
You can learn more about overhead pressing movements in the article Shoulder Press For Seniors.
3. Isolated Deltoid Shoulder Exercises For The Elderly
Lateral raises are great for the middle deltoids. You simply hold dumbbells either with straight or bent elbows on your side and raise your arms to 90 degrees and return.
Cable face pull is a great but a bit tricky exercise that really targets the rear deltoids. The trick is to keep your elbows high, use very lightweight and pause the cable when you are close to your face.
4. Supportive Musculature Exercises
There are many great exercises that support the function of the shoulder. These include thoracic exercises, upper back exercises, and chest exercises.
Thoracic exercises for the elderly can be difficult if you have mobility issues in your upper spine. You can learn more about upper back mobility in the article Best Posture Corrector For Seniors.
One of the best upper back exercises for the elderly are different kinds of lat pulldown. Unless you are fit enough to do pull-ups, which are superior. You can learn more about the in the article Pull-Ups For Seniors.
The best chest exercise for seniors is the seated chest machine unless you are fit enough to do push-ups or dips with the correct form and a full range of motion. The bench press is also a suitable option for fit seniors.
I hope you enjoyed reading these tips for the best shoulder exercises for the elderly. If the post raised any questions in your mind please feel free to ask in the comment section below. I promise to return with an answer as soon as possible!
Shoulder health and strength are very important for your daily functional ability and active lifestyle as you get older. So please do your best to keep your shoulders strong, mobile, and healthy.
Always remember to start light and make sure your technique is correct. Consult a personal trainer if you are not confident that you can master these exercises on your own.
If you have any medical issues that concern your shoulders, please consult a doctor before doing these exercises.
With these exercises, it is possible to have healthy strong shoulders into old age. If you want to learn more about shoulder exercises for seniors, remember to check out the article Shoulder Strengthening Exercises For Seniors.
Thanks for reading and see you next time!
2 thoughts on “Shoulder Exercises For The Elderly [Simple Guide]”
This was a very timely post for me as I am currently having a few minor issues with shoulder pain, and it is a reminder that I need to focus on getting and keeping shoulder strength, so I am going to go over your exercises again.Is swimming good for shoulder strength as well? Thanks for your post.
Hi Phyllis! Thank you for the comment. Shoulder and upper body strength and mobility is paramount for preventing shoulder pain. Just be careful not to make your shoulder pain worse when you start strengthening your shoulders. It’s important to make sure there are no actual injuries or structural issues. You could just aggravate those with training the shoulders. So start with consulting your doctor and mobility training.
Swimming is great low impact exercise for the whole body. Shoulder are involved in virtually all styles of swimming to some extent so it might a very good option for you until you get your shoulder pain in check. All the best to you!