8 Shoulder Warm-Up Exercises To Kick-Start Your Upper-Body Sessions

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Let’s be honest, warming up your shoulders is not the most exciting part of your workout routine. Swinging your arms draws more attention in the gym than hopping on the treadmill to raise your heart rate, which might explain why many of us skip this crucial step. However, making time for a dedicated shoulder warm-up can dramatically improve your exercise performance. It’s also one of the best ways to protect your shoulders from injury.

Do you need to warm up your shoulders?

Yes, but don’t just take our word for it. “The shoulder is a complex structure. For stability, it relies heavily on the surrounding muscles and tendons. This dynamic stability allows for its wide range of motion, but it makes it more susceptible to injuries such as dislocations, strains and impingements,” says Florence Penny, a physiotherapist and the founder of Flow Physio London. Warm-up exercises make the shoulder joint more resilient to the demands of physical exercise by increasing the temperature and pliability of surrounding muscles and tendons. They’re particularly important for injury prevention in heavy weightlifting, competitive swimming and any sport that puts strain on this fragile joint.   

If you’ve ever had a shoulder injury, you will know how frustrating it can be. “Any shoulder injury is painful, mainly because we use our shoulders far more often than we think,” says Katie Knapton, a physiotherapist and the founder of PhysioFast Online. “They’re essential for daily functioning. Shoulder injuries also tend to disturb sleep, because many people sleep on their sides. Shoulder injuries can also take a long time to heal. For example, if you’ve had a significant rotator cuff injury, it will probably take three months to really get back to normal.” 

How should you warm up for shoulder exercises?

A well-rounded shoulder warm-up routine should feature dynamic stretches—simple exercises that take your joints through a wide range of motion—which can increase blood flow to the surrounding muscles, reduce tendon stiffness and increase your power output, according to a 2018 review in the journal Sports Medicine. They’re also a superior warm-up to static stretches. In fact, pre-workout static stretches can hinder your performance and put you at risk of injury, the review authors noted.    

The dynamic stretches should cover all planes of movement: forward and backward flexion, adduction and abduction (raising your arms to the sides and lowering them back down), as well as internal and external rotation. Ideally, exercises should also take into account individual muscular imbalances and weaknesses. “[In many people], the upper trapezius and pectoralis major tend to be dominant, while the lower trapezius and rotator cuff muscles tend to be underdeveloped,” says Penny. As such, it’s always a good idea to combine shoulder warm-up exercises with upper back and chest movements. 

Dynamic stretches should be energetic enough to raise your heart rate and boost blood flow to the muscles, yet not so forceful that they are entirely driven by momentum. The purpose of warming up is not to exhaust the muscle, but to activate it. In fact, ballistic stretching can do more harm than good. Studies have shown that aggressive movement such as this can increase your chances of muscle tears and tendon strains rather than alleviate them, according to a 2018 review published in Sports Medicine

Shoulder Warm-Up Exercises

This eight-move routine uses dynamic stretches covering all planes of motion. It’s a good option for beginners, people with poor posture and those recovering from injuries when preparing to do shoulder workouts, routines that feature shoulder exercises, and upper-body workouts in general. Just remember to use light weights. It doesn’t take a lot of tension to increase your mobility and “wake up” your shoulder muscles. If you feel weighted dynamic stretches are not enough to prepare your body for a heavy workout session, consider adding more complex shoulder mobility exercises.

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Adam Smith is an accomplished individual who serves as an chief contributor at Healthify Magazine, a leading publication dedicated to promoting health and wellness. With a passion for empowering individuals to live healthier lives, Adam brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his role.