Shoulder Rehab Exercises to Get You Back in the Game

If you've recently injured your shoulder, get back in the game faster with exercises, stretches and principles from STACK Expert Jim Carpentier.

Shoulder Stretch

Tweaked your shoulder during practice, in a game or in the weight room? Shoulder injuries can include severe tears, painful separations and dislocations, mild strains and other issues that restrict range of motion. Major shoulder injuries can result in season-ending surgery and/or a prolonged recovery and rehabilitation program. Your school's athletic trainer and team doctor can help oversee your rehab program and physical therapy regimen.

For lingering shoulder stiffness and minor discomfort, a combination of ice and moist heat applications, deep tissue massage (using your fingertips, a tennis ball or a foam roller), gentle stretching and shoulder exercises should get you back in the game sooner rather than later.

Shoulder Rehab Exercises

Hanging Arm Circles

This is a popular shoulder rehab exercise to help restore range of motion and erase stiffness.

  • If your right shoulder needs attention, place your left hand on the edge of a desk or table, slightly bend your knees and lean forward with your head up and right arm hanging in front of your right leg.
  • Gradually make small to large clockwise circles with your right arm, then counterclockwise large to small circles.
  • Repeat sequence 5 times

Medicine Ball Wall Roll-ups

This exercise promotes upper body flexibility, helps restore full range of motion and is gentle on the shoulders.

  • Assume an athletic stance while facing a wall about a foot and a half away.
  • Using the fingertips on both hands, slowly roll a light medicine ball or basketball up the wall to a comfortable range, then slowly roll it down the wall as you descend into a squat position.
  • Repeat 5-10 times.

Dumbbell Shoulder Shrugs

If you are unable to raise your arms overhead due to a lingering shoulder issue, dumbbell shoulder shrugs are generally a safe exercise to build up the trapezius and upper back muscles supporting the shoulders.

  • Hold light to moderately-heavy dumbbells at your sides and keep your arms straight.
  • Slowly raise your shoulders to ear height, pause one second at the top, and slowly lower.
  • Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Prone and Standing Shoulder Blade Squeezes

  • Lie face down on a bench with your arms at your sides.
  • With your arms slightly bent, slowly raise your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Pause one second and return to start.
  • Perform 10 reps.

Perform the shoulder blade squeeze exercise while standing up.

  • Interlace your hands behind your head.
  • Slowly bring your elbows back while squeezing your shoulder blades together for a one second pause.
  • Perform 10 reps.

Cross-Transfer Principle

The cross-transfer principle was first discovered at Yale University way back in 1894 to facilitate healing of an injured limb by exercising the opposite healthy limb. For example, if the right leg were injured, instead of resting the entire body while the right leg healed, the left leg and upper body would be exercised and strengthened, followed by an active recovery. This produced beneficial endorphins and enhanced blood flow throughout the body and around the injured limb, contributing to a faster recovery and limiting muscle loss around the damaged leg. With this approach, you can safely perform seated lower body exercises to help a shoulder injury.

Deep Tissue Massage With Fingers

Knots and so-called trigger points in the shoulder can limit range of motion and cause pain.

  • For front right shoulder pain, press your left thumb around the muscle and probe to locate a knot or trigger point that's causing pain or stiffness.
  • Press your thumb deeply into the muscle and hold for 10 seconds.
  • Slowly release and repeat twice more (use your right thumb for left front shoulder issues).
  • For lateral and rear deltoid problems, use your index and third fingers to press firmly once you find a knot or trigger point.

Tennis Ball or Foam Roller for Deep Massage

You can do deep massage on your shoulder muscles with a tennis ball or foam roller. The tennis ball is effective for focusing on small areas.

  • For a lateral deltoid ache, lie on your side on a mat with the tennis ball against the side of your shoulder.
  • Put your full weight against the tennis ball until you focus on the trigger point.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, release and repeat twice.
  • For a rear deltoid problem, lie on your back with the tennis ball on the rear deltoid and press down on the ball with your full weight until the source of pain is located.

Placing the side or back of your shoulder on a foam roller also helps loosen tight muscles and relieve soreness.

Shoulder Stretches

Cross Shoulder Stretch

  • For right shoulder stiffness or soreness, place your left hand across your right elbow and slowly pull your right shoulder across your chest.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Slowly release and repeat twice.
  • Do the same for left shoulder issues by placing your right hand on your left elbow and slowly pulling your left shoulder across your chest.

Wall Stretch

  • To stretch a tight or sore right shoulder, stand a foot away from a wall with your right knee slightly bent toward the wall and left foot back.
  • Place your left hand at about ear level on the wall and extend your right hand above your head.
  • Slowly lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch in your right shoulder.
  • Hold 10 seconds and repeat twice.
  • Do the same on the opposite side.

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