Introduction

After any shoulder problem, it's important to get movement and strength back. This supports tissue healing and will help you get moving again.

You may not be able to return to your usual exercise levels immediately and improvements may be slow to start with. However, a gradual return to normal activities is the best way to get good short and long term results after a shoulder problem.

When doing exercise you should listen to your pain levels, especially in the early stages. You may find that these exercises increase your symptoms slightly in the beginning. However, they should get easier over time and, with regular practice, can help to improve movement in the shoulder.

If the exercises do cause some discomfort then taking prescribed medication from your GP or pharmacist may help to keep you exercising.

How to tell if you're exercising at the right level

This guide can help you to understand if you're exercising at the right level. It'll also let you see how much pain or discomfort is acceptable.

It can be helpful to rate your pain out of 10 (0 being no pain 10 being the worst pain you have ever had), for example:

  • 0 to 3 - minimal pain
  • 4 to 5 - acceptable pain
  • 6 to 10 - excessive pain

Pain during exercise

Aim to keep your pain within a rating of 0 to 5. If your pain gets above this level, you can change the exercises by:

  • reducing the number of times you do a movement
  • reducing the speed of a movement
  • increasing rest time between movements

Pain after exercise

Exercise shouldn't make your existing shoulder pain worse overall. However, practicing new exercises can sometimes cause short term muscle pain as the body gets used to moving in new ways. This kind of pain should ease quickly and your pain should be no worse the morning after you’ve exercised.

How many and how often

You should add exercises into your routine gradually to help your shoulder pain. 

Movement exercises

Repetitions are how often you do a single movement. When starting new exercises, it can be helpful to do 2 to 3 repetitions at a time.

It’s better to do small amounts throughout the day. For example, practise your repetitions every hour.

As this gets easier, and if you feel able to, add 1 or 2 repetitions to your movements every few days.

As you become able to do more repetitions, it can be helpful to break things up into sets. This means you could do more repetitions at a time but you'll do them less often throughout the day. For example:

  1. Do 8 repetitions.
  2. Rest for a minute.
  3. Repeat another set of 8 repetitions.
  4. Repeat this 2 to 3 times a day.

Over time you can try to increase the number of repetitions you do. You should aim for a maximum of 2 sets of 15.

Stretching exercises

The aim of a stretch is to hold a position for a longer period of time. Over time this can help to improve your range of movement. 

When doing the exercise you should be able to feel a gentle stretch. This shouldn't be sore or uncomfortable.

You should try to hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds if possible.

Try to focus on doing sets of exercises. For example, do 2 to 3 sets of stretches. Aim to do this 2 to 3 times a day.

As you do more stretching you should feel your range of movement improve and you’ll be able to stretch further.

When to stop

Stop these exercises if they make your symptoms worse, or if they cause new pain.

If your shoulder pain worsens while following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Help and support

If your shoulder pain hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Arm swings: Forward and back

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise while standing.

Swinging your arm from front to back is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
With a table or chair next to you for support, lean forward so that one arm hangs straight down. Place your other hand on the table or chair for support.
Slowly swing your free arm backwards and forwards and gradually increase the length of the swing.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Arm swings: Side to side

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise while standing.

Swinging your arm from left to right is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
With a table or chair next to you for support, lean forward so that one arm hangs straight down. Place your other hand on the table or chair for support.
Slowly swing your free arm from left to right and gradually increase the length of the swing.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Arm circles

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise while standing.

Rotating your arm clockwise and anti-clockwise is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
With a table or chair next to you for support, lean forward so that one arm hangs straight down. Place your other hand on the table or chair for support.
Slowly rotate your free arm clockwise as if drawing a circle with your hand and occasionally change direction.
Gradually increase the size of the circle.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Shoulder flex

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise while lying down. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Bringing your arms up, over and back down again is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Lie on your back with your arms by your sides and your knees bent.
Clasp your hands in front of your body.
Lift your arms up over your body.
Continue to lift your arms so that they end up straight over your head.
Bring your arms back over the body and down. Your hands should now be clasped in front of your body once again.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Side rotation with weight

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise lying on your side. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Lifting the weight up and down in one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Lie on your right side with a cushion to support your neck. Your left arm should be bent at a right angle out in front of your body. You can place a light weight (like a tin of beans) in your left hand if you like.
Keeping your arm bent and a right angle, lift your hand so that it points towards the ceiling.
Gently bring your arm back to the starting position.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Wall slide

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise while standing.

Bringing your arms up and down is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Stand facing a wall with your arms at right angles out in front. Your thumb should be facing away from the wall and your forearms should be aligned with the wall.
Keep your shoulder blades back and gently squeeze together the muscles in this area, then slowly raise both arms upwards. Keep your shoulder blades back and together. Maintain the shoulder blade starting position as far as you can.
Slowly lower your arms to return to the starting position.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Last updated:
12 May 2022