50 Shades of Shoulders

10,000 Steps for the Legs, what about the Shoulders?

Over Christmas and the New Year Period I went on holiday to Morocco, and you know how it is when you go away, especially in a foreign country, you walk, and walk, and walk.

Whilst trip trapping around Marrakech, often lost,  I got to thinking: What about the shoulders?   Walking really only utilises half of our limbs.  Shouldn’t we dedicate some time and effort to moving  the other half ?

We know we should move more, and many people use the 10,000 steps per day as a goal to aim for.  That figure might not have an evidence base, but it definitely serves as a useful goal or benchmark.

Why move the body?

  • to avoid being stationary, often in a chair, for long periods.
  • the cardio vascular system cannot do the entire job of pumping the blood around the body.  This sounds a little crazy but it’s true:  the pumping action of the heart needs the assist of muscle contraction to help spread the blood throughout the limbs, particularly in the extremities.
  • the bones need to be loaded and worked in order for them to stay strong and healthy
  • all the joints need to be moved regularly through a full range of movement to stay functional and healthy
  • to burn calories
  • to keep warm – even a bit of movement is surprisingly effective in staving off feeling chilly
  • all the muscles need to work via resisting load (dumb bells etc or day to day weight in the form of carrying shopping, saucepans, machinery, buckets etc)  in order to stay strong and healthy

Walking will address many of these issues, but of course, it doesn’t particularly affect the arms and shoulders.

This is a big deal – we rightly think that we need to move the legs more but we have four limbs, not two.  Are we forgetting to address the top half of the body?

Does it matter? Well, what can the arms/shoulders do?

  • Push, pull and carry loads
  • Allow us to hang and swing
  • Lift loads from the floor, reach them above our head
  • Repetitive pounding , chopping actions
  • Reaching, grabbing, throwing actions

What do we generally do with our shoulders?

  • Eating, drinking, food preparation
  • Driving, cycling, walking with our arms by our side
  • Desk based activity
  • Carrying – bags, children

Our shoulder are designed for big ranges of movement and we simply don’t use the range routinely.  Even in the gym there is an emphasis on strength work rather than mobility, and that is often working the upper arms and chest at the front, omitting or neglecting the upper back.

Our failure to move the shoulders enough means that they are tight – like the hip flexors at the front of the legs.  They are weak, particularly at the back of the body because we sit, often for long periods, with the body and arms slightly shifted forwards.  We risk osteoporosis due to a failure to load the arms, shoulders and upper spine.  We compromise their function through lack of use which means we end up unable to utilise them fully.  For instance, they won’t support body weight in exercises like a box press up and we can’t get the arms lifted though full range.

In short, our shoulders need the equivalent of 10,000 steps.  How about 50 specific, planned movements a day, beyond the basics that we already do?

50 shades of shoulder movement?   Catchy title eh? I wonder what gave me that idea?  (For more on this, check out my one and only book review at https://www.pilates-leeds.com/fifty-shades/ )

Well there are plenty to chose from – and to prove it I’ve listed 50 separate moves encompassing the tremendous variety  that our shoulders are capable of.

What is the bare minimum?  arm overhead reach and shoulder circles in both directions without flaring the rib cage or bending the spine at the back; also a chest stretch.

What would be even better?  all over the above, plus,  shoulder blade circles both directions; upper back stretch, neck stretch, and load the shoulders – press ups,  or pulling, reaching, pushing weight.

What would a daily routine of 50 shoulder movements look like?    It could look like many things.  Here is one example:

1 & 2:       When you go through a doorway, reach up and push your fingertips into the door frame.  Don’t let your ribcage rise as well

3:             Chest stretch with hands clasped at your back . Hold for 30 seconds and breathe steadily

4:             Chest stretch, leaning with bent elbows in to a door frame. Hold for 30 seconds and breathe steadily

5 & 6:      Side bend with your arm over head (This stretches the shoulder and the Latissimus dorsi, the big muscle of the back and also articulates the spine; Keep moving and go in both directions.  Repeat twice

7 – 16:      Arm circles (both directions) , 10 repetitions

17 – 26:   Side straight arm raise.  No dumbbell? Use a 1.5 kg bag of food.  Back in the day I’d have suggested sugar, but well, 2 bags of that at home… doubtful! I recommend a jar of food. You’d be surprised how hard it is if you sustain the outreached arm for a second or too.

 27 – 36:  Reverse Flye.  Squat with a 1 kg or 1.5 kg load (as per the above) in your hand, arm straight to the floor.   Straight arm raise out to the side.  10 repetitions

37- 46:    Wall press up – easier than from the floor and surprisingly effective . 10 repetitions

47:           Upper Trapezius stretch, that is a neck stretch by gently bending your ear to your shoulder, taking care not to elevate either shoulder. Hold for 15 seconds per side and breathe steadily

48;          Alignment drill – ongoing throughout the day, whenever you remember.  Learn to maintain the correct placement of the shoulder blades on the ribs with width in the collar bones and the shoulder blades.  Remember the shoulder blades should be talking to your arms.  Don’t hold them in place by squeezing them at the back

49:         Also an ongoing Alignment drill in the seated position: sit tall and relax the shoulder blades out of the ears.  Not related to the shoulders, but also sit up in the pelvis and sit on the sit bones

50          In All Fours, Pilates Knee Hover, to test shoulder stability under load.  Probably one is enough!

Door Frame Reach


Side bend with overarm reach
Side Bend


Side Arm Raise


Reverse Flye
Neck Streth


Knee Hovever

(For the chest stretches and the wall press ups see the You Tube Clips below)

Fifty shades: The Epilogue

Right then, here goes:

  1. STANDING UP:  Both arms straight up over your head (no shoulder blade elevation)
  2. STANDING UP:  Both arms backwards (neutral spine, head on top of the body)
  3. STANDING UP:  Both arms up, hook the fingers over a door frame, reach the shoulder blades down a littleS
  4. STANDING UP:  Arms round – aiming for in a circular movement
  5. STANDING UP:  Arms both in a reverse circle
  6. STANDING UP:  Arms by your sides, shoulder blade circles – up, back, down (mostly), forwards
  7. STANDING UP:  Arms by your sides, shoulder blade circles in reverse.  Head position doesn’t alter.
  8. STANDING UP:  Bent elbows over a door frame, leave the arms, lean the body forwards (chest stretch)
  9. STANDING UP: Arms clasped at the back – chest stretch
  10. STANDING UP: Arms arms clasped at the back and add deep breaths – stretches different chest muscles
  11. STANDING UP: Reach straight arms straight in front, hands clasped, chin nodded, (between the shoulder blade stretch)
  12. STANDING UP: Upper body side bend; side bend to left, right arms arcs over the head (will stretch the Latissimus dorsi, aka the Lats)
  13. STANDING UP: Press up against a wall, using one arm or two
  14. STANDING UP: Front arm raise with weights
  15. STANDING UP: Side arm raise with weights
  16.  STANDING UP: Squat position,  reverse flye with weights (straight arms start out in front of you and arc backwards and in line with the shoulders)
  17. STANDING UP: Upright row from standing
  18. STANDING UP: Overhead row from standing (For this you need an exercise band around a pull up bar or equivalent)
  19. STANDING UP: Stand or sit underneath the bar and band and pull directly downwards – works the Lats in the mid back as opposed to the top of the shoulder
  20. STANDING UP: Adopt a squat position and row behind you.  All the row exercises targets the muscles at the back of the shoulder.  Different angles targets different bits of the muscles)
  21.  STANDING UP: Tricep overhead press (bent elbows pointing down, hands beside the shoulders – straighten the arms to the ceiling.  Neutral spine throughout)
  22. STANDING UP:  Shoulder rotation: Both arms bent, upper arm tucked into the body, rotate the arms inwards and outwards.  With our without an exercise band
  23. STANDING UP: Diagonal movement : right hand sweeping from the left foot to the ceiling on the right, repeat opposite side
  24. STANDING UP: As above with a weight.  Squat with a dumbbell in  between your legs, move to standing and send the arm overhead diagonal
  25. STANDING UP: Very Niche but totally valid: In your local park, find the children’s’ climbing frame, (or pull up bar, or the cable column at the gym) – hang
  26. STANDING UP: Very Niche, totally valid but for most of us idle fantasy:  Pull Ups.  Wide arm and narrow arm grip.  Good news:  Some gyms have an assisted pull up machine
  27. SIDE LYING ON THE FLOOR: Pilates Side Lying Open Book
  28. SIDE LYING ON THE FLOOR:  Arm Windmill
  29. SIDE LYING ON THE ELBOW:  Lift the pelvis, ie, Pilates modified side plank. The challenge here is shoulder stability and strength so two sides of the same coin
  30. ALL FOURS POSITION:  Press up
  31. ALL FOURS POSITION:  Shoulder blade press up, keep you elbows straight throughout. move up and down via the shoulder blades
  32. ALL FOURS POSITION:  Pilates Knee hover to challenge stability in the shoulders (often a challenge with plank type exercises)
  33. LYING ON YOUR STOMACH: Bent elbows out at shoulder height, forearms to the ceiling, lift the hands, and then the elbows, elbows no higher then the arms, spine neutral throughout
  34. LYING ON YOUR STOMACH: Arms straight over your head and on the floor,  alternate arm lifts
  35. LYING ON YOUR BACK: Shoulder circles and reverse circles, no rib cage movement
  36. LYING ON YOUR BACK: Toy Soldiers – opposite arms movements
  37. LYING ON YOUR BACK: Elbows at shoulder height, rotate the arms to the floor
  38.  LYING ON YOUR BACK: Weighted overhead arm reach; no rib cage lifting
  39.  LYING ON YOUR BACK:  Arms above the breast bone, squeeze a Pilates magic circle or soft ball
  40.  LYING ON YOUR BACK:  Weighted arms above the breast bone – arc the arms to the floor and back (Chest Flye)
  41. SITTING : hands on a chair or gym bench, lower your body down a little by bending and straightening the elbows
  42. SITTING:  on the floor with your  hands behind you , bend and straighten the arms
  43.  SITTING: hands behind you, Pilates modified supine leg pull, aka  “seated glute bridge”
  44. ON ALL FOURS: then sit back into your heels, arms reaching in front of you, creeping your fingers forwards (Lat stretch)
  45. WHEN OUT RUNNING: make sure that your upper arms are at your sides and the bent elbow drives directly back to send you forwards – no other orientation or range in the arms
  46. WHEN OUT WALKING: arms straight and relaxed by your sides, no arms rolling forwards, no elbows bent.
  47. NECK MOBILITY – relevant here, because tight upper traps can affect the shoulders and vice versa. rotate the neck through a full range of movement
  48. NECK MOBILITY – Similar to 48 but move your ear to your shoulder , no shoulder elevation – use a mirror to help
  49. POSTURAL:  sit and stand paying particular attention to the head position – retract it back so it sits on top of the neck
  50. POSTURAL:  Stand against a wall – glide the arms so that the top of the shoulders is as close to the wall as possible. Without squeezing the shoulders together
  51. POSTURAL:  When sitting, feel the difference between the shoulder blades resting gently on the rib as opposed to squeezing the shoulder blades together at the back

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