10 Best Shoulder Exercises for Osteoarthritis

by K. Aleisha Fetters Health Writer

It might seem counterintuitive, given that movement causes you pain right now, but exercising your shoulders is one of the best things you can do to slow the progression of shoulder osteoarthritis (OA), says Phillip Bennion, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Phoenix Spine & Joint in Arizona. Strengthening the deltoids, rotator cuffs, triceps, and biceps reduces stress placed directly on the joints while moving nutrient-rich blood to the joints and clearing out inflammation, says Blake Dircksen, doctor of physical therapy with Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Talk to your doctor about adding these 10 shoulder moves to your routine.

shoulder stretch

How to Do These Shoulder Moves

“Each person experiences shoulder OA a bit differently,” says Dircksen, so pay attention to what feels comfortable for you and stick to pain-free ranges of motion. For all moves, do one to four sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, up to three times per week on nonconsecutive days. If you feel any joint pain during or after exercise or notice a decline in shoulder range of motion, stop what you’re doing and talk to a professional for individualized help, says Brian Schwabe, doctor of physical therapy, a Los Angeles-based sports physical therapist.

Jason Hoffman

Wall Angel

Dircksen recommends performing this exercise on its own or at the beginning of your workouts. It’ll warm up your rotator cuff muscles and improve overhead shoulder mobility (think: reaching overhead).

How to: Stand with your back against a wall and your arms out to your sides, elbows bent at 90 degrees like goal posts. Your hips, back, shoulders, elbows, and back of your hands should all touch the wall. Maintaining these contact points (without arching your lower back), straighten your arms and slide them up the wall as high as possible. Pause, then slide your arms back down to start.

Jason Hoffman

Foam-Roller Wall Slide

This move strengthens your serratus anterior muscle. Located along the side of your torso, underneath your armpit, it helps control your shoulder blades and reduce potential grinding within the shoulder joints.

How to: Press a foam roller against the wall in front of you with the sides of your hands, elbows bent. Pull your shoulders in front of you to flatten your upper back. Maintaining this position, with a braced core, extend your arms to roll the roller up the wall. Pause, then lower your hands back to start without letting go of the upper back and core position.

Jason Hoffman

Banded Pull-Aparts

Strengthen rear deltoids and muscles surrounding your shoulder blades with this joint-friendly resistance-band move, says Schwabe. It’ll also help improve your posture.

How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a resistance band in front of your shoulders with an overhand grip, elbows straight but not locked. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together to draw your hands out to your sides, stretching the band across your chest. Hold three counts and release. Place your hands closer together or choose a stronger resistance band to make the exercise more challenging.

Jason Hoffman

Side-Lying Shoulder External Rotation

This is one of the best moves you can do to isolate the rotator cuff muscles for better joint stability. Dircksen recommends using a one- to five-pound hand weight.

How to: Lie on your side, head supported by your bottom arm. Hold a light dumbbell in your top arm’s hand, elbow tucked into your side and the weight hanging toward the floor, palm facing your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you move your forearm up to rotate the weight toward the ceiling. Don’t let your elbow move. Pause, then slowly rotate the weight back toward the floor.

Jason Hoffman

Bench Press

Pushing exercises are vital to overall shoulder strength, Dircksen says. If, at the bottom of your chest presses, you feel any discomfort in the front of your shoulders, use a shallower movement.

How to: Lie on your back on a stable surface, like a bench, and raise a pair of dumbbells directly toward the ceiling. Position your palms to face your knees. Bend elbows and lower the weights toward your chest, keeping your upper arms perpendicular to ceiling. Pause, then press the weights back up to start.

Jason Hoffman

Incline Push-Up

Like the bench press, the push-up is a great way to build shoulder strength. The difference is that the push-up is “closed chain.” Your hands are fixed throughout the move, meaning you need less shoulder stability to perform the move with good form, Dircksen says.

How to: Place your hands on a stable surface, just greater than shoulder-width apart, and step your feet behind you, creating a straight line from your head to your feet. Engage your core and squeeze your shoulders down and away from your ears. Lower your chest to your hands, bending your elbows diagonally away from your body. Pause, then press through your hands back to start.

Jason Hoffman

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Pulling exercises build strength through the back of the shoulder to balance out pushing strength, Dircksen says. This variation is ideal for letting you train each side separately.

How to: Hold a medium dumbbell in your left hand with a neutral grip, stagger your feet—right foot in front—and bend at the waist to place your right hand on a sturdy knee-height surface. Keeping your back straight, bend left arm and raise the weight to your waist. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears and your left elbow in close to your side. Pause, then slowly lower to start. Repeat all reps, then switch sides.

Jason Hoffman

Scaption Shoulder Raise

This exercise is a great alternative to traditional front and lateral shoulder raises, which can sometimes cause shoulder grinding and discomfort. Performing diagonal raises with a neutral grip gives the upper-arm bone more room to move in the shoulder joint, Dircksen says.

How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip. Your arms should be straight but not locked out. Keeping your torso upright and stationary, raise the weights diagonally in front of you, leading with your thumbs. When your arms reach shoulder height, pause, then slowly lower the weights back to start.

Jason Hoffman

Rear Delt Fly

Without dedicated rear-deltoid training, the back of the shoulders can lack the strength they need. This exercise fixes that. If you notice any discomfort, try stopping each rep when your elbows reach torso height, Schwabe says.

How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge at the hips to lower your torso diagonally toward the floor. Let your arms hang, palms facing each other. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, squeeze your shoulder blades back and together to raise the weights out to your sides as far as comfortable. Pause, then slowly lower the weights to start.

Jason Hoffman

Incline Dumbbell Press

Vertical presses help you do common overhead movements (like lifting a suitcase into an airplane bin) safely, but they can be stressful on the shoulder, Schwabe says. Work up to them with incline presses. If you experience any discomfort, limit how far you lower the weights or use a more neutral grip.

How to: Sit on an incline bench. With elbows bent, hold a medium dumbbell in each hand next to your shoulders, palms facing forward or slightly inward. Keeping your back flat against the bench, press the weights up over your ears. Pause, then slowly lower the weights back to start.

K. Aleisha Fetters
Meet Our Writer
K. Aleisha Fetters

Aleisha is a Chicago-based certified strength and conditioning specialist who uses her background in research and communication to help people empower themselves through smart strength training. Other than HealthCentral, Aleisha contributes to publications including Time, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, SELF, and U.S. News & World Report. She is the co-author of The Woman’s Guide to Strength Training. She can usually be spotted in workout clothes and/or eating.