The Outdoor Athlete’s Guide to Strong Shoulders
Good fitness is about more than just powerful legs and core
In endurance sports, your lower body tends to get all the glory. But the truth is that your upper-body muscles—especially your shoulders—play a huge role in your success.
Your shoulder marks the spot where your upper arm connects to the rest of your body (the glenohumeral joint) and the point at which all arm and some back movements begin (the rotator cuff). The shoulder helps you send at the crag, power up hills, and balance while you ski. It’s the most mobile, versatile joint in the body—but it’s also the least stable, says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and coach with Running Strong in Atlanta. This means that over time, especially with repetition—a hallmark of endurance sports—you’re likely to see overuse injuries, pinched muscles or nerves, and damaged rotator cuff muscles.
Build shoulder strength and stability by integrating these exercises into your weekly workouts. Start with minimal loads, performing two to three pain-free sets of eight to 12 reps for each exercise. If anything hurts, stop immediately and correct your form. If the problem continues, talk to a physical therapist.
#1. Wall Slide
Stand tall with your heels, glutes, and back pressed flat against a wall. Bend your elbow to about a 90-degree angle, and place the back of your hands and arms as close as you can to the wall, without arching your back, so they form “goal posts.” From here, with your chin tucked in, slowly slide your arms up the wall as high as you can, allowing them to straighten. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to start.
#2. Side Shoulder External Rotation
Lay on your side, and rest your head on your bottom arm. Hold a light dumbbell in your top hand, and hold it against your stomach with your elbow bent to 90 degrees and tucked into the side of your torso. From here, keeping your elbow in place, use your shoulder to rotate the dumbbell until it is directly over your torso. Pause, then slowly lower to start. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
#3. Lat Pull-Down
Sit at a lat pull-down station and grab a long bar with your hands greater than shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Flex your core and maintain a flat back with just a slight lean backwards. From here, squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, then pull through your arms to bring the handle in front of your head to your collarbones. Pause, then slowly return to start.
Get in a high-plank position with your hands slightly wider than and in line with your shoulders, your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core and keep your shoulders pulled back away from your ears. From here, bend your elbows to row your body down until your chest nearly touches the floor. Your arms should form 45-degree angles with your torso. Pause, then push through your hands to start.
#5. Hammer Curl to Press
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides, palms facing in. Pin your shoulders in place and brace your core. From here, simultaneously curl both dumbbells to your shoulders, then press them directly overhead until your elbows are nearly straight with a micro-bend and the weights almost touch. Make sure not to arch your back as you press the weights overhead. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
#6. Scaption Raise
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides, palms facing in. Pin your shoulders in place and brace your core. From here, raise both weights at a 45-degree angle toward the sides of your body until they reach shoulder height. Pause, then slowly lower to return to start.
#7. Stability Ball Rear-Delt Raise
Lie facedown with your torso on a stability ball and your legs spread shoulder-width apart, toes braced against the floor for support. Your body should form a straight line from head to heels. Brace your core. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang at your sides toward the floor, palms facing in and with a slight bend in your elbows. From here, maintaining that bend, squeeze your shoulder blades together to raise the weights to your sides until they are parallel with your shoulders. Pause, then slowly lower to start.