It’s often said that “clothes make the man” but if you want your clothes to look good, you need a good pair of shoulders to hang them on! It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, a well-developed set of shoulders can really add the finishing touches to your physique or figure.

And shoulders aren’t just about appearance, they are also vital for virtually every upper body movement you perform. As an added incentive for building better shoulders, they can also make your waist look smaller.

However, because of overuse, poor flexibility, dodgy posture, imbalanced program design, and general wear and tear, many people suffer from sore shoulders. The all-too common exercise prescription of overhead presses, side raises, and upright rows can make matters worse.

Thankfully there are plenty of effective no-pain shoulder exercises you can do but, of course, if you have a history of shoulder pain, you should get it checked out by a qualified medical professional.

1. Face pulls

Targeting the often under-developed but very important posterior deltoids, face pulls are a great shoulder-saver. They also work your middle trapezius and rhomboids which are located between your shoulder blades. If you want healthy shoulders, it’s often recommended that you do around twice the volume of puling exercises to pushing exercises and face pulls make a great antidote to all that bench pressing you probably do!

Stand facing a high cable machine fitted with a rope handle. With an end in each hand and arms straight, take a step back and adopt a staggered stance for stability. Squeeze your shoulders back and then pull the handles in toward your face; imagine putting your thumbs in your ears. Extend your arms and repeat.

This is NOT an exercise for heavy loads; you’ll end up being pulled forward and off balance. Instead use lighter loads and high reps – say 20.

2. Dumbbell overhead carries

Overhead pressing can be a real problem when you have sore shoulders but, when it comes to building your deltoids, it’s pretty hard to beat. This is a bit of a conundrum; you need to press weights overhead to build better shoulders but overhead pressing might hurt your shoulders. This exercise is the solution.

Carrying a weight overhead works your shoulder muscles isometrically which means that the muscles in question work very hard to prevent rather than cause movement. This places lots of muscle-building tension on your deltoids but very little on the shoulder joint.

Using a single dumbbell, use both hands to swing and lift it overhead. Once you have your balance, hold the weight aloft using one arm only. Brace your core and then take a walk around your training area. Focus in keeping your arm vertical and your shoulder girdle fully engaged. End your set when you feel like you are no longer able to maintain perfect form. Lower the weight and do an identical set on the opposite side.

3. Cable upright row with rope handle

Upright rows are a common and popular shoulder exercise but they can also cause shoulder pain. The combination of heavy weights, using a barbell which places the joints in a mechanically disadvantaged position, and forced inward rotation coupled with shoulder joint compression means that barbell upright rows can hurt as much as they build your shoulders.

Does this mean you have to say “bye bye” to what can be a very productive exercise? No! But you should modify it if you want to make them more comfortable for your aching shoulders.

Using a rope handle attached to a low cable means that your shoulders are free to move as your unique shoulder mechanics allow and also takes stress of your wrists and elbows.

Grab the rope handles and stand up straight. Bend your knees slightly for balance. Step back a pace so you’ll be pulling upward and backward at a slight angle. Leading with your elbows, pull the handles upward and outward until your hands reach mid-chest height. Make sure your elbows are higher than your hands. Lower the handles and repeat.

4. Partial overhead presses

In many instances, the most painful part of overhead barbell pressing is the start of the lift i.e. moving the bar from shoulder to head-height. If only you could shoulder press and avoid this troublesome range of movement...

This exercise does exactly that while still being a very effective shoulder exercise. As an added bonus, it’s a pretty cool triceps builder too.

Sitting on an uptight bench in Smith machine or a squat rack, adjust the starting height of the barbell to top of your head-height. Position yourself directly under the bar. Using a wider-than shoulder-width grip so your forearms are vertical, press the weight up to full extension and then lower it back to the top of your head.  

5. L side laterals

If you want to work your medial or side deltoids, side lateral raises are hard to beat. But, if you have sore shoulders, long levers can place a lot of stress on your shoulder joints. Using lighter weights and performing higher reps is one way to take the stress out of this exercise but you can also modify the lever length to make this it more shoulder friendly.

With a dumbbell in each hand, bend your arms to that your elbows are at 90-degrees. Keeping your arms locked in this position, raise your arms up and out to the side until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower your arms and repeat.

As well as being a great medial deltoid exercise, the variant also places a welcome load on your posterior deltoids too.

Sore shoulders are no fun at all but by removing a few of the usual suspects and replacing them with exercises less likely to cause pain, you should find that you can still work your shoulders hard and often. Remember though, doing twice as much pulling as pushing is a good way to keep your shoulders healthy in the first place.