Have you ever gotten your upper body in pretty good shape, then noticed a new pain in your shoulder that comes and goes? Perhaps it bothers you when you raise your arm to the side or over your head. Sleeping on your "bad" side may also be uncomfortable. You may try to ignore it or take a couple of over-the-counter painkillers while continuing with your workout program. But the pain continues to nag after several weeks and you avoid moving your arm at any angle that triggers discomfort.
You may be hurting, but you are not alone. The shoulder is one of the more complicated joints in your body and is easily injured. This single joint allows an extraordinary array of movements. It enables you to lift your arms overhead and move them to the front, side and back of your body. In each of those positions, you can rotate your shoulders toward, or away from, your body. Your shoulders also help your arms push an object forward or pull it back.
It's no wonder that the shoulder is one of the most common areas of pain among my clients. Shoulder pain is also the most problematic complaint because it is difficult to determine the exact cause. Rather than pinpointing a single movement, it's usually a cumulative effect of many movements done at many angles that lead to what is called "overuse condition." It is especially frequent among swimmers, weightlifters and people who play tennis, baseball or basketball.
More than a dozen muscles are involved in shoulder function. Four of those muscles make up the rotator cuff, which stabilizes the shoulder joint during overhead activities. You must keep a balanced relationship among these muscles if you want to maintain an active lifestyle with pain-free shoulders.
Here's a simple, useful move to add to your repertoire that will improve strength and muscular balance in your rotator cuffs.
1. Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees and lean forward slightly, keeping your back straight and your abdominals pulled in. With your arms bent at a 90-degree angle, raise your elbows to the side, no higher than shoulder level. Your wrists should be directly below your elbows; don't move your elbows behind your body.
2. Keeping your elbows bent, rotate your shoulders and raise your forearms and hands until they are parallel to the floor. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears during this exercise. Slowly lower to the start position. Repeat 12-15 times. Perform three sets and rest for 20 to 30 seconds between sets.
When it comes to working your shoulders, keep in mind that you are strengthening small muscles that cannot handle heavy weights. Use lighter resistance (as little as 2 to 3 pounds in each hand) and more repetitions than you would with larger muscles.
Shoulder pain need not be par for the course with everyday activities and exercise. By performing this exercise regularly, you will help keep all muscles and tendons working smoothly, so you're free to move and armed for action.
Next month: thighs.
Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column. Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest video is "Abdominals & Back." She can be reachd at email@example.com. Her column appears the first Monday of the month.