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How to shoulder the weight for strong arms

Michelle Obama's toned arms have inspired many women to refocus their gym efforts on their shoulders, arms and back. And with warmer weather around the corner, many women are turning up the heat in the gym to get tank top-ready limbs. 

While strength training is the most effective way to condition your arms, most women are more flexible than men and can be more prone to certain types of shoulder injuries. Here is our advice to help you keep your body's most complicated joint—your shoulder—healthy and pain free.

  1. Always perform an appropriate dynamic warm up routine that includes rotator cuff strengthening exercises and scapular stabilizer (upper back muscles) exercises.
  2. Make sure you know how to do the strength training exercises correctly. This includes proper form, range of motions and amount of resistance. If you have questions, find a qualified personal trainer or instructor to help you.
  3. Avoid too much upper body lifting in a short time frame. For example, do upper body lifting two or three times per week instead of five to seven times. Your muscles need time to repair and recover between workouts. It's good to alternate days and muscle groups: upper body one day, followed by lower body the next.
  4. Add variety to your exercise routine to avoid overuse injuries and keep your body challenged. Overhead lifting can put a lot of stress and strain on the shoulder joint, which will lead to injury over time. The bench press, military press, lateral raise and dips are also very hard on shoulders. Body-weight strength exercises can be a good alternative, but it is important to avoid the extremes of motion.
  5. Maintain good flexibility and range of motion in your upper body, especially the shoulders. Maintaining good flexibility allows all muscles to appropriately functional in all activities of daily living and at the gym. 
  6. If an exercise causes pain, or you don't feel strong enough to attempt something, don't do it. You can use a number of modifications to some of the weight training exercises in the gym. One important modification is to avoid allowing your arms to extend past the midline of the body with pushing exercises, such as bench press and push-ups. For example, allowing the bar to touch your chest during a bench press. Here is a list of weight lifting modification we suggest to patients.
  7. There is a difference between muscle fatigue and pain and you should not push through the pain just to finish a class or set. Talk with a personal trainer or instructor to first make sure you are doing the exercises correctly. If it still hurts, it might be time to re-evaluate that exercise and look for an alternative or modified exercise until you are stronger.

You should see a shoulder specialist if you experience:

  • persistent pain that doesn't go away after a week or two
  • pain and stiffness that stops you from getting your hand over your head
  • a fall on the shoulder, which causes an increase in shoulder pain or decrease in function
  • inability to fall asleep at night because of shoulder pain for weeks or months at a time


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