A Pilates instructor recommends these five exercises to build strength and stability in your shoulders

Improve your posture, build better functional strength and help avoid injury with these physio-approved exercises

Instructor kneels next to woman holding plank position
(Image credit: Cavan Images / Getty Images)

Shoulders can tend to get overlooked when we work out, and we often only think about them when they claim our attention with stiffness, niggles or soreness. But did you know that strengthening the muscles around your shoulders can help keep them stable and healthy as well as help with posture and everyday functional strength?

"The shoulder is a shallow ball and socket joint that allows us to have a really big range of movement," says Helen O'Leary, physiotherapist and founder of Complete Pilates. "That range makes it more susceptible to injury. We rely more on the muscles and the tendons and the ligaments for stability. Overuse from repetitive movements like swimming or tennis can impact the shoulder, especially if you're not doing anything to protect and strengthen the muscles around the joint."

The right Pilates exercises can help protect and strengthen your shoulders, helping to reduce the likelihood of injury. "These five exercises will slowly and gradually increase the load around the shoulder and the muscles and stabilizers around that," says O'Leary.

About our expert
Helen O’Leary
About our expert
Helen O'Leary

Helen O'Leary is a chartered physiotherapist with a background in elite sports. She trained with Polestar Pilates and in 2015 she founded Complete Pilates, a rehab-focused Pilates studio with three central London locations.

1. Side lying shoulder external rotation

Reps: up to 15

Start with a light dumbbell between 1lb and 3lb so as not to overload the muscles (pairs of light dumbbells from Amazon cost less than $10). "This will target the rotator cuff muscles that sit around the back of the shoulder," says O'Leary. "It will help you to build general strength in there as well which will help with posture."

2. Banded L

Time: 30sec

Start with a light resistance band and then progress to a heavier band (we prefer sticking with a well-known brand such as Theraband when buying resistance bands). Your supporting shoulder is working hard to bear your weight and stabilize your body, and the arm that’s moving is working against resistance. "This is a nice one because you've got the two sides of you having to do two different things, like we do in our daily lives," says O'Leary.

3. Banded circles

Time: 30sec

This is similar to the banded L, but your arm traces a circle shape instead of an L-shape, which means the resistance constantly changes. "Weight-bearing exercises like this one will help with wrist strength and improve bone density, protecting against osteoporosis," says O'Leary. "You get a little bit more of a global effect around the shoulder and the back because you're trying to hold yourself up against gravity."

4. Modified side plank (on knees)

Time: 30sec

"In this modified side plank, you will get that really nice weight distribution with your arm out to the side of you, which we don't do very often when we're exercising," says O'Leary. "It’s a brilliant way of strengthening the whole shoulder and working on stability and strength in a different plane of movement."

5. Knee hover into push back

Reps: 8-12

"I love this one because it's quite a global exercise [the global muscles form part of your core]—the knee hover part will work your whole trunk which will stabilize your back and work your abdominals," says O'Leary. "Adding in that pushback is almost like reaching overhead, but it's doing it against the weight of your body and against the force of the mat so you're having to generate more of that force. That gives you some really nice stability in your arms and your shoulders. It works on your wrist strength too."

Contributing writer

Camilla Artault is a fitness writer with a passion for running and yoga. She interviews experts and writes about a wide range of topics for Fit&Well encompassing health, fitness and nutrition.