Shoulder Workouts with Resistance Bands: Why Physical Therapists Love Them and How to Get Started
Resistance bands are a great tool for more effective shoulder workouts. Learn how to use them to reduce shoulder pain and improve shoulder mobility.
Your shoulder is one of the biggest and most complex joints in your body. It’s also one of the most important: It provides a wide range of motion in your arm that allows you to do everything from scratching your back to throwing a perfect pitch. It’s very important to keep the muscles around your shoulders healthy, supple, and strong so that you can continue to do all your day-to-day activities and hobbies. One effective way to do this — especially if you’re coming back from an injury or have a chronic condition that causes shoulder pain — is with resistance band shoulder exercises.
“Resistance bands are great because they allow you to strengthen your shoulder muscles, but unlike free weights, they don’t require you to use your entire range of motion,” says Nicole Stavale, PT, DPT, a physical therapist for Hinge Health. They can also be used for stretching and pain relief. Is it any wonder that they are a staple of physical therapy offices (and beloved by Hinge Health PTs)?
Here, learn more about the benefits of using resistance bands for healthy shoulders, and how to add them to your exercise routine.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Nicole Stavale, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Are Resistance Bands, Exactly?
Resistance bands are elastic bands that add tension to an exercise to make it more difficult and engage more muscles. There are several different types of resistance bands available, including:
Therapy bands are very versatile and are mainly used in physical therapy. They’re typically about four feet long, and they have a flat ribbon style so that you can tighten or loosen them as needed.
Loop bands, which are closed loops. These are popular for resistance training and are meant to be put around your feet, ankles, knees, or arms.
Figure 8 bands are shorter than the other two. They often have soft foam handles at each end and they’re pinched in the middle (making the band look like the number eight). The design stops the bands from riding up and down your legs, though that does make their usability more limited — they’re mainly used for lower body exercises.
Resistance bands usually come in a color-coded set. Green (or lighter colors) often indicates the lightest band or the one with the least resistance. Red (or darker colors) indicates a harder band. But since it’s not universal — companies don’t all follow the same color scheme — it’s generally a good idea to go with a set of bands that offers a good amount of variety. Keep in mind that you’ll probably want more resistance for exercises that require more strength (such as leg lunges) and less resistance when working smaller muscle groups (like a bicep curl).
Why Should You Use Resistance Bands?
Your shoulders are very versatile and respond well to a wide variety of workouts, whether it involves bands, weights, or machines. You don’t need to use them all the time. But there are some times resistance band shoulder exercises are particularly beneficial, says Dr. Stavale. For instance:
You want to build strength and resilience in your rotator cuff muscles. Standard shoulder strengthening exercises like bench presses, overhead presses, and even bicep curls are all great to keep this joint strong and healthy. But bands play a key role, too. “Bands are really good at strengthening smaller, stabilizer muscles, like the rotator cuff,” explains Dr. Stavale.
You’ve had a recent injury. If you’ve had a recent injury such as a rotator cuff strain or a tear, or even have shoulder arthritis, you may want to consider shoulder rehab exercises with bands. Band exercises can be a great way to get the shoulder joint moving again and slowly build back strength and mobility. “When you use a band, you don’t need to put your shoulder muscles through their entire range of motion,” explains Dr. Stavale, “but they do allow you to do isometric movements where you tighten or contract specific shoulder muscles.” This still activates the muscles, just in an easier way, especially if you start with a lighter resistance band.
You want to do a variety of shoulder exercises. It’s often easier to do shoulder mobility exercises with bands. “You don’t have to worry about using several sets of dumbbells that you need to switch out when you work different muscles,” says Dr. Stavale. It also saves time, since you don’t have to keep switching positions. “You can do most shoulder exercises with resistance bands in a standing position, whereas hand weights sometimes require a little bit of standing, sitting, and lying down,” points out Dr. Stavale.
General Benefits of Resistance Bands for Your Shoulders
We use resistance bands a lot in physical therapy since it’s a good way for patients to begin strengthening muscles and tendons after an injury, explains Dr. Stavale. Here are some other reasons you may want to consider resistance bands for your shoulder workouts.
They’re great for stretching. You’ll want to use a lighter band for stretches, as a very heavy one may not provide enough “give” for a stretch.
They help with injury recovery. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that resistance bands were as effective as supervised training in a physical therapy clinic.
They’re adaptable. “It’s a nice way to introduce resistance if you are just starting an exercise program, and people tend to find them more approachable than using weights,” says Dr. Stavale. As you gain strength, you’ll be able to increase or decrease resistance simply by shortening or lengthening your band.
They’re accessible. A set of resistance bands typically includes light, medium, and heavy options, which refers to how difficult the bands are to stretch. They usually cost about $25 — much less than investing in free weights for your home, or a gym membership. If you don’t already have bands at home, they’re usually easy enough to get.
Best Resistance Band Shoulder Exercises and Stretches
One major benefit of resistance band shoulder exercises is that you can easily add them to your existing workout routine — no expensive gadgets or gym membership is required. Here are some moves most highly recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists you can start with. Aim to complete three sets of 12-15 reps per exercise. You can start with a lighter resistance band and move on to a heavier one as you build strength and flexibility.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Check-In on Your Bands
“Many people are surprised to learn that resistance bands do have a shelf life,” says Dr. Stavale. Most resistance bands made from natural rubber can last anywhere from six to 10 months before they start to show signs of wear and tear. Synthetic bands may last longer — up to two years. Still, Dr. Stavale recommends inspecting your resistance bands frequently for cracks and tears. And remember: a little TLC can go a long way. For example, “try to avoid leaving them in direct sunlight for long periods since this can weaken bands and make them more likely to break,” she says.
Learn More About Hinge Health for Shoulder Pain Relief
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This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Rio, E., Kidgell, D., Purdam, C., Gaida, J., Moseley, G. L., Pearce, A. J., & Cook, J. (2015). Isometric exercise induces analgesia and reduces inhibition in patellar tendinopathy. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(19), 1277–1283. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094386
Picha, K. J., Almaddah, M. R., Barker, J., Ciochetty, T., Black, W. S., & Uhl, T. L. (2019). Elastic Resistance Effectiveness on Increasing Strength of Shoulders and Hips. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(4), 931–943. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002216
Song, K. J., Yoon, J. H., & Oh, J. K. (2020). Effects of Scapular Kinetic-Chain Exercise on Muscle Activity in Overhead-Pitching Baseball Players. Iranian Journal of Public Health, 49(5), 875-885.