How to warm up the shoulders

If you're not warming up, you're leaving performance on the table, and increasing your injury risk.Last week’s article explored why a warm up is an essential aspect of every workout, and outlined a warm up for running.

Similar to runners, athletes performing overhead or other shoulder movements should have a dialed warm up routine as well. This can help cranky shoulders feel and perform better, and reduce the risk of overuse injuries related to poor shoulder mechanics, or deficits in rotator cuff or scapular muscle activation.

While there are many great options, below below is a shoulder and upper extremity warm up that requires very little equipment, and works great for most athletes.

Before we get to the warm up, let’s review what we want to accomplish with it:

Click on the video to access the entire playlist, with a video for each exercise.

Goals of the warm up:

  1. Increase body temperature. Muscles that are warm perform better.

  2. Expose the body to the upcoming range of motion demands. You don’t want the first time you travel through a range of motion to be a loaded or high velocity situation.

    • Full overhead flexion range of motion is usually essential.

    • Extension is important for athletes performing dips or muscle ups.

    • Internal r otation can be a factor for olympic lifting and overhead athletes.

  3. Activate or potentiate key muscles involved in shoulder stability and proper shoulder mechanics. We’re primarily concerned with the rotator cuff and muscles around the shoulder blades.

    • External rotators and posterior rotator cuff - primarily the infraspinatus and teres minor

    • Supraspinatus (superior aspect of the rotator cuff)

    • Scapular upward rotators - primarily the serratus anterior and lower/middle trapezius

    • We'll explore the function of each of these muscle groups in another post (entire textbooks have been written about them). 

  4. Improve overhead motor control. It’s not enough just to have range or motion or pure strength. You should have control throughout your available range of motion.

With those goals established, here’s the basic routine. Click on the video to view a YouTube playlist with instructions for each exercise. We recommend completing two rounds if time allows.

  1. Bear crawl forward and back - 60 seconds

    • This warms the entire body up, and if done properly can activate the serratus anterior, rotator cuff musculature, and core muscles.

  2. Banded overhead passes w/band - 15 reps

    • This warms up the shoulder joint, encourages scapular retraction, and begins to expose the shoulder to an overhead range of motion.

  3. Down dog push ups - 10 reps

    • Another gentle way to begin to work overhead. If done properly, this also encourages scapular upward rotation and can improve overhead flexion range of motion.

  4. Diagonal "open can" raises with a band - 10 reps each side

    • This is a variation of the classic “open can” exercise that has been shown to have high EMG activity of the supraspinatus, a key rotator cuff muscle. Using a band forces your scapular retractors to isometrically activate on the stabilizing side, and works the supraspinatus eccentrically as well as concentrically.

    • If you currently have shoulder pain, regress to the basic open can exercise with a light weight, in a pain-free range of motion.

  5. Banded external rotation - To fatigueThere are many ways to work the posterior rotator cuff. We’ve found that this exercise is simply, quick, and fatigues the infraspinatus and teres minor. Don’t skip basic rotator cuff activation.

  6. Banded wall slides - 10 reps each side

    • This is one of our favorite exercises to improve scapular upward rotation. Adding a band forces the external rotators to activate as well. Great bang for your buck here.

  7. Bottoms up kettlebell press in a lunge - 10 reps each side

    • This forces the rotator cuff to stabilize the arm throughout the entire shoulder flexion range of motion. It’s an excellent way to fully own and control your shoulder range of motion.

Note that this warm-up is not meant to treat any injuries, or necessarily to improve deficits in range of motion. It’s an excellent routine for athletes who generally have healthy shoulders, and want to improve their performance, and control, and reduce their injury risk. While we often use variations of these exercises with our physical therapy patients, some may be painful or need to be modified if you have an injury.

We’ll write another post soon about modifications for common situations we see in the clinic, such as limited or tight shoulders into flexion (overhead position), or extension (dips, gymnastics rings, and even some runners), subacromial impingement, and pain during CrossFit or Olympic and powerlifting.

For now, give this routine a shot, and don't be afraid to reach out with any questions!

Struggling with aches, pains, or an injury? We'd love to help. Click the button below to schedule to a FREE 15 minute consult with a Doctor of Physical Therapy. We'll develop a strategy together to help you get out of pain, and exceed your goals.


Reinold, M. M., Escamilla, R., & Wilk, K. E. (2009). Current Concepts in the Scientific and Clinical Rationale Behind Exercises for Glenohumeral and Scapulothoracic Musculature. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 105–117.

McGowan, C. J., Pyne, D. B., Thompson, K. G., & Rattray, B. (2015). Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications. Sports Medicine, 45(11), 1523–1546.