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Over 50? Work your shoulders

  • Adventure Sports Weekly
  • Published Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, at 7:43 p.m.

You can still be fit and active for your entire life. However, when it comes to boomer-age fitness, most people think of the legs first, followed closely by the arms. And yes, it’s good to get those body parts strong and in shape to be used. But there’s a smaller body part that’s just as or even more important to work on: the shoulders.

The reason is simple. You use your legs every day. They carry you from room to room, up and down stairs and thus get used frequently, even if you’re not very active. Your arms get a lot of use as well: reaching for objects, holding and carrying things, even scratching an itch.

The shoulders, however, often are neglected. The upper arm is held close to the body while on the phone, and the shoulders don’t move. Reaching out with the arms is usually done lower than shoulder level, so important shoulder muscles such as the deltoids, rotator cuffs and trapezius barely budge.

The result is that these muscles either “freeze,” making it hard to move your shoulders (and thus your arms), or they become so weak that a slight fall can tear the ligaments and tendons. Those shoulder injuries need surgery and require a long and painful recovery even for young people. Recovery is even harder when you get older, so it’s a good thing to lessen the chances of shoulder injury. Of course, the way you do that is to strengthen the muscles of the shoulder.

Here’s a little Major Shoulder Muscles 101: The deltoids are the “cap” of muscle at the top of the arm. This muscle gives the shoulder its shape, and covers the front, top and back of the shoulder edge. You can work it with push-ups and lateral raises, where the arms are held out to the sides and lifted slightly up and down. This will work the delts both with or without weights. Front raises work, too: Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of the body, palms facing the body. Raise both dumbbells to shoulder height and lower them again.

The trapezius, or traps, is a large flat muscle that goes from the back of the skull all the way down to the middle of the back, spreading out in a diamond shape along the top of the shoulders. It extends your neck and works your shoulder blades. The easiest trap exercise is the “shrug.” Use a pair of dumbbells or even two equally heavy cans. Hold the weight at your sides and simply lift your shoulders up to your ears, as high as you can, then lower them.

The rotator cuffs are four small muscles with long tendons that lift the arm above shoulder level and also help stabilize the shoulder joint, the most movable joint in the body. The older you are, the more easily the rotators cuffs can tear or be injured. It’s a painful injury, and also may require surgery plus a lot of hard work for recovery.

It’s better to make these muscles strong so they have less chance of being injured. One of the best rotator cuff exercises is to lie sideways on the floor, with the arm flexed at a 90-degree angle (like an “L”). While keeping the upper arm close to the body and still, rotate the lower arm until your hand points to the ceiling. Then turn to the other side and repeat with the other arm. If you haven’t been active recently, start with just the motion of the exercise, and master that before adding a lightweight dumbbell.

Keeping your shoulders exercised and strong will not only build these muscles, but also enable them to function well and help prevent injury for as long as you live.

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