Shoulder Pulley Exercises for Physical Therapy and Rehab
Shoulder pulley exercises are one of the best ways to gently strengthen weak shoulders, recover after shoulder surgery or injury, and relieve conditions such as bursitis, arthritis and frozen shoulder syndrome.
What is a shoulder pulley?
A shoulder pulley for physical therapy is a simple cord with adjustable handles, attached to a pulley system and door anchor. The door anchor can be wedged over the door frame, allowing you to perform shoulder pulley exercises in various positions.
Using a shoulder pulley for physical therapy will gradually increase your range of motion and strengthen your rotator cuff and other shoulder muscles. This is important for regaining full mobility after shoulder surgery, or for those suffering from shoulder impingement or weak/stiff shoulders.
How do you use a shoulder pulley for physical therapy?
I’ve also included two general stretching/strengthening exercises which are great if you’re having any kind of trouble in either one or both shoulders.
Shoulder pulley exercises
For shoulder rehab do these exercises twice a day. You can do 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions for each exercise. Hold the stretch in the final position for about 10 seconds.
Only move on to the next exercise when you feel comfortable doing so. If your motion is very limited you should spend several days just on the first exercise before starting the second. But if you already have good motion, you may be able to do all the exercises from the outset.
In these images, the left side shoulder is the one in need of rehab.
In the first shoulder pulley exercise, your chair faces the door square on, with the door anchor fixed over the door. The uninjured arm pulls the injured arm, gently stretching it forwards and up. Hold in the final position for 10 seconds and then lower the arm.
Once you are comfortable with the first exercise, turn your chair 90 degrees and perform the same exercise from the side. Gradually let your shoulder stretch and increase its range of motion.
When you feel that your range of motion has improved, you can turn the chair so you’re facing away from the door. Using the uninjured arm, lift the injured arm up directly in front of you, holding in the final position for 10 seconds or more.
The next step is to adjust the angle of your arm from your body to 45 degrees. Perform the same movement at this angle, stretching the arm as high as you can go without too much pain. Always hold in the final position for at least 10 seconds.
Next, move your arm so that it’s at 90 degrees from your body and do the same exercise in this position.
The next exercise is done in a standing position. Lift the injured arm behind your back, as in the picture. Start off slowly with only small movements and gradually increase the range of motion.
Once you have gained a good level of mobility you can begin rotational shoulder exercises. Standing side on to the door, pull the affected arm so that it is rotating outwards, again holding in the final position and gradually increasing the range of motion.
Do not let your shoulder hunch up or move forward. Maintain a natural upright posture, and keep your elbow fixed at your side. Holding a rolled up towel between your elbow and body will help with this.
These are the seven basic shoulder rehab exercises using a shoulder pulley. Done regularly, they should help you tremendously to increase your range of motion and relieve shoulder pain.
More shoulder rehab exercises
Once you’re comfortable with all the exercises, you may want to move on to using a resistance band to strengthen your rotator cuff by doing rotational exercises such as inward rotations:
And outward rotations:
With these exercises, maintain the same posture as in the last of the shoulder pulley exercises: upright posture, shoulder not hunched up or moved forward, and elbow held close to body. Again, you can use a rolled up towel to help.
Important: if you are in any doubt about these exercises, or if your condition is serious, always consult a physical therapy professional. Because every shoulder condition is unique. What works for some may be harmful for others.
General stretching/strengthening exercises using a shoulder pulley
You can also use the shoulder pulley if you are suffering from a general weakness or lack of flexibility in one or both shoulders. It is ideal as a passive exercise tool for the elderly or those suffering from bad shoulder joints.
As in exercises 3-5 above, sit facing away from the door with the pulley wedged into the upper edge of the door frame.
Begin passive exercise first with your arms directly in front of you…
…and then with your arms to the side.
Do these exercises as a continuous movement, first stretching one arm up, holding for a few seconds, and then switching to the other side. Continue the movements as long as you feel comfortable.
Depending on your height, you may need to adjust the length of the rope by changing the position of the knot under the handle.
While doing these exercises, you can use some opposing tension in your arms as you pull down. Doing this will build strength in your rotator cuff and other shoulder muscles, contributing greatly to healthy shoulder joints.