Types of Aquatic Shoulder Exercises

Happy fitness class doing aqua aerobics with foam rollers in the pool

A pool isn't just for swimming laps, jogging in deep water or splashing around — it also offers a valuable strength-training opportunity. Resistance in the water is four to 42 times that of air, depending on how fast you're moving. Tools such as buoys and noodles accentuate this resistance, but you can use the water to build muscle and joint function, even without such toys.

Another great benefit of exercising in the water? It's easy on your joints. When submerged up to your shoulders, the water supports 90 percent your bodyweight, so your knees, ankles, hips and shoulders feel less pressure.

Work your shoulders in the water with simple therapeutic exercises that can help you recover from injury or surgery. If gaining strength and great flexibility is your goal, the water can help you achieve this in your shoulders as well.

Functional Water Work

The water is an excellent place for rehabilitation of the shoulder joint. When you're submerged, resistance surrounds you, so you're subject to a challenge at all angles.

These simple moves help improve function in a shoulder that's severely deconditioned, such as is found in inactive, older adults or people recovering from a shoulder injury or surgery.

Do all of these moves in water that covers your torso up to your shoulders.

Lateral Raise: Hold your arms alongside your hips. Raise them up to the height of your shoulders and back down. Keep the arm below the surface of the water throughout the exercise.

Hand Clap: Raise your arms to shoulder height to form a T shape with your body — keep your arms under the surface of the water, though. With your arms straight, bring the palms together and back to the T.

External Rotation: Place your arms alongside your torso with the upper arms touching your ribs. Bend your elbows so your forearm is parallel to the pool floor. Keep your upper arms in contact with your torso as you bring the forearms toward one another and back out. As you open the arms out, you'll feel the shoulder blades gently squeeze.

Arm Flap: Wrap your arms behind your back, grasping the hands together or holding onto opposite forearms. Point your elbows out to the sides. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to expand the front of your chest and shoulders; the elbows will pull back slightly. Relax the squeeze and repeat.

Strength Exercises

These exercises use pool dumbbells, equipment that is shaped like iron dumbbells but larger and made of foam — or pool noodles to provide extra resistance. Purchase them readily online or ask at your local pool facility if they have them stashed away in the back for use during water aerobics classes. The exercises below primarily activate your medial and anterior deltoids.

Aqua Gym: aerobics / fitness instructor in front of a group of people in the water performing exercises.

Pool noodles can help create greater resistance for shoulder exercises.

Lateral Raises: Stand in shoulder-deep water, holding a pool dumbbell in each hand alongside your thighs. With your arms straight, raise the dumbbells up against the water resistance to shoulder level. Return back down to complete one rep.

Noodle Push Downs: Stand in shoulder-deep water and place both hands on the center of a pool noodle. Push the noodle under the surface of the water in front of your thighs. Bend your elbows and allow the noodle to rise up toward the surface of the water. When your elbows are parallel to your shoulders, press back down to extend your arms and work your shoulders against resistance.

Front Raises: Still in shoulder-deep water, hold the pool noodle in the center with both hands in front of your thighs. Keep your arms straight and allow the noodle to rise to the surface of the water. Press it back down with straight arms until it's in front of your thighs again.


The pool offers a place to perform gentle shoulder stretches at the beginning or end of your workout.

  • Stand in the shoulder-deep water and roll your shoulders forward and back for a dynamic stretch at the beginning of your routine. 
  • Clasp your hands behind your tailbone and press your chest upward to open up the fronts of your shoulders. 
  • Wrap your arms around your chest, as if you were giving yourself a hug, to expand the backs of your shoulders.