Bold Shoulders

Bold Shoulders

Test Your Knowledge

  • True or False: Use it or lose it.

True, and this applies to keeping your shoulders pain-free and gorgeous as ever.

  • True or False: No pain, no gain.

FALSE, you’re not training for the Olympics. Keeping your shoulder muscles in shape should never hurt. And in fact, gentle, regular stretching can prevent shoulder injury and pain.

The shoulder is the body’s most complicated joint. It’s where the ends of the collarbone, upper arm bone, and shoulder blade meet. And it’s prone to arthritis (a wearing away of the cartilage between the bones), as well as tears or tendinitis (inflammation) in the rotator cuff — the group of tendons that helps you raise and rotate your arm. Shoulder pain can keep you from being able to raise your arms to do your hair, fasten a necklace, or reach up to a cupboard for something on a high shelf.

But an easy way to prevent shoulder problems is to regularly stretch the muscles that support the joints. The muscles need to be long and flexible a-la Pilates to stay healthy. You’re more vulnerable to injury when your shoulder muscles are tight and restricted.

Women doing some stretching in the park.

How stretching helps

Muscles are a little like cotton fabrics. They may shrink up slightly, but if you pull on the fibers, you can stretch out the fabric again.

Stretching extends muscles to their full length, and counteracts that shortening. The more you stretch the muscles, the longer and more flexible they’ll become. That will help increase your range of motion, ward off pain, reduce the risk for injury, and improve your posture.

Types of stretches

The best way to stretch muscles is with long, static (motionless) stretches that last 30 seconds to two minutes. But don’t jump right to this step.

Warm up the muscles first to get blood and oxygen to them and make them more pliable. You can do this with exercise (take a brisk walk, pumping your arms, or go for a swim). Or you can try a few minutes of dynamic stretching — repeatedly moving a joint through its available range of motion, without holding a position. Just roll your shoulders backward and forward a few times or make windmill motions with your arms but not too vigorously. Stretches should always be gentle and pain-free. If there’s pain, you may be injuring your muscles.

Never “bounce” your stretched muscles. Bouncing sets off a protective mechanism called the stretch reflex. The muscle will recoil so you won’t overstretch it. But as a result, you’ll never get to a true, deep stretch. A true stretch is sustained, with no bouncing.

Getting started

Try stretching your shoulders three to seven times per week. If you’re really stiff, stretch daily. If you’re already flexible, it’s fine to stretch every other day. But avoid stretching for too long or too vigorously: back off quickly if you start to feel pain. 

By the way, this also applies to that big, heavy tote bag. Side note: the origins of the word “tote” may be found in several West African words, such as Kikongo tota, meaning “pick up,” Kimbundu tuta, meaning “carry, load,” Swahili tuta, meaning “pile up, carry.”

No doubt, a fashionably oversized bag is all about the swag. But presuming that you use that giant bag as a travelling office (containing water bottle, notebook, makeup bag, phone, charger, keys, wallet, hand cream, reading glasses, sunglasses, medications) means a lot of weight on one shoulder, and that can cause problems down the line. This spring, the good news is this: the fanny-pack is back! Also called a “bum bag,” these small, zippered pouches can be worn cross-body if you don’t want to sling your bag around your hips. However you rock it, it’s a simple, stylish way to keep from straining your shoulders, and keep your hands free for shopping, dog-walking, hand-holding, flower-picking, beachcombing, snacking on street-food in your travels, and more.

So lay your burden down!

Some of our favorites are the fanny packs and other fantastically beautiful accessories and garments handmade in West Africa, available at MaNtuma, owned by Miss Akua Gyaa in Chicago, @ma_ntuma. These 100% cotton Ankara African Print and Wax Print bags in a wide variety of electrifying patterns are cut and sewn in Ghana by Miss Akua’s brother, and feature faux-leather trim and adjustable strap.

And while you’re at it, check out the Sapo African Net Exfoliating Body Sponge to keep your shoulders and back exfoliated, polished, and glowing this summer. The long Sapo sponge has been used for centuries in Africa for bathing and keeping the skin vibrant. This modern interpretation, made in Ghana, comes in two sizes, a rainbow of delicious colors, and stretches to 45 inches or so for a fabulous rubdown in the shower, bath, or nearest waterfall.

What about strengthening?

For strong shoulders, work them (with kindness!) every other day. The combination of stretching and strengthening will help keep even a complicated joint ready for action, and looking gorgeous as ever in graceful off-the-shoulder fashions for summer.

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