If your shoulders are getting tight from hours hunched over a computer or you're experiencing pain from overuse or an acute injury, moving your arm can be difficult and even quite painful.
Part of the solution is doing passive range-of-motion (ROM) exercises. These allow you to stretch your arm in various directions without actively engaging any muscles, which can help improve your mobility without exacerbating the pain.
To improve your shoulder mobility, do three to five reps of each of the five stretches below and repeat two to three times throughout the day.
While you should feel a stretch or pull, none of the exercises should increase your pain. If it does worsen, stop the movement and see your doctor. And be sure to check with your doctor or physical therapist with any concerns prior to beginning a stretching regimen, especially if you have recently undergone surgery.
1. Doorway Shoulder Stretch
This exercise helps facilitate external/lateral rotation of your shoulders, improving the movement that allows you to reach behind your head while putting on a shirt or washing your hair.
- Stand in a doorway and turn sideways so you're looking at the door frame. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and press your palm against the frame.
- Slowly rotate your body away from your palm until you feel a gentle stretch in the front of your shoulder. Keep your elbow against your side and don't let your shoulder shrug.
- Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds and then rotate back to the starting position.
2. Table Flexion Stretch
Improving your shoulder flexion with this stretch means reaching forward and overhead (ex. grabbing something from a cabinet or shelf) is much easier.
- While standing in front of a counter or table, use your unaffected arm to gently place your affected forearm and hand onto the surface.
- Without allowing your forearm or hand to move, slowly walk backward from the surface as you simultaneously bend at the waist.
- Once you feel a light stretch near your underarm, hold it for 15 to 30 seconds before slowly returning to the starting position.
3. Dowel Stretch
In this exercise, you'll use a dowel or broom stick to improve shoulder extension, which occurs when you move your shoulder backward (think: reaching for a wallet in your back pocket).
- Stand up straight with your arm hanging at your side. Use your unaffected arm to place a dowel, cane or broomstick in the hand of the shoulder being stretched.
- Slowly push through the dowel with the unaffected arm, causing the the affected shoulder to move backward. Don't let the arm being stretched to help with the movement.
- When you feel a mild stretch in the front of your shoulder, hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position.
4. Sleeper Stretch
This technique helps improve your internal/medial rotation, which comes in handy when you're doing things like reaching behind your back to tuck in a shirt or fasten a bra.
- Lie on your affected side. Use your other arm to place the arm being stretched out in front of you at shoulder level. Bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle with your palm facing down toward your feet.
- Using your other hand to push, slowly move the affected forearm toward the bed or floor until you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder.
- Maintain the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, then slowly release it.
If you're unable to do this stretch without pain, roll your body back slightly to decrease the stretch’s intensity.
5. Sideways Table Stretch
This exercise improves your shoulder abduction — the motion of reaching out to the side and overhead while, say, lifting your arm to put on deodorant or to shave your underarms.
- Stand sideways near a counter or table with your affected arm closest to the surface. Use the unaffected arm to place the forearm and hand of the shoulder being stretched on the counter.
- Keep the forearm from moving and slowly side step away from the counter as you lean your body toward it. Don't lean your weight onto the shoulder being stretched or allow it to shrug.
- Once you feel a light stretch near your underarm, hold for 15 to 30 seconds before returning to the starting position.
- Princeton University Athletic Medicine: Shoulder Rehabilitation
- Acta Orthopaedica: External rotation during elevation of the arm
- West Virginia University: Shoulder Flexion
- Oxford University Hospitals: Active Assisted Shoulder Exercises
- West Virginia University: Shoulder Extension
- Anderson Physical Therapy: Shoulder Internal and External Rotation
- Stat Pearls: Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Arm Abductor Muscles