Stiff shoulders are no fun. When your shoulders are tight and achy, they can turn even the simplest task — like reaching for something on a high shelf — into an impossible feat.
But here's some good news: Stretching can help relieve shoulder pain and tightness. Here, physical therapists share the best shoulder stretches that can help your upper body move more freely.
Some general shoulder stiffness isn't usually a cause for concern, but if you're feeling sharp pain, stretching may not be the way to go. Talk with your doctor to figure out the best treatment for you.
Move 1. Thread the Needle
Lacking flexibility and mobility through your upper back is a common cause of shoulder pain, says New York-based physical therapist Sam Chan, DPT, CSCS. One of the best stretches for tight shoulders, this move opens up your upper back and shoulders at the same time.
Thread the Needle
- Start on all fours, knees in line with your hips and hands in line with your shoulders.
- Reach your left arm underneath your right shoulder as far through as you can comfortably go.
- Once you reach the end of your range of motion, rest your head and the back of your left shoulder on the floor.
- Hold, then repeat on the other side.
Move 2. Ear-to-Shoulder
The muscles around your neck (aka trapezius muscles) attach to your shoulders. That's why, to release shoulder tightness, you need to include some trap stretches, Chan says. Try this shoulder stretch after workouts for the best results.
- Stand tall with your arms at your sides.
- Bend your right arm and place the back of your hand against your lower back.
- Reach your left arm up toward the ceiling and over your head, placing your palm on the right side of your head above the ear.
- Keeping your shoulders in place, gently tilt your head to the left. Pull lightly with your left hand.
- Hold, then repeat on the opposite side.
Move 3. Lat Stretch
Tightness in your upper back can contribute to shoulder pain or impingement (when your joint pinches your muscles and/or connective tissues), according to Chan. This stretch targets your rotator cuff muscles and releases tension to help eliminate pinches. You should feel it in your shoulders, lats and upper back.
- Stand about an arm's length away from the back of a chair. Place your hands on the top of the chair.
- Push your hips back and slightly bend your knees, leaning your torso forward until it's parallel with the floor.
- Stretch forward with your hands and press your chest toward the floor as you reach back with your hips.
Move 4. Child's Pose
This yoga pose stretches your shoulders in an overhead position, but it doesn't actually involve lifting your arms, says New York-based physical therapist Sam Becourtney, DPT, CSCS. By keeping all of your muscles in relaxed positions, it helps you get a good, deep stretch in your upper back, armpits, rib cage and top of your shoulders.
- Get on your hands and knees.
- Keeping your palms in place, sit your hips back between or on top of your heels.
- Pause here for a few seconds, reaching forward with your fingertips.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
For a deeper stretch, move your child's pose from side to side, Becourtney says. Keeping your arms straight, walk your arms to the right and hold for 5 seconds. Then move to the left.
Remember, this is a dynamic shoulder stretch, so you shouldn't hold any one position for very long.
Move 5. Overhead Triceps Stretch
One of your three triceps muscles (yes, you have three!) are connected to your shoulder joint, so stretching this muscle encourages shoulder release. Tightness in your triceps can prevent you from being able to lift your arms straight overhead and even cause aches and pains, according to Chan. One of the best dynamic shoulder stretches, this move releases tension in the muscles around your neck, armpits and lats.
Overhead Triceps Stretch
- Stand tall with your arms at your sides.
- Reach your right arm straight above your head.
- Keeping your elbow in place, let your hand drop behind your upper back.
- Reach over your head with your left hand and gently pull your right elbow toward the center line of your body.
- Pause here for 5 seconds before you release the stretch.
- Do all reps, then switch sides.
Avoid yanking or tugging your elbow. It can strain your neck.
Move 6. Cross-Body Stretch
You do most day-to-day activities in front of your body, so it's easy to forget your back side, shoulders included. Doing this shoulder stretch before workouts helps opens up your deltoids and rotator cuff muscles to help your arms move more freely.
- Stand tall with your arms at you sides.
- Keeping your elbow straight, reach across your body with your right arm.
- Wrap your left arm under your right, grabbing below your elbow.
- Gently pull your right arm toward your chest.
- Hold here for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Move 7. Internal Rotator Band Stretch
This stretch is a perfect way to improve shoulder external rotation range of motion. What's that? To understand shoulder rotation, stand with your elbows at your sides, elbows bent and forearms parallel with the floor. Now, keeping your elbows in place, move your forearms out to your sides. That's an example of external rotation, and happens thanks to your shoulder external rotation muscles including the infraspinatus and teres minor.
When the muscles that oppose external rotation, called your internal rotators, become tight, they can limit your available range of motion. Your internal rotator muscles include your pecs and teres major.
Internal Rotator Band Stretch
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and loop a long resistance band to an anchor at shoulder height. Grab the band with the arm closest to it with your elbow bent to 90 degrees, palm facing forward.
- Keeping your elbow bent, rotate your torso outward, feeling the stretch in your shoulders and chest.
- Pause here and then release.
Move 8. Wall Stretch
This stretch improves internal shoulder rotation by targeting the front of your shoulder as you hinge forward. You should be able to feel the stretch in your pecs as well, Chan says. The opposite of external rotation, internal should rotation involves brining your forearms from your sides to in front of you.
- Stand in front of a wall and hold your arm closest to the wall at 90 degrees, hand pressing against the wall.
- While keeping your hand on the wall, fold your torso forward, feeling the stretch in your pecs and the front shoulder muscles. Pause for a moment here.
- Stand back up to the starting position.
Move 9. Foam Roller Snow Angel
This version of the snow angel works on lateral abduction, aka moving your arm away from your midline (or center of your body), which makes it an ideal external rotation stretch. It also improves overall shoulder mobility and function. It exposes your body to overhead positions without working against gravity (like during overhead presses), Chan says.
Foam Roller Snow Angel
- Place a foam roller vertically on the ground. Lie on top of it with your head on one end and place your hands at your sides, palms facing out.
- Keeping your fingers in contact with the ground, sweep your hands out to the sides and overhead, making a snow angel with your arms.
Move 10. Sleeper Stretch
While traditional stretches focus on flexibility of the muscle, this stretch focuses on joint mobility, Becourtney says. Just keep it mind that it provides a very deep stretch, and you shouldn't push to the point of pain. Keep the pressure gentle and gradual, and you'll feel the move in the back of your shoulder.
- Lie down on your left side with your knees bent.
- Place your left elbow on the floor in front of you, keeping it in line with your shoulder.
- Raise your left fingertips up toward the ceiling.
- With your right hand, gently press your left palm toward the floor.
Move 11. Biceps Stretch
To loosen up your shoulders, you need to stretch the muscles attached to your shoulders, which includes your biceps, Chan says. You'll feel this move in the front of your shoulder, chest and biceps.
- Stand next to a wall or in a doorway.
- Place your right palm on the right side of the wall at hip height.
- Keeping your palm in place, turn to face the opposite direction.
- Pause here for a moment, then return to the starting position.
- Do all reps, then switch sides.
Move 12. Pec Stretch
Since many people spend all day on their computers, stiffness through the front of the deltoids and chest is pretty much inevitable. And it's and a common cause of shoulder pain, Becourtney says. To help combat that, this stretch across the chest and in your front shoulder muscles.
- Stand next to a wall or in a doorway.
- Raise your right arm out to the side, elbow in line with your shoulder.
- Keeping your elbow in place, press your inner forearm and palm against the side of the wall or doorway.
- Step forward with your left foot and lean your chest forward.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Move 13. Reverse Prayer Stretch
This stretch loosens your shoulders, while increasing your upper-body flexibility. You'll feel this in the front of your shoulders and chest.
Reverse Prayer Stretch
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Gently bring your hands behind your back and press your palms together, fingers pointed up. Press your elbows behind you and keep your chest up.
If this stretch feels too intense, you can make it gentler by reaching your hands to your opposite elbows instead of placing your hands against each other.
3 Common Causes of Tight Shoulders
1. Poor Posture
For many people, shoulder tension is the result of bad habits. Hunching over a laptop, slumping behind a steering wheel or carrying heavy over-the-shoulder bags every day can worsen your posture. Think: rounding your upper back, tightening you chest muscles and raising your shoulders toward your ears.
Improve your posture by keeping your back tall and shoulders down and away from your ears, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Try to keep your weight on the balls of your feet and hold your chin parallel to the floor.
2. Muscle Imbalances
The way you work out might make your deltoids tighter. Exercises like chest flies can stress these muscles, especially if you do them incorrectly.
Over time, bad form can create muscle imbalances in the shoulder, according to Geoff Tripp, CSCS, a certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac. The result? Lower mobility and strength.
The telltale sign of a muscle imbalance in your shoulders is asymmetry. Does one shoulder sit higher than the other? Can you barely raise one of your arms above your head without arching your back? If you answered yes, your shoulders may be weak and/or tight.
Prioritize proper exercise form over the amount of weight you lift or number of reps you do. Working on your mobility, even through these best stretches for tight shoulders, can also help improve your movement patterns.
3. Previous Shoulder Injury or Joint Condition
Broken arms, joint dislocations and most any upper-body injuries can take their toll on your shoulders, according to the Mayo Clinic. That's especially true if you shrug off proper treatment.
Meanwhile, chronic shoulder joint inflammation, called arthritis, can cause shoulder pain and limit your range of motion, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). There's no cure for shoulder arthritis, but there are lots of great treatments to help ease the pain.
Talk to a sports medicine physician, physical therapist or, if you have arthritis, your rheumatologist. They can all help you treat these underlying causes of shoulder tightness.
5 Ways to Prevent Shoulder Tightness
1. Adjust Your Workspace
For many people, sitting at a desk all day feels inevitable. But you can optimize your workspace to help improve your posture. Raise your monitor to eye level, recommends the Mayo Clinic. (Pro tip: If you don't have a riser, stack books under your monitor.)
Adjust your chair so that your feet are touching the floor with your hips in line with your knees. Make sure your hands are at the same height as your elbows.
2. Move Around
Don't wait until your lunch break to get some movement. Shift your position around as often as possible to help fix poor posture and stiff muscles, recommends the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Get up as often as possible and move throughout the day. Every little bit counts. And if your job involves a lot of standing or walking, wear low-heeled, supportive shoes.
3. Fix Your Exercise Form
As mentioned above, pay close attention to your exercise form. Even seasoned gym-goers need to brush up on correct exercise technique every now and again.
Also, don't put weight before proper mechanics. If you're unable to do an exercise properly with a specific weight, drop your dumbbells for a more appropriate load.
4. Shut Your Phone Off
Social media can lead you down quite the rabbit hole. While it can be tempting to stare at your phone throughout the day, this motion puts your trapezius and shoulders in a not-so-comfortable position. Use helpful tools (like your phone's timer) to limit your screen time as much as possible.
5. Take a Moment to Pause
Ever notice your posture when you're stressed? Chances are, your shoulders bunch up into your neck and your back hunches forward. This is taxing not only on your shoulders but also your upper and middle back, according to the UT Southwestern Medical Center.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed with work, childcare or anything else, pause for a moment and just breathe. Bring your shoulders down and back and take big, slow breaths. You can also try breathing exercises to help you relax.