The 13 Best Shoulder Stretches, According to Physical Therapists

Stretch out your shoulder to help relieve built-up tension.
Image Credit: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages

Stiff shoulders are no fun. When your shoulders are tight and achy, they prevent you from moving freely throughout your daily life. Shoulder tension can make even the simplest task — reaching for something on a high shelf or fastening your bra — into an impossible feat.

Static and dynamic shoulders stretches can help loosen muscle tightness, and, if you're feeling shoulder pain, these may even provide some relief. Before and after your next workout (or just throughout the day), give these shoulder stretches a try.

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Warning

While some general shoulder stiffness isn't usually a cause for concern, you don't want to be stretching or exercising if you're feeling sharp pain. Instead, consult a doctor to learn the best steps for you.

Best Stretches for Tight Shoulders

Best Shoulder Stretches Before Your Workout

1. Lateral Line Stretch

Tightness in the back muscles along your sides (your lats) can make it difficult to reach above your head, according to New York-based physical therapist Sam Chan, DPT, CSCS. So, if your workout involves exercises like overhead presses, you'll want to loosen up your lats.

You'll feel this exercise in your armpits, lats and side rib cage.

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Lateral Line Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 5
Time 5 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Begin standing about an arms length from a doorway or wall.
  2. Raise your arms straight over your head, biceps along your ears.
  3. Lean over to the side until your finger tips touch the wall.
  4. Pause here for a five-second count.
  5. Return to standing straight.
  6. Do this motion five times before you switch to the opposite side.

2. Bench Prayer Stretch

This stretch can help open your upper back, according to New York-based physical therapist Sam Becourtney, DPT, CSCS. But what does that have to do with your shoulders? In order to access your shoulders' full range of motion, the upper back needs to loosen up.

"If we're slouched or tight through our middle and upper back it's virtually impossible to have the full shoulder flexion or range of motion," he says.

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You should feel this move in your armpits, lats, rib cage and upper back.

Bench Prayer Stretch

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Reps 5
Time 5 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Begin kneeling in front of a bench or chair.
  2. Place your elbows and upper arms on the chair. shoulder-width apart.
  3. Bow toward the bench and clasp your fingers behind your head.
  4. Pause here for a five second count, stretching your chest toward the bench.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat five times.

3. Lat Stretch

As mentioned above, tightness in your upper back and lats can limit your overhead mobility. But it can also cause shoulder pain or impingement, which is when your rotator cuff gets compressed by the shoulder joint, according to Chan.

You'll feel this stretch in your lats and upper back.

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Lat Stretch

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Sets 3
Time 10 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by standing about an arms-length distance away from the back of a chair.
  2. Place your hands on the top of the chair.
  3. Hinge your hips back and bend your knees slightly, leaning your torso forward until it's parallel with the ground.
  4. Stretch forward with your hands as you reach back with your hips.

4. Child's Pose

A common shoulder stretch in yoga, the child's pose is an excellent warm-up move, Becourtney says. In this pose, you stretch the shoulders in an overhead position without having to actually lift your arms up. Since your muscles are in a relaxed position, this helps you get a deeper stretch.

You should feel this in your upper back, armpits, rib cage and the top of your shoulders.

Child's Pose

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Sets 5
Reps 5
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by kneeling on the floor on your hands and knees.
  2. Keeping your palms in place, sit your butt back onto your heels.
  3. Pause here for a moment, reaching forward with your finger tips.
  4. Return to the starting position.

Tip

For a deeper stretch, move your child's pose side to side, Becourtney recommends. Keeping your arms straight, walk your arms to the left and hold for five seconds.

5. Overhead Triceps Stretch

Stretching your triceps promotes overhead mobility, making this stretch great before you workout or even before you clean the house. Tightness in the triceps can limit you from reaching fully overhead and may even cause aches and pains, according to Chan.

You should feel this stretch in the muscles around your neck, your armpits and your lats.

Overhead Triceps Stretch

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Reps 5
Time 5 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start standing tall with your arms at your sides.
  2. Reach your right arm straight above your head.
  3. Keeping the elbow in place, let your forearm and palm drop behind your neck.
  4. Reach over your head with your left hand and gently pull the right elbow toward the center line of your body.
  5. Pause here for five seconds before you release the pressure.
  6. Repeat this motion 5 times, then switch sides.

Tip

Apply pressure gradually in this stretch. Avoid yanking or tugging the elbow, as this can cause strain on the neck.

Best Shoulder Stretches After Your Workout

1. Cross-Body Shoulder Stretch

Considering most day-to-day activities are done in front of the body, it's easy to forget your back side, shoulders included. The cross-body shoulder stretch will get deep into the rear shoulder joint, allowing your arm to move more freely.

You should feel this in the back of your shoulder and shoulder blade.

Cross-Body Shoulder Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Sets 3
Time 30 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start standing tall with your arms at you sides.
  2. Keeping the elbow straight, reach across your body with your right arm.
  3. Wrap your left arm under the right, grasping the elbow.
  4. Gently pull your right arm toward the chest.
  5. Hold here for 30 seconds then repeat on the opposite side.
  6. Go for three rounds total.

2. Sleeper Stretch

This stretch gets deep into the shoulder joint, whereas traditional stretches emphasize the flexibility of the muscle, according to Becourtney. But as this is a deeper stretch, you don't want to press your hand down too hard. Keep the pressure gentle and gradual.

You should feel this stretch in the back of your shoulder.

Sleeper Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Sets 3
Time 20 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by lying down on your left side, knees bent at 90 degrees and body stacked.
  2. Place your left elbow down on the ground in front of you, keeping it in line with the shoulder.
  3. Bring the left finger tips up toward the ceiling.
  4. With your right hand, gently press the left palm toward the ground.

3. Biceps Stretch

To totally loosen up your shoulders, you need to stretch the muscles attached to the shoulders, not just your delts. The longer part of your biceps muscle inserts into the shoulder, Chan says. So, tightness in the biceps can cause tightness in the shoulders.

You should feel this stretch in the front of the shoulder, chest and biceps.

Biceps Stretch

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Sets 5
Reps 5
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by standing in a doorway.
  2. Place your right palm on the right side of the doorway touching the wall at hip height. This is the starting position
  3. Keeping the palm in place, step to face the left side of the doorway.
  4. Pause here for a moment before you return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 5 reps on each side, 5 sets total.

4. Doorway Pec Stretch

As most Americans tend to work on their computer all day, tightness through the chest and front shoulder muscles is pretty much inevitable and a common cause of shoulder pain, Becourtney says. Stretching these muscles regularly can help counteract these negative affects, relieving tension in the upper body.

You should feel this stretch across the chest and in your front shoulder muscles.

Doorway Pec Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Sets 3
Time 30 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by standing in a doorway.
  2. Raise your right arm out to the side, elbow in line with the shoulder.
  3. Keeping the elbow in place, press your inner forearm and palm agains the side of the doorway.
  4. Holding the arm here, step forward on your left foot and lean your chest forward.
  5. Hold here for 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat this move on each side, three rounds total.

5. Upper Trap Stretch

Especially if your workout involves pulling motions, tightness in the muscles around your neck (aka your trap muscles) may be causing your shoulder tightness.

"This muscle is commonly tight and leads to upward shrugging of the shoulder when lifting the arm up," Chan says. "It's important to avoid holding excess tension in this area."

You should feel this stretch in the trap muscle between your spine and shoulder.

Upper Trap Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Sets 3
Time 20 Sec
Activity Stretching
  1. Start by standing tall with feet at hip-width distance.
  2. Reach your right arm over your head and place the palm on the side of your head.
  3. Gently pull the top of the head toward the right shoulder.
  4. Hold here for 20 seconds before you repeat on the opposite side.

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Bad Posture

For many people, shoulder tension is a result of bad habits. Hunching over a laptop, slumping behind a steering wheel or carrying heavy over-the-shoulder bags every day can all worsen your posture — rounding your upper back, tightening chest muscles and raising your shoulder toward your ears.

Fix It

Fix 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 ground.

Poor Exercise Form

The way you work out might make shoulders tighter, too. Exercises like chest flies can stress your shoulders, especially if you do them incorrectly. Over time, bad form can create muscle imbalances in the shoulder complex, according to Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac. The result? A decrease in mobility and strength.

The telltale sign of a muscle imbalance in your shoulders is asymmetry. Is one shoulder higher than the other? When you turn to the side, can you see part of your upper back? Can you barely raise one of your arms above your head or maintain a neutral alignment? If you answered yes, your shoulders may be weak and tight.

Fix It

Each exercise you do has a proper form, which can get neglected or forgotten, especially if you've been doing an exercise for a long time. While we all love to lift heavy weight, prioritize your form first. Working on your mobility can also help improve your movement patterns.

How to Prevent Shoulder Tightness

Adjust Your Workspace as Needed

For most people, sitting at a desk throughout the day is inevitable. But you can optimize your work space to help improve your posture. Start by adjusting your monitor to eye level, according to the Mayo Clinic. Pro tip: You can stack books under your machine if you don't have a monitor riser.

Adjust your chair so that your feet are touching the ground, hips in line with the knees. And also check to make sure your hands are at elbow level.

Move Around

You don't want to 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.

Try and get up as often as possible, whether you're sitting at a desk or not. And if your day-to-day job involves a lot of standing or walking, wear low-heeled supportive shoes.

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 form 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.

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