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, tying your hair in a ponytail or fastening your bra — into an impossible feat.
The good news? You don't need to suffer with sore shoulders forever. Here, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac, explains the most common reasons for stiff shoulders and shares the best stretches and exercises to relieve your tightness.
What’s Making Your Shoulders Tight?
First things first, what's causing your stiffness? Your shoulder is a super complex blending of multiple muscles and connective tissues. Since there are so many moving parts, a lot can potentially go wrong.
For many people, shoulder tension is a result of bad habits. Hunching over your 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.
The way you work out might mess with your shoulders, too. Exercises like the bench press or chest flies can stress your shoulders, especially if you do them incorrectly. Over time, bad form and wonky posture can throw your body out of whack and create muscle imbalances in the shoulder complex, Tripp says. 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 are undoubtedly weak and tight.
Read more: 6 Exercises to Help You Stand Taller
Best Shoulder Stretches and Exercises for Stiffness
Adding shoulder stretches and exercises to your daily routine can make all the difference when it comes to alleviating stiffness. These moves target the shoulders and the surrounding muscles, which can all contribute to shoulder tension.
1. Wall Angel
This active mobility drill highlights areas in your upper body that are tight and need more TLC, says Tripp. The movement also prepares your muscles and improves your form for more advanced exercises like the shoulder press.
- Stand with your back flat against a wall and sink down into a slight squat.
- Place your arms and elbows against the wall in a goalpost position, bending your elbows at a 90-degree angle. The back of your hands should touch the wall.
- Pushing against the wall, slide your hands up as far as you can overhead, then return to your starting position.
Reps: 5 to 10
2. Arm Circles
If you have little to no flexibility in your shoulders, this drill is for you. That's because it improves the way your scapula (shoulder blade) and humerus (upper arm bone) work together, which is important for optimal function of the shoulder, Tripp says. Translation: You'll increase your range of motion by leaps and bounds.
- Lie on your side and bend your knees to 90 degrees.
- Place your bottom arm on your knees and push them to the ground.
- Reach your top arm out and away from your body.
- Without bending your elbow, make a circle as wide as you can without discomfort, then reverse the circle back to the start.
Reps: 4 to 10 on each side
3. Resistance Band T-Pulls
This exercise promotes shoulder blade retraction, which is an essential movement for stabilizing your shoulder joints, says Tripp. Plus, it helps improve your standing posture and strengthens the smaller, supporting muscles of your upper and middle back.
- Grip a long, heavy resistance band at both ends with arms in front of you at shoulder height.
- Keep your arms relatively straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you move your hands out to the sides, pulling the band toward your chest.
- Return to the starting position slowly and with control.
Reps: 8 to 10
4. Stability Ball Wall Push-Up
This shoulder exercise is a twofer: it improves upper-body stability and builds strength at the same time. Once you perfect your form and increase your range of motion, you can challenge yourself even more by moving this exercise from the wall to the floor, where it's even tougher, says Tripp.
- Place a stability ball on the wall at ribcage height and take a few steps back.
- Place your hands on the ball, squeezing your arms and upper body muscles to keep it stable.
- Slowly lower into a push up against the ball, maintaining a tight core.
- Press back up.
Reps: 8 to 10
5. TRX Body Row
In case you didn't already know, TRX training refers to exercises that incorporate suspension straps (think: ropes with handles) and uses your body weight as resistance. This TRX-based move works your back, which is crucial for developing shoulder strength and improving range of motion, says Tripp.
Don't have suspension straps on hand? No worries. You can use a barbell or smith machine bar to perform this inverted row, too.
- Gripping the suspension straps, start in an extended position (facing the ceiling) with your back straight, hips tucked and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Retract your shoulder blades, bend your elbows and keep your wrists straight as you pull your body up until your hands are at the side of your chest.
- Slowly lower your body back down to the starting position.
Reps: 8 to 10