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 shoulder stretches can help loosen muscle tightness, and, if you're feeling shoulder pain, these may even provide some relief. Before and after your next shoulder workout (or just throughout the day), give these 13 best stretches for tight shoulders a try.
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, talk to your doctor to learn the best steps for you.
The 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 Sam Chan, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. 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.
- Begin standing about an arms length from a doorway or wall.
- Raise your arms straight over your head, biceps along your ears.
- Lean over to the side until your finger tips touch the wall.
- Pause here for a five-second count.
- Return to standing straight.
- 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 physical therapist and personal trainer Sam Becourtney, DPT, CSCS, owner of Pillar Performance. 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.
You should feel this move in your armpits, lats, rib cage and upper back.
- Begin kneeling in front of a bench or chair.
- Place your elbows and upper arms on the chair. shoulder-width apart.
- Bow toward the bench and clasp your fingers behind your head.
- Pause here for a five second count, stretching your chest toward the bench.
- 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.
- Start by standing about an arms-length distance away from the back of a chair.
- Place your hands on the top of the chair.
- Hinge your hips back and bend your knees slightly, leaning your torso forward until it's parallel with the ground.
- 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.
- Start by kneeling on the floor on your hands and knees.
- Keeping your palms in place, sit your butt back onto your heels.
- Pause here for a moment, reaching forward with your finger tips.
- Return to the starting position.
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.
- Start standing tall with your arms at your sides.
- Reach your right arm straight above your head.
- Keeping the elbow in place, let your forearm and palm drop behind your neck.
- Reach over your head with your left hand and gently pull the right elbow toward the center line of your body.
- Pause here for five seconds before you release the pressure.
- Repeat this motion 5 times, then switch sides.
Apply pressure gradually in this stretch. Avoid yanking or tugging the elbow, as this can cause strain on the neck.
The 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.
- Start standing tall with your arms at you sides.
- Keeping the elbow straight, reach across your body with your right arm.
- Wrap your left arm under the right, grasping the elbow.
- Gently pull your right arm toward the chest.
- Hold here for 30 seconds then repeat on the opposite side.
- 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.
- Start by lying down on your left side, knees bent at 90 degrees and body stacked.
- Place your left elbow down on the ground in front of you, keeping it in line with the shoulder.
- Bring the left finger tips up toward the ceiling.
- 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.
- Start by standing in a doorway.
- Place your right palm on the right side of the doorway touching the wall at hip height. This is the starting position
- Keeping the palm in place, step to face the left side of the doorway.
- Pause here for a moment before you return to the starting position.
- 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.
- Start by standing in a doorway.
- Raise your right arm out to the side, elbow in line with the shoulder.
- Keeping the elbow in place, press your inner forearm and palm agains the side of the doorway.
- Holding the arm here, step forward on your left foot and lean your chest forward.
- Hold here for 30 seconds.
- 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.
- Start by standing tall with feet at hip-width distance.
- Reach your right arm over your head and place the palm on the side of your head.
- Gently pull the top of the head toward the right shoulder.
- Hold here for 20 seconds before you repeat on the opposite side.
Causes of Shoulder Pain
1. 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 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.
2. 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.
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. Mobility exercises can also help improve your movement patterns.
How to Prevent Shoulder Tightness
1. 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.
2. 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.
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 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.
How do I reduce shoulder pain?
In addition to the stretches above, working on your posture and your exercise form are two major ways you can lessen your shoulder pain. If you continue to experience shoulder pain and/or it gets worse, talk with your doctor, as a more in-depth treatment approach may be needed.
How do I stretch out my shoulders?
There are many stretches that can help relieve chronic shoulder pain or tightness. Child's pose, overhead triceps stretch, cross-body shoulder stretch and doorway pec stretch are a few examples. Learn how to do those stetches— and more — above!
How can I stretch my rotator cuff specifically?
The best exercises to stretch your rotator cuff (a group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint) include the cross-body shoulder stretch and sleeper stretch (both demonstrated above), according to Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic.
Should you stretch your shoulder if it hurts?
If your shoulders are sore from a workout, it's best not to stretch them right away, according to the American Sports and Fitness Association (ASFA). Instead, wait until later in the day or the next day — your soreness should subside within 24 hours. Remember, you should feel tension when you stretch, but you should never feel pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you do feel pain, you've likely pushed your muscles too far. Lessen your stretch or talk with your doctor if the pain continues.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Guide to Good Posture"
- Mayo Clinic: "Office Ergonomics: Your How-To Guide"
- Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic: "TOP ROTATOR CUFF EXERCISES & STRETCHES FOR STRENGTHENING"
- ASFA: "Stretching Sore Muscles: Should You Do It?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stretching: Focus on flexibility"