If you've ever been to a yoga class, there's a good chance you've seen someone doing the double shoulder opening stretch and thought to yourself, "That must feel really good!" (Or maybe, "Ouch!")
Indeed, this stretch (the upper half of the Cow Face pose), does wonders for your posture — since it counteracts the hunched position people adopt when sitting at a desk — and improves mobility and flexibility in your shoulders, chest and triceps.
But you may find getting into the correct position — and holding it — is somewhat challenging. Don't let these difficulties discourage you from reaping all the benefits. Below, Mackenzie Banta, an ACE-certified health coach and functional training specialist at Trainiac, troubleshoots some reasons you're struggling with the stretch, plus how to master it.
How to Do the Double-Shoulder Stretch
- Reach your right arm up to the sky with your palm turned in.
- Reach your left arm out to the left with your palm facing behind you.
- Bend your right arm at your elbow and place your palm onto your back.
- Bend your left arm at the elbow and bring your elbow toward your waist, keeping your palm facing away from your body.
- Pull your right elbow back, stretching across your chest and reach your left hand closer to your right while externally rotating your left shoulder.
- If you can't clasp your fingers together, hold the stretch with your fingertips as close together as possible for at least 30 seconds.
- Switch arms and repeat the stretch, holding for at least 30 seconds.
If You: Have Trouble Reaching Your Fingers
You Might: Have Tight Triceps
Unless you're sore from a killer arm workout, odds are you're not paying much attention to your triceps. But if you have any stiffness there, you'll know as soon as you try this stretch. "Tight triceps will inhibit your ability to reach your upper arm up and to bend your elbow to reach your hand down your back," Banta says.
For most people, simply stretching the area regularly will help increase flexibility. The tried-and true overhead triceps stretch is a great place to start. But be gentle, applying only light pressure to deepen the stretch. You should feel a slight pulling, not pain.
Overhead Triceps Stretch
- Reach your right arm to the ceiling, keeping your shoulder down and away from your ears.
- Bending at the elbow, let your right hand drop to the middle of your back, palm facing your back.
- Place your left hand on your right arm, just above the elbow, and gently pull to feel the stretch.
- Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, then switch arms.
Adding resistance moves like push-ups and triceps dips can also be useful for warming up those stiff muscles too. As you work on developing strength and flexibility, you may try modifying the double shoulder stretch by holding a strap to extend your reach, Banta says.
Read more: An At-Home Triceps Workout With Just 4 Moves
If You: Can’t Get Your Arms in the Correct Starting Position
You Might: Lack Shoulder Mobility
People with tight or weak shoulders will find this stretch particularly challenging, maybe even impossible at first. That's because it requires both shoulders to open and shift through a few ranges of motion, Banta says, adding that the movement involves both rotating and depressing the scapulae (shoulder blades).
Many things, including overtraining or an injury, can cause poor shoulder mobility, but often, poor posture — due to a predominantly sedentary lifestyle — is the prime suspect. Shoulder stretches and mobility drills like these can help with muscular imbalances and alleviate stiffness.
- 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.
- 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.
Building strength is another vital piece of the puzzle. Add this move to your daily routine using a light set of dumbbells (or no weight at all).
- Lie on your stomach on a bench and extend your arms straight down toward the ground, with the palms facing inward.
- Lift your arms straight overhead to form the letter I (arms straight overhead), then slowly lower them back toward the ground.
- Lift your thumbs toward the ceiling, with your arms at a 45-degree angle to form the letter Y.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together in back and slowly lower the arms down to the starting position.
- Turning your palms toward the floor, lift your arms out to the side at a 90-degree angle to form the letter T and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Lower your arms and return to the starting position.
If You: Slump in the Stretch
You Might: Have Tight or Weak Chest Muscles
Even though, as its name suggests, the double shoulder stretch involves your shoulders, it also engages your chest muscles. And when your pecs are stiff or weak, opening the front of your body — which is necessary to achieve the correct position for the pose — is tough.
One of the biggest factors that leads to weakness and tightness in the chest is poor posture, Banta says. Again, sitting all day hunched in front of a computer is often to blame. We tend to slouch and lean forward when we sit, and this, over time, can shorten your pecs and cause postural issues.
To combat this, perform movements that pull your shoulders back. "One of my favorite ways to stretch the chest is to lie back on a foam roller that's aligned with your spine and allow gravity to open up the chest and rotate the shoulders open," Banta says.
The second major cause of tight pecs? Lack of exercise, Banta says, who explains that you can improve stiffness by strengthening the chest, shoulders and upper back with resistance moves like push-ups and band pull aparts.
Band Pull Apart
- Begin with your arms extended straight out in front of you, holding a resistance band with both hands.
- Move your hands out to your sides until the band reaches your chest.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades, pause for a moment, then slowly return to starting position.