Did you know the shoulder joint is essentially the same structure as placing a golf ball on a golf tee? This means several muscles must work together to stabilize the shoulder joint.
However, this also means that many of the muscles around the shoulder can become stiff, causing discomfort at the shoulder, up the chain to the neck, or down the chain to the rest of the arm.
In this article, I will share my 12 best shoulder stretches, which I have learned over the last 10 years as a physical therapist and strength coach. These stretches have helped my clients increase their shoulder flexibility, optimize their joint range of motion, and alleviate discomfort.
12 Best Shoulder Stretches
- 1. Banded Lat Stretch
- 2. Rack Pec Stretch
- 3. Sleeper Stretch
- 4. PVC External Rotation Stretch
- 5. Cross-Body Arm Stretch
- 6. Behind The Back Internal Rotation Stretch
- 7. Overhead PVC Tricep Stretch
- 8. Chest Opener Stretch
- 9. Child’s Pose With Shoulder Reach
- 10. Cat-Cow Stretch
- 11. Active Bar Hang
- 12. Open Book Stretch
- Causes of Tightness In The Shoulder
- How To Stretch Properly
- Final Thoughts
12 Best Shoulder Stretches
Here are the stretches that you must add to your exercise regimen:
1. Banded Lat Stretch
The banded lat stretch targets the lats. It is a primary move for shoulder extension, crosses the shoulder joint, and inserts into the humerus. (1)
When the lats become stiff, it can restrict your ability to reach or press over the head without compensation. They can also lead to poor posture at the shoulders because they also act as an internal rotator of the shoulders. (1)
How to perform the banded lat stretch:
- Attach a resistance band to a bar overhead.
- Place one hand into the resistance band.
- Step back until there is tension in the band.
- Hinge at the hips, keeping your back neutral.
- Allow the band to distract the arm away from the body.
2. Rack Pec Stretch
The doorway pec stretch targets the pectoralis major muscle, which has two sets of fibers. (2) The superior or group of fibers most towards the head are the clavicular fibers, while the ones beneath are the sternal fibers. (2)
Each one can be targeted based on the angle of the arm during the stretch, with the clavicular fibers most stretched at ninety degrees and the sternal fibers most stretched with a bit of arm elevation.
Tight pecs can contribute to rounded shoulders and poor posture, impairing your ability to press weight overhead to a fully locked-out position.
How to perform the doorway pec stretch:
- Stand before a squat rack with shoulders elevated and elbow bent to 90 degrees.
- Place the forearm on the rack.
- Step forward with the inside leg to open the chest.
- Continue until you feel a stretch across the chest and anterior shoulder.
3. Sleeper Stretch
The sleep stretch is a favorite of mine because it can target the backside of the shoulder, and it is easy to modify the pressure. It targets the posterior capsule of the shoulder.
The capsule is a dense fibrous encasing that surrounds all synovial fluid joints to provide stability, which can also become stiff like a muscle. (3) It targets the rotator cuff muscles, particularly the teres minor and infraspinatus.
How to perform the sleeper stretch:
- Lie on your side with the target arm on the bottom.
- Position the arm and elbow at ninety degrees.
- Apply gentle pressure to the back of the bottom hand using the top hand.
- Press the bottom hand towards the floor until you feel a stretch in the backside of the shoulder.
4. PVC External Rotation Stretch
The PVC external rotation stretch is the opposite of the sleeper stretch. Using the PVC creates an outward or external rotation of the shoulder, which targets the anterior shoulder capsule and stretches the internal rotators of the shoulder.
This stretch is helpful if you do any lifting where you need to achieve a good front rack position for the barbell. The front rack is used in movements like front squats, power cleans, and push jerks.
How to perform the PVC external rotation stretch:
- Hold a PVC pipe in one hand vertically.
- Rotate the arm outwards, allowing the PVC pipe to rest on the outside of the hand and arm.
- Bring the arm to 90 degrees of elevation and maintain a ninety-degree angle at the elbow.
- Using the opposing arm, grab the bottom of the PVC pipe and continue to pull upwards. Rotating the target arm until you feel a stretch in the backside of the shoulder.
5. Cross-Body Arm Stretch
The cross-body arm stretch is a simple yet effective way to improve upper back flexibility. Specifically, this stretch targets the posterior shoulder muscle and mid-trapezius and rhomboid muscles.
These muscles can become stiff for various reasons and often develop trigger points or “knots” that can cause discomfort around the shoulder blades, neck, and head. This stretch can help mitigate this.
How to perform the cross-body arm stretch:
- Reach one arm across your chest as far as possible.
- Using the opposite arm, hook under the target and apply overpressure in the direction of the stretch.
- Continue pulling the other arm across your chest until you feel a stretch in the back of the shoulder.
6. Behind The Back Internal Rotation Stretch
This is an excellent stretch if you have trouble reaching behind your back to put your wallet in your back pocket or a coat on. The behind-the-back stretch is another internal rotation stretch that targets the shoulder’s external rotators.
I like this stretch because reaching behind the back is often easier to target with assistance. By using a strap, you can recreate the motion and challenge the muscles and soft tissue structures that limit it under your power.
How to perform the behind-the-back Internal Rotation stretch:
- Hold a strap, band, or towel in the opposite hand and place it over the opposite shoulder.
- Reach behind the back with the target shoulder and grasp the strap.
- Use the opposite arm to gently pull over and down on the strap, drawing the target shoulder up the back.
- Continue pulling down until you feel a stretch in the target shoulder.
7. Overhead PVC Tricep Stretch
You may think, “I thought this article was for shoulder stretches.” And you are correct; however, as I mentioned above, many muscles cross the shoulder joint.
The triceps have three “heads” — long, lateral, and medial — with attachment points on the upper arm and the shoulder blade. Thus, they can be a source of restriction for shoulder movements. This stretch targets your ability to reach overhead if the source of stiffness is the triceps.
How to perform the overhead tricep stretch:
- Hold a PVC pipe vertically in the target arm.
- Lift the PVC up and over the back.
- Reach behind the back with the opposite arm and grasp the PVC pipe.
- Pull down on the PVC pipe with the opposite arm.
- Keeping the ribcage down and the core engaged, continue pulling down on the PVC pipe until you feel a stretch in the back side of the target arm.
8. Chest Opener Stretch
This is a great dynamic stretch that can gently increase the resistance to stretch the chest muscles. Using a foam roller or another device to create separation from the ground, you can use gravity to stretch the chest.
How to perform the chest opener stretch:
- Place a foam roller vertically on the ground.
- Begin by sitting on the foam roller, oriented vertically to the back.
- Lay back, assuming a supine (face up) position on the foam roller.
- Raise both arms above the shoulders in a half-circular motion.
- Continue back and forth for several repetitions, allowing the arms to descend to the floor with each repetition.
9. Child’s Pose With Shoulder Reach
The child’s pose targets the chest muscles and the lats. By biasing one side with the shoulder reach and shifting your weight, you can feel for any specific tight points in the muscle and use your breath to lengthen and decrease tension where needed.
How to perform the child’s pose with shoulder reach stretch:
- Begin in a quadruped position.
- Allow the hips to sit back onto the heels or as far back as possible.
- Reach both hands out as far as they can go directly away from the body.
- Keeping the hips back and arms extended out in front, move the arms to one side away from the target side.
- Continue to move the arms laterally and shift your weight to the target side until you feel a stretch in the lateral aspect of the shoulder and lats.
10. Cat-Cow Stretch
The cat-cow stretch is one of my all-time favorites for many reasons. First, it improves thoracic spine mobility through flexion and extension. Second, it enhances shoulder blade mobility because as you flex and extend your upper back, you must also protract and retract your shoulder blades. This movement is crucial for optimal shoulder health.
A lesser-known fact about the cat-cow stretch is that when done correctly, this movement can improve motor control in the core as you work to posteriorly and anteriorly rotate the pelvis.
It can also teach you how to segmentally move each vertebra and control your spine, which can help improve the health of all joints from your neck to your lower back.
How to perform the cat-cow stretch:
- Begin in a quadruped position.
- Maintain full elbow extension and ninety-degree knee flexion for the entirety of the movement.
- Initiate the movement with the tailbone. Then, allow the lower back to flex, followed by the thoracic spine and then the cervical spine until the spine completely rounds.
- Continue reaching the thoracic spine to the sky until you feel a stretch along the paraspinal muscles of the upper back.
- Allow the lower back to reverse direction and extend segmentally, followed by the thoracic and cervical spine.
- Continue extending through the spine until a stretch is felt again in the thoracic spine.
- Repeat this motion for several repetitions.
11. Active Bar Hang
If you do any hanging exercises like pull-ups, muscle-ups, rope climbs, etc., then the active bar should be in your toolbox of stretches. It allows you to get into a specific position for overhead gymnastic movements. This exercise uses gravity and your breath to assist you in lengthening essentially all of the muscles of your shoulders.
Keeping an active position can also strengthen the core and the full-body connection from your feet to your hands.
How to perform the active bar hang stretch:
- Begin standing under a pull-up bar high enough to allow for hanging by the arms off of the floor.
- Jump up and grip the pull-up bar with both hands.
- Engage the lats and core and assume a hollow body position.
- Allow your weight to pull down on the shoulders until you feel a stretch.
- Maintain a braced core throughout the stretch and take deep breaths to intensify it.
12. Open Book Stretch
The open book is a great way to target thoracic spine or upper back mobility. The open book stretch uses gravity to assist you in creating a rotary stretch for the upper back.
Although it is a rotation movement, the spine’s movements are coupled. This means that when you create motion into one plan, you also create movement in another. (4) So, when the thoracic spine is stretching into rotation, you are also moving into side bending. (4) Thus, pack a powerful combination stretch for the upper back.
How to perform the open book stretch:
- Lie on one side of the body with the top leg flexed at the hip and knee and the bottom leg fully extended.
- Allow the top knee to travel over the body until it is on the ground or touching a support object such as a yoga block or foam roller.
- Elevate both arms to ninety degrees on the floor with one on top of the other.
- Allow the top arm to lift off the bottom one and rotate it over the torso behind the body, causing a rotation of the upper back.
- At the same time, keep the eyes on the moving hand and rotate the head with the arm.
- Continue rotating backward while maintaining contact with the top knee on the floor until a rotary stretch is felt in the upper back.
- Return to the starting position.
Causes of Tightness In The Shoulder
There can be several causes for shoulder tightness. The first is prolonged postures in a shortened position of the muscle. For example, if you sit all day for work, over time, the hip flexors, which are shortened during sitting, can become resistant to stretch.
Next is the nervous system level, as stiffness can be a method of guarding the body against an unstable joint. For example, in the presence of lumbar instability or glute weakness, you may also develop hip flexor tightness.
How To Stretch Properly
Ideally, when you stretch, you want to avoid being too aggressive and allow the body to open up naturally. By bringing the muscle to its end range and gradually allowing it to decrease its resistance to stretch, you will see more significant improvements in flexibility while maintaining comfort.
You can also use breathing techniques, such as deep breathing, breath holds, and controlled exhales, to augment flexibility improvements, provided you have no blood pressure issues.
Should you stretch your shoulder if it hurts?
You should always avoid stretching into sharp pain. Although stretching does not always feel pleasant, anything beyond a stretching sensation should be assessed by a medical professional.
For how long should I hold a stretch?
According to research, stretches are typically held between 15-60 seconds to reduce the resistance to stretch. (5) However, there is quite a bit of variation in the literature, with some studies suggesting holding stretches for two minutes or more.
What is the difference between static and dynamic stretching?
Static stretches involve a passive approach that sustains the stretch for several seconds to several minutes to decrease the nervous system’s resistance to the muscle’s stretch.
Dynamic stretching is best for regaining range of motion after a previous training session or prolonged postures and promoting increased body temperature and blood flow before exercise.
As you can see, you can perform many different stretches to improve shoulder mobility and function. The shoulder is a complex joint with many moving parts and muscles that cross it to provide a wide range of movement and create stability in several different planes.
However, this also means these muscles are exposed to many opportunities to become stiff and reduce movement and function. Try these stretches in your fitness routine to see if they help you feel and move better in the gym (and life)!
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- Decker, R. S., Koyama, E., & Pacifici, M. (2014). Genesis and morphogenesis of limb synovial joints and articular cartilage. Matrix biology : journal of the International Society for Matrix Biology, 39, 5–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matbio.2014.08.006
- Moon, O. K., Kim, S. H., Lee, S. B., An, H. J., Kim, B. K., Kim, N. J., Shin, H. J., Choi, Y. R., Wang, J. S., Park, S. E., & Min, K. O. (2014). Thoracic coupled motions of korean men in good health in their 20s. Journal of physical therapy science, 26(1), 87–91. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.26.87
- Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European journal of applied physiology, 111(11), 2633–2651. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-011-1879-2