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How to Stretch Your Shoulders

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 17, 2021

Stretching your shoulder muscles can help with increased movement and flexibility and can also help prevent injury. Try incorporating these stretches into your exercise routine.

Types of Stretches

Whether you have pain, an injury, or you want to prevent injuries, the main element of shoulder stretches is flexibility. Flexibility stretches include:

Range of motion stretches. Also called ROM, these stretches help you get more movement out of your shoulder. They can be done with a towel, walking stick, or without any tools, and should be pain-free.

Dynamic stretches. These are movement-based stretches that take your muscle through its full available range of motion without holding a position. This is like a warm-up before your run that helps increase muscle temperature and lowers stiffness.

Static stretches. These are stretches where you bring your muscle as far as it can go without feeling any pain and hold for 20 to 45 seconds. Then repeat two or three times each. Static stretches are deeper and best for flexibility as well as your cool down after exercise. 

To get the best out of your stretching program, use a combination of these flexibility stretches. 

1. Start With Shoulder Warm-Up Exercises

Before starting, do a simple dynamic shoulder warm-up.  This gets the blood and oxygen to your muscles, lowers stiffness, and makes them more pliable.

These can include:

Shoulder rolls. With your arms by your sides, move your shoulders up and backward in a circular motion. Try to keep your torso still and move only your arms and shoulders. Repeat 10 times and then switch to forward rolls for 10 more.

Windmills. Stand with your feet flat on the floor and your arms by your side. Bring your arms over your head, roll your shoulders back, and make a circle with your arms. Repeat 10 times.

Scissor stretches. Stand in place with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your arms out in front of you at shoulder height and cross them. Then pull back your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades. Repeat 10 times.

Once you’re warmed up, move into deeper stretches. Don’t bounce or force your muscles and keep your stretches pain-free.

2. Move Into a Crossover Arm Stretch

This stretch is also known as the shoulder stretch, and you should feel it in the back of your shoulder. 

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Pull your arm across your chest and hold at your upper arm. Don’t hold or pull your elbow.
  3. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
  4. Release and switch sides.
  5. Repeat two more times.

3. Chest and Shoulder Stretch

Use this stretch to work the muscles in your chest and the front of your shoulder. 

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand beside a doorway or a wall.
  2. Extend your right arm and put your right hand on the edge of the door frame or wall. Keep your hand below shoulder level with your palm facing forward and your shoulders down and back.
  3. Turn your body away from the doorway, slowly to the left until you feel the stretch.
  4. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and then slowly return to the wall. 
  5. Repeat two more times and then switch to the opposite side.

4. Pendulum Swing

The pendulum swing helps you gain a range of motion in your shoulder. You can do this one sitting on a chair if needed.

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand or sit with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lean forward and place one hand on a table or chair for support. Let your other arm dangle.
  2. Gently swing your arm forward and back three times.
  3. Swing your arm in and out three times.
  4. Then swing your arm gently in three small circles clockwise and again counterclockwise.
  5. Repeat the sequence two more times and return to the standing or sitting position. Then repeat on the opposite side. 

5. Towel Stretch

You will need a towel or a t-shirt for this stretch. Be sure not to force your shoulder in this stretch and to stay within a pain-free range. 

To do this one:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Hold the towel in one hand and raise it up and behind your head. 
  3. Place your other hand behind your back and grab the towel. 
  4. Slowly pull your bottom arm up by pulling up the towel with your top arm. 
  5. Hold for 30 seconds in a pain-free range and repeat two more times. Then release and repeat on the opposite side.

6. Repeat Throughout the Week

Repeat these exercises three to four days a week. Consider adding shoulder strengthening exercises every other day to keep your muscles strong and flexible. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School: “4 stretches to keep your shoulders in shape.

Hospital for Special Surgery: “Static vs. Dynamic Stretching: What Are They and Which Should You Do?”

Nicklaus Children’s Hospital: “Shoulder RTC Simple Stretching and Strengthening.”

OrthoInfo: “Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program.”

Princeton University Athletic Medicine: “Shoulder Rehabilitation.”

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