Effective stretches for the shoulder to help relieve neck and shoulder pain
We see tons of patients come in with restricted shoulder mobility and tightness of their neck and upper arms. It’s unfortunately very common in two of the biggest demographics we see: Athletes and officer workers.
While the injuries accumulate differently, we can still look at the shoulder stiffness problem the same way. The first question you have to ask is, am I able to go through normal range of motion (ROM)? Has this been occurring for a long time (over 3 months), or is this from a recent injury?
Instead of going over common stretchers everyone knows, we want to deliver unique stretches for the shoulder to target those tight and achy muscles. Whether you’re looking for short term pain relief, or long term shoulder health, these exercises will help you regain proper function.
First, do you have the prereqs?
Just as in school, where higher difficulty classes have prerequisites of basic knowledge (CHEM 201 has a prereq of CHEM 101), your body has prereqs to function properly. To move efficiently, we need to have:
Proper joint mechanics
Proper nerve supply to control this movement
Proper muscle health and flexibility (mobility)
Our stretches will help to create mobility within the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint and the scapulo-thoracic (shoulder blade) joint. Oftentimes you may have spinal Subluxation, muscle tears, impingements, or deconditioning which will limit your shoulder function and progression. These need to be analysed and corrected by a trained professional, like our Doctors at Align Chiropractic in Tanjong Pagar (CBD).
Let’s first check your ROM and see if there is an actual loss of motion, or just perceived stiffness.
Shoulder Range of Motion (ROM)
Your shoulder should be able to perform:
Forward flexion (arm straight overhead) 165°
Extension (arm straight backwards 54°
Abduction (arm raised out to side) 171°
Internal rotation (elbow at 90°, forearm moves towards stomach) 75°
External rotation (elbow at 90°, forearm moves away from body) 83°
If you perform these motions, and they create PAIN, stretches for the shoulder are generally not recommended as it may continue to irritate and inflame the injury.
If you’re having trouble with any of these motions, and it only feels stiff or tight, then these shoulder stretches will help.
1. Kneeling Latissimus Stretch
Tight lats causing shoulder stiffness? This is one of the deepest stretches I know of for the latissimus muscle and upper back.
Start by kneeling near an edge (table, chair, bed) and hold a foam roller or pipe between your hands, palms facing each other. Place your bent elbows onto the edge, round your upper back, and then sit back your butt towards the heels of your feet. Take 3-5 relaxed breathes, slowly letting your shoulder and chest lower deeper each time.
For an even deeper stretch, change your starting arm position to an “open V shape” with the elbows closer together and hands further apart, and round your upper back a bit more at the end of the stretch.
Reps: 3-5 breathes, 3-5x
Common mistakes: Make sure your knees are under your hips before starting, and that you're allowing your body to sit back far enough that the stretch pulls into your outside armpits.
2. Posterior Deltoid Stretch- Horizontal Arm
While simple, this is a highly recommended stretch to perform. For patients who have rotator cuff tears, the deltoids tend to take up the slack and work harder to keep the shoulder performing ‘normally’. Make sure to keep the deltoids not just strong, but flexible as well. This is a great stretch to help internal rotation of your shoulder as well!
To perform, stand in an upright position and straighten your arm across your chest. Using your other arm, gently advance the arm further until a stretch is felt in the back of your shoulder.
Reps: 10-20 second hold
Common mistakes: Try not to round out your mid back, or push your neck forwards when stretching. You should feel the stretch primarily in the back of the shoulder. If you have a pinching pain in front of the shoulder (impingement), you need to correct the underlying dysfunction, and discontinue this stretch.
3. Sleeper Stretch
Generalized shoulder stiffness? Pain on overhead movements? Try this one.
It’s common for many overhead throwing athletes and office workers to have less developed internal rotator cuff muscles. One way to improve the mobility and flexibility of the shoulder is to focus on this internal rotation with the side lying sleeper stretch. If you have less than 75° of internal rotation, and no impingement symptoms, then start with this gentle, but very deep stretch.
Start by laying on your side, being careful not to tilt too far one way. Have your bottom arm bent out 90° making an “L shape” with the fingers pointing to the sky. Using your free hand, gently press against the back of the bottom wrist to glide it closer towards the floor. Ideally, you should feel a stretch in the back of the shoulder. Listen to your body, and don’t push more than what feels comfortable.
Common mistakes: If you crank this, and feel pain on the front of your shoulder, you likely have a shoulder impingement and should stop doing this exercise! This will cause more damage than good, so be mindful when performing this deep stretch. To modify this stretch, you can cross your arm like our #2 stretch “Posterior Deltoid” while you are side-lying.
4. Supine overhead bar stretch
Feeling too rounded forwards? Always hunching due to work? Let’s loosen up the anterior body!
This is one of our favorite chest stretches, working on pectoralis major and minor. We choose to do this lying on a foam roller, but it can also be done on any flat surface.
Start by laying on a foam roller with your back centered on it. Using a pipe or broom with a “wide V grip”, hold your arms straight and extended like a bench press. While keeping your head, shoulders, and mid back pinned to the ground, slowly bring your bar overhead and lower it to the floor as far as possible. Try not to shrug the shoulders.
Reps: 5-10 seconds holds, 3x
Common mistakes: One side may be tighter than the other, and will cause your arms to tilt or twist. Use the pipe as a gauge to see if you are evenly lowering or not. Remember to breathe and keep your core tight as you hold at the end.
Every shoulder problem is unique, but starting with these stretches should help to regain some mobility. If the problem has occurred for a long time (months to years), or if you don't find any of these stretches comfortable, you may want to seek out professional help.
If you're looking for even more ways to improve at home, check out our Shoulder Stretches Part 2 (coming soon) and Shoulder Exercises For Better Strength and Control.
For more information, or a free consult to see if your case is right for us, email us at