Effective and easy stretches for the shoulder to regain mobility and function
Stiff and painful shoulders can make daily life miserable. Most common stretches for the shoulder that we see are helpful, but may not be targeting your deeper rooted problems causing that stiffness. As a Chiropractor, posture is critical to our health and well-being. Let’s go through some important shoulder stretches that can positively affect our posture.
In Part 1, we learned how to increase our range of motion (movement potential) of our shoulder. What we also need to focus on is quality of the movement, and making sure our brain can control those ranges.
These are the shoulder warm-up stretches that I do before every shoulder workout, as it helps to drive the mind-body connection by reinforcing our basic movement planes.
Think about someone doing a split on the floor. Can that same person, standing, raise their legs even half way to that while actively controlling their leg muscles? Just because a joint can be passively pressed into a position doesn’t make it advantageous to train that way.
The following stretches are more mobility and control based. If you want a shoulder that is strong, moves well, and you want it to stay pain free, then try these out!
1. Pectoral Corner Wall Stretch
This is a great stretch loosening up the pectoralis major and minor muscle, which is often excessively tight due to our forward rounded posture. If you’re sitting all day, make sure to implement this stretch.
The pec connects deeply into many structures, prominently your clavicle and sternum. Chronic tightness of these muscles will force the body forward into a rounded position, with the shoulders and head falling forwards. For shoulder exercises, remember it’s always best to make sure the muscles are ‘warm’ before doing any deep stretches.
To start, find a corner of a room and place your arms out in an “L shape”, place your hands and forearms on the wall, and gently lean forwards while keeping your back and neck upright and relaxed. The shoulder stretch should be on the front chest, and NOT the front of your shoulder. Placing too heavy pressure can strain your front deltoid (front shoulder) muscles, so make sure you feel the stretch and burn at the right location.
You can also try this stretch at different elbow heights (one higher by the ear, and one lower by the waist) as it will stretch different parts of your chest.
Reps: 10-20 second hold
Common Mistakes: Check to see if your head is projecting forwards when you get into the deeper part of the stretch. This is a poor compensation pattern that shows lack of shoulder mobility, so make sure to keep the chin ever so slightly retracted (backwards).
2. Bed Angels and Wall Angels
Look familiar? This shoulder exercise can be considered a stretch and a strengthening technique. As it's a highly important functional movement, we included this in our shoulder stretch and shoulder strengthening articles.
Your serratus anterior connects your ribs to your scapula, and helps to hold it in place (important for overhead lifting and proper gliding). While often under-trained and weak, this exercise can help to strengthen and lengthen when done in a controlled and correct manner.
Start by laying on your back, knees bent, arms away from the body, and elbows bent 90° into an ‘L shape’ with the fingers pointing over your head. With your forearm and wrist relaxed and touching the ground, pinch your shoulder blades together and gently start to elevate your arms over your head while sliding your arms against the floor.
Think of this as doing a shoulder overhead press, but laying down. This focus on perfect form (shoulders and back pinned) helps train fluid movement mechanics and helps work on serratus anterior control. Make sure to not shrug your shoulders, but keep them relaxed and depressed (towards your feet).
Doing this mobility work in a bed is Level 1 difficulty, as it allows you to ‘’cheat’ a bit with having your back and shoulders slightly rounded. Level 2 difficulty is performing this on an actual hard floor. This will challenge your ability to focus on scapula retraction, serratus activation, and smooth fine motor control.
Remember to perform this movement slow and controlled, taking 5-7 seconds to complete the movement up, and 5-7 seconds moving down. Perform 2-3 sets for 5-10 repetitions. If you notice a parting ‘stuck’ or ‘cheating’, restart your movement and focus on quality, not quantity.
Common Mistakes: If you are finding it difficult to have your entire forearm and back of the hand touch the floor, you likely need to loosen your front Pectoralis muscles, Latissimus muscles, or need Thoracic (mid-back) spinal mobility.
Finding this too easy? Let’s move on to Level 3 Difficulty.
Try this same overhead press in a seated position, with your back against a wall. Make sure to keep your pelvis, shoulder blades, head, and forearms pressed against the wall. Now slowly drag your forearm up the wall and over your head, making sure to follow the same steps as before. Don’t shrug that shoulder!
Common Mistakes: You’ll probably be having a lot more difficult on this one. Make sure not to round out your lower back (or flatten it for that matter). Your chest and shoulders will want to elevate, but make sure to breathe and keep them relaxed and controlled. If this seems impossible, think about how your shoulder is moving when adding weight to any overhead press! Injuries happen not from training, but training improperly without the pre-reqs!
A Word On Mobility
Unfortunately we don’t spend time in these ‘extreme’ positions, so our Nervous System isn’t familiar with them. This can cause our bodies to prematurely tighten up when we explore close to those ranges. If this continues, and we don’t keep our shoulders active, it can eventually cause more severe problems with your shoulder.
Everyone should be doing these next two shoulder exercises for proper mobility. The adage, “If you don't use it, you lose it”, can be applied to all of your joints. Thankfully in most cases, full recovery is possible.
3. Shoulder 360’s (CARs)
This will test even ‘healthy’ non symptomatic shoulders, as we will be exploring your full range of motion. Be warned, this is not easy. To get the most out of this stretch, we need to focus on doing this slow.. very slow.
Start by extending one of your arms straight forwards, thumb up, and set your shoulder blades by adding a slight pinch to your shoulder blades towards your spine and bringing your shoulder back and down. While holding this stable position slowly raise your arm straight up over your head, and continue the motion backwards. It will look like your arm is making a giant circle from the side. Once you are at about 30°-45°, there may be a sharp sensation and will be difficult to maneuver. Try to ‘cut the corner’ as best you can. Change your palm from facing your heads to facing away when it becomes too difficult, and focus on ‘cutting the corner’ to maintain as wide of a circle as you can without the arm moving too far away from the body. Continue back and down and complete the circle.
Each 90° should be done slowly, taking at least 5 seconds each, meaning the whole circle should only be completed after 20+ seconds. The slower and more controlled you go, the better the stretch, and the more flexibility you can gain.
Reps: One 20-40 second circle, then rest
Common mistakes: Remember setting your shoulders? You mind forget halfway through the stretch, but keep mentally checking in for it. Most people try to power their way through quickly and swing their arms too fast. To gain more articular (joint) control, you need to teach your Nervous System that this range of motion is safe and strong by moving slowly. Only then can your shoulders loosen up naturally and become more flexible. Also, check your trap to see if it's too engaged and rising as you move.
4. Scapula Squares
We apply the same ideas as the shoulder, just with the shoulder blade making a square shape from the side.
Start by extending one of your arms straight forwards, thumb up, and set your shoulder blades by adding a slight pinch to your shoulder blades towards your spine and bringing your shoulder back and down. While holding this stable position shrug your shoulder blade upwards focusing on not engaging your Trap too much. Once up, slowly straight backwards, and hold for a moment. Complete the next corner of your square by slowly lowering your shoulder blade as low as possible, and hold for a moment. While depressing your shoulder blade, protract (forwards push) as far as you can. Finally, raise your protracted shoulder blade upwards as high as you can to complete the last corner. Return to the start position, relax, and shake it off.
Tough right? This movement may cause shoulder pain, popping, clicking, or snapping noises which can indicate shoulder dysfunction that are hiding under the surface. If you notice your shoulder popping and snapping with pain, it’s best to get it checked out by a professional before continuing.
Reps: One 10-20 second square, then rest
Common mistakes: It’s common for this stretch to be very difficult at first, but the more you practice, the smoother the movement will become. Make sure to re-check if you are in the right position every few seconds. If you drill this exercise with improper movements (quickly pushing past the painful and stuck area), you’re telling your brain you’re not comfortable with that area, which will eventually turn into more stiffness and restricted motion.
If you want to improve even more, check out our Shoulder exercises for better strength and control at Shoulder Exercises For A Healthy And Pain Free Shoulder!
There are many stretches for the shoulder out there, but few are focused on postural and functional mobility. If you are training your body to do the common 'gym' strength training, but you can’t perform these functional movements and stretches perfectly, then you may be wasting your precious workout time! Always make sure to start with the basics, master them, and then try more.
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