Shoulder tightness and the pain which is often associated with it can be incredibly debilitating. Think how often this area is called into action during everyday life. From lifting up your kids, to shutting the trunk of your car, to hanging out the laundry at home, you place a great deal of stress on your shoulders on a daily basis. The increasing time people are spending hunched over laptop computers at work, looking at their smart phones and driving all adds to the regular strain experienced by the shoulders. According to a 2010 study by the Center For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) and the National Center For Health Statistics (NCHS), chronic shoulder pain accounts for approximately 10% of the total number of American adults reporting pain.
Consequently, it is vitally important to look after this joint and the muscles which surround it as well as you can. That’s where we come in. The following collection of stretches and stability exercises should give you the best possibility chance of maintaining the integrity of your shoulders and staving off any unwanted tightness and discomfort!
You will notice that the vast majority of these stretches focus on opening up the muscles in the front of the shoulders and chest. This is because we spend so much of our daily lives in bad posture, sitting at desks or on the sofa with a shoulders rolled forward. These habits lead to shortening of these anterior muscles which means our shoulders are constantly rolled forward leading to back as well as shoulder pain. One of the best ways of negating this potential postural pitfall is by spending some time redressing the balance and adding some length to those anterior muscle groups.
Cow Face Pose
Adopt a kneeling position with your bottom in contact with your heels. Raise your left arm straight above your head and bend this arm at the elbow so that your left hand is reaching down behind your neck towards the middle of your thoracic spine. At the same time, move you left from by you side to behind your back, again bending at the elbow so that your reach your left hand up towards the middle of your thoracic spine to touch your right hand.
Now depending on the extent of your flexibility in your shoulder joint and some of the surrounding muscles (particularly the triceps in this instance), it may not be possible for you to reach far enough with both hands in order to get them to touch. If you’re really struggling with range, you can use a towel to bridge the gap. Hold the end of the towel in the hand which you first raise above your head and then bend down behind your neck, so that the loose end of the towel is dangling down the middle of the back. Then perform the same movement with the other arm as explained above and grab the loose end of the towel. As you achieve more range of movement, you can edge each hand further towards the centre of the towel so as to increase the stretch.
Prone Cactus Stretch
Discomfort in the shoulder can often be caused by tightness in the chest, particularly if you’re a gym regular and you spend a lot of your time doing bench press. This exercise is a great way of relieving some of that tightness in your pecs and the front of your shoulders.
Lay face down on your front with you arms by your sides. Take your left arm out to the side of your body and bend the able to 90 degrees with the palm of your hand face down on the floor. Bend your right arm at the elbow and place the palm of your hand on the floor next to your right shoulder. Rotate your body to the left , lifting your right hip and right shoulder off the ground. As you rotate, bend your right knee and try to place your right foot on the ground to the left hand side of your body with your knee pointing towards the ceiling. Your left shoulder and arm should remain in contact with the ground at all times during this movement as it is this position which generates the stretch of the chest and front of your shoulder. Hold for 20-30 seconds and slowly roll back to the start position before rotating to the other side.
Standing Crescent Moon Pose
Standing with your feet hip width apart, reach your arms straight above your head and place the palms of your hands face to face, standing as tall as you possibly can. Keeping the palms of your hands together at all times, reach your hands over to the left, bending the upper body so as to create the shape of a crescent moon. Try not to shift your hips to the right during this movement as this will focus the stretch on different part of the body to the shoulders. Hold the crescent position for between 20 and 30 seconds before returning to the start position and bending in the opposite direction.
If performed correctly, you should feel the stretch in your latissimus dorsi muscle and the top of the shoulder.
Hands Bound Forward Bend
Standing with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, take your hands behind your back and lock your fingertips together with a clasping grip. If your lack of flexibility means you cannot link hands in this position then use a towel to bridge the gap as with the cow face pose above. One in this position, bend forwards so that your chest moves towards the ground, folding at the hips and bending slightly at the knees (particularly if you have limited hamstring flexibility) until your head is almost between your legs. Keeping your arms straight and your hands locked together (or keeping hold of the towel), allow your hands to move as close to the ground as your mobility will allow.
Hold the bottom of the range for 20-30 seconds before returning slowly to the start position. This stretch should help you open up the front of your shoulders.
Wall Downward Dog
Yet another great way of releasing the chest and front of the shoulders. Stand facing a wall (a few feet away) with your feet around hip width apart. Place the palms of your hands on the wall in front of you and gradually walk them down towards the floor, keeping your arms straight until they are somewhere around the level of your hips (this will depend largely on your flexibility). As you walk your hands down the wall, fold forward at the hips and push your butt back, being sure to keep your back as flat as possible and your feet directly under your hips. If you have limited hamstring flexibility then you may need to bend your knees slightly to negate some of the stretch in this area. Hold the bottom of this range for between 20 and 30 seconds before returning slowly to the start position.
Cross Arm Stretch
Many of the exercises so far have focused on relieving some of the tightness commonly experienced in the front of the shoulder and the chest. It is also important, however, to address the back of the shoulder (posterior deltoids) too, which is where this really simple stretch, that you can do anytime anywhere, comes into play.
In a standing position, bring one arm across your body, bending the arm slightly at the elbow. Using your opposite hand, pull this arm further across your body by applying some pressure at the elbow until you feel a stretch. Hold this position for between 20 and 30 seconds before swapping sides.
Door Frame 90:90
Stand in a doorway and place the palms of your hands and your forearms on either side. Both arms should be bent at the elbow in order to create and L shape or 90 degree bend (hence the name of this stretch). Lean forwards through the doorway, keeping your palms and forearms in contact with the door frame so as to generate a stretch in the front of your shoulders and chest. Hold this position for between 20 and 30 seconds and then ease out of the stretch.
Overhead Tricep Stretch
Tightness in the triceps can be a contributing factor to pain in the shoulders so it’s important we include some stretches for this area too.
In a standing position, lift one arm straight above your head. Bend your arm at the elbow so that your hand drops behind the back of your neck. Place the hand of your other arm on the elbow of the arm being stretched and apply pressure downwards, which should generate a stretch in your tricep. Hold the position for between 20 and 30 seconds and ease out the the stretch position before repeating a few times.
Laying Posterior Shoulder Stretch
Lay flat on your back and bring your left arm straight out to the side of your body so your fingers are pointing to the left and your palm is facing the ceiling. Bend your right knee slightly and rotate your body towards your left arm so that your right shoulder and hip leave contact with the floor. Keep rotating until your right knee comes into contact with the ground on the left side of your body and you can reach your right hand to touch the floor above the position of your left arm. Hold this for 20 to 30 seconds before returning to the start position and switching sides.
Standing Posterior Shoulder Stretch
In a standing position, place both hands in the small of your back with your palms facing outwards, so that your elbows are bent to approximately 90 degrees. This position will naturally cause you elbows to move out slightly to the side of your body. By moving your elbows forward in front of the line of your body and rolling your shoulders forwards you should be able to generate a good stretch in your posterior shoulders. Hold the position for 20 to 30 seconds before easing out of the stretch and going again.
Shoulder Stability Exercises
Whilst generating flexibility in the muscles around your shoulder joint, particular those in the front of the shoulder and in the chest, is important, there are also some very useful stability exercises you can include in your routine to help you prevent discomfort developing in this area.
Lay face down over a Swiss Ball with your hips in contact with the top of the ball and your toes in contact with the floor. Allow your arms to just rest and dangle towards the floor at this stage. This movement has 3 different arm positions which mean your body creates 3 different letters of the alphabet, recruiting different muscle groups around the shoulders to do so. Create the Y by raising your arms in front of your body at a 45 degree angle. Hold for a short period of time (5 seconds) before lowering back to the start position. Create the T by raising your arms to the sides of your body (at 90 degrees). Again, hold for 5 seconds before lowering back to the start position. Create the I by raising your arms backwards so that they are both parallel to the sides of your torso. Hold for 5 seconds before lowering back to the start position.
It’s integral that the rest of your body remains as still and controlled as possible during this movement transition. This means you’re going to have to engage your core muscles. Repeat the movements a number of times, alternating which letter shape you create on each repetition. If you need to increase the intensity of the exercise, as your strength and stability levels increase, then hold light dumbbells in each of your hands as you complete the movements.
Standing Wall Angels
Standing with your back to a wall, raise your arms directly above your head so that your fingers are pointing to the ceiling, and the back of your hands and as much of your arms as possible are in contact with the wall. Once in this position bend your arms to 90 degrees until your elbows are at the same level as you shoulders, whilst maintaining contact between your arms and the wall at all times. Alternate between the straight arm and bent arm positions multiple times.
Lay face down on the floor with your arms by your side and bent to 90 degrees at the elbow so that your fingers are pointing forwards. Raise your feet and arms slightly off the ground so that the only part of your body in contact with the floor is the middle section (around the front of your hips). Once in this position, straighten your arms out above your head, alternating between the bent arm position and straight arm position.
You can easily increase the intensity of this stability exercise by holding small disc weights in either hand.
Theraband Face Pulls
Tie the ends of a theraband or large rubber band together and loop one end around a door handle if you are at home or squat rack if you are at the gym (either way somewhere around shoulder height). Take the other end of the band in both hands and stand facing the point at which the band is fixed, far enough away so that there is a little tension in the band with your arms straight out in front of you. Pull the band towards your face flexing at the elbow and contracting the muscles in the back of your shoulders and upper back. Return the band slowly to the start position (with arms straight) and repeat the movement for a number of repetitions.
Dumbbell Reverse Fly’s
Laying prone (face down) either on a flat or slightly inclined bench (depending on it’s height) with 2 light dumbbells in either hand with your arms hanging directly downwards towards the ground under your face. Keeping them straight, raise your arms to your sides until level with the rest of your body, creating a T shape. Lower your arms back slowly to the start position and repeat the movement a number of times.
Side Lying External Shoulder Rotation
Lay on your left hand side with your right arm bent to 90 degrees at the elbow and your hand holding a light dumbbell. Lock the elbow into the rib cage to avoid unwanted movement, and rotate the lower arm externally until your hand is pointing towards the ceiling. Return slowly to the start position before repeating the movement a number of times and switching sides.
Standing Band External Rotations
This is a great standing alternative to the exercise above, recruiting the same muscle groups and helping to protect the shoulder in exactly the same way. Tie both ends of a theraband or large rubber gym band together. Fix one end to a stable anchor point somewhere between hip and shoulder height. If you are in the gym then this could be a squat rack. If you’re at home then maybe a door handle (be imaginative).
Standing side on to the anchor point, grip the other end of the band with your outside arm, which should be bent to 90 degrees and the elbow locked in against your ribcage so that the hand gripping the band is directly in front of your outside hip. With your elbow fixed against your body, pull the band further outside the line of your body by externally rotating at the shoulder. Return slowly to the start position, fighting the pull of the band. Perform the movement for a number of repetitions, before switching sides.
Standing Band Internal Rotations
Exactly the same setup as above but grip the band with your inside arm and pull it across your body until your hand makes contact with your torso, causing you to internally rotate at the shoulder rather than externally rotate.
Side Lying Shoulder Abduction
Lay on your left hand side in the same starting position as above but with your right arm along the side of your body. Holding a light dumbbell or disc weight, raise your arm away from your body until your hand is pointing towards the ceiling. Return your arm slowly to the start position and repeat the movement a number of times before switching sides. Be sure to keep your arm straight and elbow fully extended throughout the movement.
The Lawn Mower
Stand with your feet around shoulder width apart with the end of a theraband under your left foot. Holding the other end of the band in your right hand bend your knees a touch so that you are in a slight squat position with your right hand almost touching the inside of your left knee. Pull the band with your right hand and rotate the right hip back slightly, flexing at the elbow until your hand is level with your ribs and slightly behind your back. Return slowly to the start position, fighting the pull of the resistance band, repeating the movement a number of times before switching sides.
Shoulder Strengthening Exercises
Now, once you’ve got on top of you shoulder flexibility and stability, there are a number of excellent strengthening exercises you can look to introduce into your workout routine to really make your shoulders bullet proof.
Barbell Overhead Press
If you’re just starting out with this exercise, you’re going to want to use an unloaded barbell at first (20kgs). Once you develop the movement pattern and are confident you can push more load, then you can start adding some weight.
Stand with your feet around hip width apart. The bar should be in line with the top of your chest, hands just outside shoulder width and elbows pointing down towards the ground. Push the bar forcefully above your head by extending at the elbow and straightening your arms. Pause briefly at the top of the range before lowering the bar slowly to the start position and repeating the movement a number of times.
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press
Adjust your bench to an upright position and sit up straight with your back nice and long. Holding dumbbells in either hand position the weights level with the outside of your shoulders so that your arms are bent to 90 degrees and your elbows are pointing down towards the ground. Push the weights forcefully above your head by extending at the elbow and straightening your arms completely. Lower slowly back to the start position and repeat the movement a number of times.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Stand with your feet between hip and shoulder width apart with your arms down by your side, each hand gripping a dumbell. Simultaneously raise your arms out to the side of the body until the dumbbells reach the level of your shoulders, keeping the elbows extended and arms straight. Lower slowly back to the start position and repeat the movement for a number of repetitions.
Front Dumbbell Raise
Adopt exactly the same start position as above. This time, rather than raising your arms to the side simultaneously, lift one straight out in front of your body until the dumbbell is at the same height as your shoulder. Again keep the elbow extended throughout the movement. Lower slowly back to the start position before repeating the movement with the other arm. Perform the exercise a number of times, alternating which arm is working for each repetition.
Bent Over Reverse Fly
With your feet between hip and shoulder width apart and dumbbells in either hand, bend forwards slightly, folding at the hips and bending slightly at the knees. Try to maintain a flat back position. With your arms slightly bent, raise the dumbbells out to the sides of your body until they are level with your shoulders, being sure to really squeeze your shoulder blades together and engage your posterior deltoids. Lower the dumbbells back to the start position and repeat the movement a number of times.
Upright Barbell Row
Stand with your feet hip width apart and hands gripping a barbell slightly narrower and level with your mid thigh (so that your arms are straight). Raise the bar towards the ceiling, keeping it close to your body at all times (you will need to bend your arms at the elbow to achieve this), until the bar reaches the top of your chest and your elbows are higher than your hands. Lower the bar slowly back to the start positions and repeat the movement a number of times.
Single Arm Landmine Press
Position a barbell with its end wedge in against a secure surface and the other end in your hand. With your feet shoulder width apart, hold the barbell out in front of your body with your arm straight. Lower the bar slowly towards your shoulder by bending at the elbow until you reach the bottom of the range. Push the bar away from you back to the start position by extending the elbow and straightening your arm. Repeat the movement a number of times before switching sides.
Push Up With Elevated Feet
Adopt a standard push up starting position but with your toes resting on an elevated surface so that they are above your hips and hands. Lower your chest towards the ground by flexing at the elbow, keeping your core engaged and ensuring your back does not slip into extension (more susceptible than for normal push up). Once at the bottom of the range (chest should slightly touch the floor), push through your palms and extend at the elbows until you have reached the starting position. Repeat the movement a number of times.
The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it in the comfort of your own house.
Pike Push Up
Adopt a standard pike position. Hands and feet in contact with the ground and hips/butt pushed towards the ceiling with arms and legs as straight as your flexibility will allow, so that your body creates an upside down V shape. Once in this position, lower your head towards the ground by bending your arms at the elbow. When the top of your head makes slight contact with the ground, push through your palms and extend at the elbow until you have returned to the start position. Repeat the movement a number of times.
The Arnold Press
Named after probably the greatest name in bodybuilding history, the Arnold Press is a great shoulder strengthening exercise.
Standing with your feet between hip and shoulder width apart, take a dumbbell in either hand and raise to the top of a standard bicep curl position. Your arms will be bent so that the dumbbells are at the height of your shoulders and your palms are facing your body. From this position, raise the dumbbells above your head as you would for a standard overhead dumbbell press. Because of the starting position, however, this will require you to pronate at the forearm so that your palms are facing forwards by the time you reach the top of the range. Lower the dumbbells slowly back to the start position, supinating your forearms as you do. Repeat the movement a number of times.