Health / Mobility

7 Stretches and Exercises to Improve Shoulder Mobility

Can’t touch behind your back? Time to get flexible.

Shoulder tightness can come from a handful of sources, hunching over a computer or a resistance exercise gone wrong.

But it’s imperative to your overall health that you address poor shoulder mobility. “If you continue with a pattern of motion problems, you can develop other problems. Tendonitis, then the tendon might start to break down and become tendinosis or tendinopathy,” says Robert Runge, DPT, of Excel Physical Therapy in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

What causes poor shoulder mobility?

To understand why shoulder tightness can come from a multitude of sources, you have to understand the movement of the joint. “If you look at the shoulder, it’s like a golf ball sitting on a golf tee. It’s a larger ball in a small socket,” Runge says. “It’s very sensitive to tension across the joint. If you have an area that’s tight, it puts the shoulder in a position where it’s not functioning properly.”

Prolonged excess tension across the tendons of the shoulder can lead to tendon injuries, Runge says, but the reason for the tension varies by the individual. This has shown to help with shoulder relief.

“Many times it can be because of posture, exercise, or lack thereof,” Runge says. “Or, a lack of motion that people don’t do very much.” Genetics and exercise patterns can also influence poor mobility, he says. It’s also possible to have too much motion, or hypermobility, in one or multiple directions (hypermobility is most common among young people, Runge adds).

Treat your shoulders right with these shoulder mobility stretches and exercises from Aaptiv.

How to Tell If Your Mobility Is Lacking

Reaching behind your back serves as a simple at-home test of your shoulder mobility. “If you can’t reach up to the middle of the back, that can be an indicator that the back part of the shoulder is too tight,” Runge says.

Reaching across your chest to touch the back of your opposite shoulder is another useful mobility test, as is reaching above your head with a bent elbow. “If you can’t turn your wrist back, if you can’t rotate your hand directly above the elbow or beyond, you might have tightness in external rotation,” Runge says.

Our yoga workouts can help with mobility. Check them out in the Aaptiv app today.

Improve Your Shoulder Mobility

Before starting a stretching and strengthening routine, Runge offers a word of caution. “If there’s pain, I would suggest a person see a physical therapist to address that problem,” he says. “A physical therapist can give you an accurate diagnosis of the structural or the functional problem.” It’s possible to hurt yourself with excessive stretching and strengthening.

If you’re already wincing at the mobility tests you can try this, or get your movement checked by a professional who can provide a specific treatment program.

Here are seven stretches to try.

Arm-Across-Chest Stretch

This simple gym class stretch accomplishes a similar horizontal abduction as reaching behind your back, Runge says. “I would recommend doing it as an active warm-up,” he says. “You want less intensive stretching pre-workout. If you truly have identified the tightness that’s not improving with just active motion, then do something prolonged. Hold it for 30 or 60 seconds.”

Overhead Stretch

Another basic move, the overhead stretch, is best done lying down or against a wall, Runge says. Raise the stretching arm up and reach behind you—the elbow should be next to your head—and contact the elbow with your other arm to induce more motion.

Doorway Stretch

“Put your hands on a doorway and lean in to stretch the pectoral muscles,” Runge says. “Pull the shoulder blades forward to produce stress on the shoulder.” Use this one for shoulder mobility, and to alleviate tightness after a set of chest flys.

PVC Pipe Stretch

Therapists like Runge use a PVC pipe. However, a broomstick can also suffice. “You can use it in a standing position, lying down, or behind your back,” Runge says. Start by gripping the ends of the pipe in front of you and raising it directly above your head. Keeping your arms straight, lower it behind your back. The more flexible you get, the narrower your grip can become.

Two-Arm Rows

“Mobility is part of it, but you also have to add in rotator cuff strengthening and shoulder blade muscle strengthening,” Runge says. Strength imbalances between the rotator cuff and the deltoids, Runge says, can become problematic. Two-arm rows can be used to balance out differences in power. Start by facing down on a 45-degree angle bench and rowing up with a dumbbell in each hand. You can also do the rows standing if you’re comfortable with the position.

Low Rows

Low rows serve a similar purpose to two-arm rows. “If your lower trapezius isn’t working properly, you might have an upper trapezius working too much. That can cause a problem,” Runge says.

A seated cable row is a great starting point. Bend your knees slightly against the foot platform and pull the v-bar back until your chest forms a 90-degree angle with your upper legs. Row back while squeezing your back muscles until the bar touches your torso.

Prone Ts and Prone Ys

Start on a treatment table or otherwise elevated table where you can hang your hands off the sides. If you don’t have access to one, you can also do these lying prone on the floor.

“It also depends on the person’s shoulder condition,” Runge says. People with shoulder pain might start from a table where the end range isn’t being pressed, he says. Move to the floor as mobility improves. “You’re focusing on the last 20 degrees. The emphasis isn’t the angle, it’s achieving a position where the shoulder blades are in proper position,” he says.

Lying on a table or floor with your arms out to your sides (forming a T shape), face your hands up and lift your arms up through the shoulder’s range of motion. Form the prone Y with the same motion, but with your arms at a 45-degree angle above your head.

Have you tried yoga for your mobility issues? Try Aaptiv for free and see if it’s right for you!

Fitness Mobility


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