How to Perform Shoulder Stretches

Two Parts:Getting Warmed UpPerforming Shoulder Stretches

The human shoulder is one of the more bio-mechanically complex joints because it has the greatest range of motion in the body.[1] As such, there's numerous muscles, tendons, nerves, ligaments and blood vessels surrounding the shoulder, which provide flexibility and support, but it also makes the area susceptible to injury. Performing shoulder stretches on a regular basis, particularly before and after strenuous exercise involving the upper body, may help reduce the risk of muscle strain and other injuries.

Part 1
Getting Warmed Up

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    Get your blood flowing. Make sure your muscles are warm before you attempt to stretch or exercise them. Hold your arms straight out in front of you with your elbows locked. Then slowly pull your arms back, bringing your shoulder blades together to form a T.
    • Taking a warm shower, applying moist heat or simply jogging on the spot for a few minutes before attempting any stretching is a good idea because your shoulder muscles will be more pliable and less apt to tear.[2]
    • Increasing your heart rate by any cardiovascular exercise will pump more warm blood into virtually all of your muscles, including those surrounding your shoulder joint.
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    Make sure your shoulder isn't injured. Trying to stretch your shoulder if it's injured typically isn't a good idea, unless it's just a mild muscle strain.[3] If you experience intense sharp pain with shoulder movement, which is indicative of a joint sprain, then consult a health professional (your doctor, chiropractor, or physiotherapist) before proceeding with any stretches or exercises.
    • Mild muscle strains respond well to some light stretching because it relieves muscle tension, promotes blood flow and improves flexibility.
    • Shoulder joints that are most often sprained include the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular (or AC) joints.
    • Applying ice to any sprained joint will help decrease inflammation caused from a sprain and numb the pain.
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    Move your shoulders in all directions. Once you're properly warmed up and pretty sure that there's no significant injury lurking in your shoulder, then prepare for some global mobilizations in all directions. Go slow at first, maintain control of the movements and remember to inhale and exhale deeply.[4] Muscle fibers need oxygen to be able to move and do work.
    • Lift your arms so they are parallel to the floor and then rotate them in large circles in the forward direction for about 15 seconds, then reduce the size of the circles (make them tighter) for a further 15 seconds. After a few seconds rest, switch and do the opposite direction.
    • Shrug your shoulders as high as you can, trying to touch your ears, and then let them drop and fully relax. At the top of your shrug, hold for about five seconds and repeat ten times.

Part 2
Performing Shoulder Stretches

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    First stretch your chest muscles. These muscles are chronically tight and pull your shoulder forward.
    • Stand near a doorway and lift your arm, holding it straight and parallel to the floor. Grab on to the frame of the door and gently lean forward, which will extend your arm behind your shoulder and create a stretch in your chest, upper arm and anterior deltoid muscles. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch and do the other side. Repeat three to five times consecutively.
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    Stretch your trapezius muscles by performing lateral neck flexions.
    • The upper trapezius is a large superficial muscle that extends from the top of your neck (and base of your skull) to the shoulder blade and tip of your shoulder.[5] It's mainly involved when you shrug your shoulders and commonly gets sore and stiff in response to stress. This is one of the most common muscle groups to hold tension, making it very tight (even causing headaches). Do this stretch for 10 to 15 seconds.
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    Stretch your rhomboid muscles. Find a pole or another sturdy object to grab. Relax your shoulders as you pull back, extending your arms to feel the stretch between your shoulder blades. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds.
    • The rhomboid muscles are in the upper portion of your back and attach your shoulder blades to your thoracic spine — they're responsible for retracting your shoulder blades.[6] These muscles often get sore from poor posture (slouching) and sitting too long at the computer.
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    For a more advanced stretch, try the back scratcher towel stretch. This position is a little more complicated and requires some flexibility. It stretches the internal rotators on the front side of the shoulder joint, external rotators on back side of shoulder joint, and the triceps on back side of the upper arm. It’s important to keep your neck and thoracic spine as straight as possible during this stretch. Do four sets of eight to 12 reps.
    • Grab a small towel and bend one arm over your head, feeding the towel down your back. Then, bend the other arm around and up your back to grab the loose end of the towel. Pull the towel up and down while maintaining tension. Repeat three to five times consecutively and switch sides.


  • Make sure you remember to breathe as you stretch. It really opens up the muscle fibers while also giving the brain something to focus on other than the length of holding the stretch.
  • It is better to start slowly and build repetitions over time than to do a lot at once and risk injuring yourself.
  • If you have scoliosis or a thoracic spine issue, always talk to your doctor or physiotherapist before attempting any of these exercises.
  • If you stretch properly, you should not be sore the day after. If you are sore, then it may be an indication that you are overstretching and that you need to go easier on your muscles by reducing the intensity.[7]

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