Best Shoulder Stretches to Relieve Tension

All over the world people are suddenly working from home. Using laptops, without well-designed desk setups, can lead to stiff, tight shoulders. Our personal trainer Jess explains the most effective shoulder stretches to relieve tension.

How can shoulder tension be relieved?

To relieve shoulder tension, you need to stretch and loosen the tight, compacted areas. Then, switch on and strengthen muscles that are weak.

The tight areas tend to be the chest, shoulders, neck and thoracic spine. The weak areas tend to be the back, core and rotator cuff muscles.

Stretching out the chest loosens it. This releases some of the tension pulling the shoulders forward, allowing them to move back more easily.

It is also important to increase mobility in the thoracic spine. This allows the scapula (shoulder blades) to depress, bringing the shoulders back and down.

Strengthening the rotator cuff muscles, core and upper back muscles will take strain off the shoulders. This will reduce shoulder tension in the long term.

Effective shoulder stretches

Perform the following shoulder stretches at least four times a week to relieve tension. To improve posture, we also suggest strength training that targets the core, rotator cuffs and upper back.

Lying Chest Stretch

This stretch will open up the chest. It can be quite intense especially if you are very tight. Just ease into it slowly and don’t push into pain.

To perform the lying chest stretch:

  • Lie on the floor on your stomach with your arms horizontal in a T shape.
  • Bend one elbow so that you have a 90 degree angle.
  • Push this elbow and armpit into the floor.
  • Use your opposite arm to prop yourself up, peeling your torso and hips off the floor away from the arm that is pushed into the floor.
  • Bring the opposite leg off the floor as well, twisting your whole body away from the armpit that is pushed into the floor.
  • Breath into this, focusing your attention on the muscles being stretched. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Best shoulder stretches - lying chest stretch

Thread the Needle

To perform the thread the needle shoulder stretch:

  • Get onto all fours with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and knees under hips.
  • Squeeze your core, pelvis in neutral, back flat.
  • Take one hand off the ground, with palm facing up. In one smooth movement, thread the arm through the opposite gap between thigh and arm.
  • Bend the elbow of the straight arm slightly, allowing you to push the bent shoulder into the ground for a more intense stretch. You should feel this in the rear delts.
  • Alternate 10 each side.
Best shoulder stretches - Thread the needle

Thoracic Rotation Stretch

To perform this shoulder stretch:

  • Get onto all fours with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and knees under hips.
  • Squeeze your core, pelvis in neutral, back flat.
  • Place one hand on the back of your neck, with the elbow pointing outwards.
  • Fold your elbow in towards the elbow of the straight arm.
  • In one smooth movement, open the chest back out bending the elbow back, pointing upwards towards the ceiling. This loosens up the middle back.
  • 10 slow reps on each side.
Best shoulder stretches - Thoracic stretch

Upper Trap Stretch

To perform the upper trap stretch:

  • Standing or kneeling, place one hand palm outwards on the mid back.
  • Take the other hand, reaching over it on the opposite side of the head.
  • Pull your head gently towards your shoulder while looking straight ahead.
  • Increase the stretch until you feel this in your neck.
  • Breath deeply and hold for 30 seconds each side.
Best shoulder stretches - upper trap stretch

Face Down Snow Angels

Whilst you do these make sure you are not straining your neck. Rest your forehead on the ground and try to mobilise the shoulder as much as possible.

To perform this shoulder stretch:

  • Lie face down with your arm above your head in a ‘Y’ shape.
  • Sweep your hands down to your sides, squeezing at the very bottom and slowly back up again.
  • Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
Best shoulder stretches - Face down snow angel

Variation of this stretch:

  • Sit against the wall in a squat position – knees and hips at a 90 degree angle.
  • Make sure your pelvis is in neutral, abs squeezed tight with your lower back flat against the wall.
  • Start with your elbows against your ribs, arms making as much contact with the wall as possible.
  • Slide your arms above your head, with your hands tracing the wall behind you. Raise arms up above your head finishing with them straight above you.
  • Pause for a second and check all posture cues – flat back, abs squeezed. And then slide back down. Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.

This stretches the muscles of the scapula, including rhomboids, serratus anterior and trapezius.

Child's Pose

To perform this shoulder stretch:

  • Start in a kneeling position – knees wider than your hips.
  • Raise your arms up and fold forward. Bring your chest to the floor, resting your forehead on the ground.
  • Walk your hands out, lengthening as much as possible.
  • Push you armpits into the ground, feeling the stretch in the rear deltoids, thoracic spine, hips and glutes.
  • Hold for 30 seconds, breathing deeply.
Best shoulder stretches - Child's pose

T-Spine Windmill Stretch

To perform the thoracic spine windmill stretch:

  • Lie on your side with shoulders and arms stacked over each other, and arms stretching out on the floor.
  • Knees stacked and bent at a 90 degree angle.
  • Slowly open, bringing the top arm out to the opposite side with your upper body forming a T shape.
  • Slowly close back again and repeat 10 each side.
Best shoulder stretches - T spine windmill

What causes shoulder tension?

As well as long periods at a desk, driving or long periods in one position, the way we sleep can contribute to stiff necks, shoulders and backs. Sleeping on your side, balled up with your shoulders hunched over can lead to stiffness and soreness first thing in the morning.

On an anatomical level, shoulder soreness and tightness is caused by a postural imbalance. Some areas are tight while others are weak, immobile or unused.

When our chest muscles are tight and dominant, they pull the shoulders forward and round the back. If our core is weak and our hip flexors are tight from sitting, this can mean we slump forward.

At the back of the body, there can be tension in the neck and trapezius muscles. The thoracic spine (upper and mid back) can become compacted or immobile.

Other muscles which should support our posture and aid shoulder mobility, may be weak or not engaged. For example, the core, the rotator cuffs, the lats and the rear deltoids:

Shoulder stretches - shoulder and back muscles

We hope these shoulder stretches help relieve tension and get you feeling mobile again. Looking for home workout inspiration? We’ve got your back. Check out our workout videos and training plans: