Shoulder stretches: the best postures for when your upper body is feeling tight

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Feeling like your shoulders are holding tension? Here’s the best way to stretch them, according to a trainer. 

Stiff shoulders are a very common problem (you and your friends have definitely moaned about feeling tense and knotty there before), but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. Tightness in our anterior, lateral and rear delts is about more than just pain: it can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the body, including causing impingements, tendinitis, and degenerative changes.

It can also hugely impact your training, as tightness reduces mobility and makes moving through overhead press, lateral raises and downward dog tricky.

“The reason behind shoulder tightness is two-fold: physical and mental,” says Emma Obayuvana, fitness trainer and member of the Strong Women Collective. The physical causes include sitting down for extended periods of time, especially hunching over your desk or computer screen. But bad posture and misalignments generally can also be to blame. 

Overuse is also an issue: “If you’re exercising a lot and not stretching the shoulders pre- and post-workout, the muscles will tighten up,” says Emma. 

But the mental impact on muscle tightness can’t be overlooked, says Emma. “When you are stressed, what happens? Your shoulders go up towards your ears, your back rounds, your chest contracts. Your shoulders are so sensitive to stress, and this doesn’t have to be longterm stress. It can simply be when you are rushing around one afternoon, or really focusing on a task to meet a deadline, that we tighten up.” 

Shoulder workout
If you exercise a lot, you need to stretch the shoulders out

When you are feeling that tension and tightness, stretching it out can help. Mixing it up between dynamic and static stretching is the best way forward to help joints loosen and also release tightness in the muscles. You can find lots of these stretches on the Strong Women Instagram page, where we share #StretchTheWeekOut demonstrations every Friday and save the tutorials to our ‘Stretch’ highlight. But Emma has also shared some of her favourites here… 

Dynamic shoulder stretches to improve mobility

The world’s greatest stretch

Typically, we think about this move as a hip opener, “but having the thoracic rotation in this stretch really works through the shoulders too,” says Emma. For this move, come into a low lunge with the right foot forwards and the back left knee off the floor. Extend the right arm up towards the sky, twisting through the upper body so your gaze follows your hand. Repeat for a few reps on each side. 

Modified thread the needle 

On your hands and knees, take the left hand to your left ear and twist the left elbow up towards the sky. Keep your pelvis and hips square so the stretch is just coming through the back of your shoulders. 

Crab reaches 

“Not only does this open up the shoulders and chest, but it also activates the glutes and stretches the front of the hips, so it’s amazing to do pre-workout,” says Emma. Sitting on the floor with your feet hip width apart and your hands behind you, begin to lift your hips up into the air. As you do this, lift the right hand off the floor and twist your body so that your arm comes up and over your head towards the left, supporting hand. Bring the arm back down as you return down to the ground and repeat on the other side. 

Static shoulder stretches to ease tightness

Standing forward fold 

“I like anything that uses gravity to take away tension,” says Emma. That’s where a forward fold comes in: clasp your hands behind you and hinge at the hips so that your arms come over head and your forehead comes towards your knees. 

Supported chest opener 

Although this mainly focuses on the chest, you’ll feel the stretch through your anterior delts (the front of your shoulders). Simply place one hand on a wall or door behind you, at shoulder height or above, and start to twist your body in the opposite direction to feel the stretch through the front of your body. 

Over the body hold 

“Everyone knows this one because it’s so good,” says Emma. Simply take one arm across your chest, folding the other arm over and squeeze it into the body to intensify the stretch. 

Reverse prayer stretch 

Take the hands in a prayer position behind your back, squeezing your shoulder blades together but pushing the elbows forwards. You can also turn your hands upside down too, so your fingers are facing down, depending on which stretch feels better. 

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