Woman stretching her shoulders

Shoulder stretches: the best postures to practice when your upper body feels tight

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

Haven’t we all moaned about feeling tight and knotty in our shoulders, before asking for a massage from our begrudging flatmates or partner to help release some tension? It’s a hugely common problem – 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.” 

woman shoulder workout gym
Stretching: it's important to stretch to alleviate bad posture from hunching over your computer screen.

Right now, that’s more relevant than ever. Burnout caused by the “always-on” culture emphasised by working from home, isolation, loneliness and anxiety are already increasing. That’s why Stylist has launched the Work It Out campaign, asking readers to start taking their Work 5 a Day – five small breaks throughout the day that can help support us through stress during the pandemic.

While all breaks should involve getting away from your work station, at least one should be focused on moving your body. And when you are feeling tense and tight, stretching it out can help. Mixing up your stretches with both dynamic and static moves is the best way 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

Low lunge and reach

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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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).