Keep your shoulders flexible, while easing pain and tightness, with these shoulder stretches from rehab coach and PT Sam Preston.

Your new year, new you plans for better fitness in 2024 should start right here with a regular stretching regime – and one of the best foam rollers for post-workout recovery. Without stretching, you may begin to experience tight, achy muscles as they lose their flexibility. And that’s going to hamper your progress in the gym. The shoulders are particularly important, given their central role in any lifting work, but they can also be easily neglected when it comes to stretches, leading to pain and tightness.

Performing the following shoulder stretches regularly will keep you supple and flexible, free from pain and tightness, allowing you to work through full range of motion, work your muscles effectively, and continue making those sought-after gains.

“I have worked with countless clients suffering with some kind of shoulder pain or tightness when training in the gym or day to day,” explains rehabilitation coach and PT Sam Preston. “While the pain may be due to several factors, most of the reasons arise from poor shoulder mobility while lifting weights and stressing structures that are unaccustomed to the ranges and loads applied to them.”

Best shoulder stretches to ease tightness

Here are some go-to options for the best shoulder stretches, not only to prime the shoulders before a workout but also to reduce pain, tightness and other postural effects associated with long-term desk life.

  1. Desk fly shoulder stretch
  2. Prone shoulder CAR stretch
  3. Front rack barbell stretch
  4. Dowel bench extension

Keep reading for full instructions on how best to perform these shoulder stretches.

These best shoulder stretches can be used before a workout or as part of a daily mobility routine if you suffer from mild shoulder stiffness and pain. However, if you have continual pain and restriction from day to day, or if something doesn’t feel right, please seek professional advice. 

A man sitting performing the desk fly
1. Desk fly
shoulder stretch

This shoulder stretch can and should be done as frequently as possible during your working day. Perform the exercise at your desk (or any seated position) and during your warm-up. It is seated to restrict the lower back during the movement. 

How to do a desk fly:

  • Start with fingers interlocked behind your head, slumped with elbows touching each other in front of your face.
  • Look upwards, driving the chest high and the elbows back to the wall behind you as far as you can.
  • Perform 10 reps for 2-3 sets. 

Try these stretches on the Sundried Jute Yoga Mat 

Man performing prone CAR
2. Prone shoulder CAR stretch

CAR stands for Controlled Articulated Extensions. Perform this shoulder stretch on a mat, with plenty of space around you.

How to do a prone shoulder CAR:

  • Start by lying face down on the floor with arms stretched out in front of you.
  • Squeezing your glutes, create as much space between your palms and the ground as possible.
  • Bend the arms and bring your thumbs to your armpits, then down past your hips, pushing your palms up towards the ceiling.
  • Go back the way you came, which is 1 rep.
  • Perform 6 reps for 3 sets. 

Man performing a front rack barbell stretch
3. Front rack barbell stretch

This is one of the best shoulder stretches to perform before overhead pressing, to warm up both shoulders and wrists.

How to do a front rack barbell stretch:

  • Approaching a bar, racked in line with your collar bone, grip the bar with hands just wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Step into the bar and glide one elbow underneath, finishing with the bar in contact with the top of the shoulder, tight to the neck and elbow driving forward and up, past the bar.
  • Repeat on the same side 8 times before changing.
  • Repeat 3-4 times per side. 

Man performing dowel bench stretch to ease pain and tightness in shoulders
4. Dowel bench extension

For this exercise you’ll need a bench, mat and dowel rod, broomstick-type object or even an unweighted bar.

How to do a dowel bench extension:

  • Grip the dowel with an underhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Kneel over a bench with elbows resting on the nearest edge.
  • While shuffling your knees backwards, keeping elbows bent at 90 degrees, allow your head to drive between your elbows, aiming to get your head in line with if not below the bench.
  • Hold a deep stretch for 1-2 minutes and repeat for 2-4 sets. 

What causes tight shoulders?

The shoulder is a shallow ball and socket joint, with potential for a wide range of motion. Kept in prime condition, our shoulders can help us climb, throw and also perform tasks important to our survival as hunter-gatherers.  

However, now that life no longer involves hunting or gathering, most human activity occurs right in front of our faces. It’s no surprise, then, that our shoulders have adapted to the positions they spends most time in. As a result, and subject to gravity, our bodies tend to acquire a rounded and stiff forward position, otherwise known as a ‘desk bound’ posture.

An x-ray of the human shoulder
A closer look at the shoulder girdle | Shutterstock

What is the shoulder girdle?

Before working on your shoulders, it’s important to understand the main components that make up the shoulder girdle – the upper back (thoracic spine), shoulder blade and the shoulder joint itself, as highlighted in the diagram above. All three parts work together to achieve optimum movement during all of your upper body lifts. 

Words: Rehabilitation coach and trainer Sam Preston, co-founder of luxury wellness retreat Palm Rock Retreats

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