The 14 Best Shoulder Stretches That Will Improve Your Upper Back Workout Routine

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Being flexible not only assists us in our workouts by helping us move in better and safer movement patterns but it is super important for our day-to-day life. In this article, we’re going to show you the 14 shoulder stretches for upper back pain after a workout or starting an exercise routine. So, let’s get started.

Benefits of Stretching the Shoulder Muscles

Knowing how to stretch the upper back is a very important component of maintaining physical health. It has a lot of benefits and some of them include:

A man doing shoulder stretches
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If we think about simple things like tying our shoelaces, getting up off the ground, reaching up for something on a high shelf, bending over to pick something up, or even just sitting in a nice posture, all of these things are made so much easier and safer by being flexible.

Shoulder stretches have also been shown to help relieve shoulder pain. So, you can get rid of all the other methods and reduce your shoulder pain and maybe headaches or lower back pain by simply stretching your shoulders. 

What Causes Tight Shoulders

A lot of shoulder conditions present with pain. Pain is a common presentation of stiffness when the shoulder is stuck and blocked. So, you can’t do certain activities or movements because of the pain.

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If you’ve got shoulder tightness, that could be several reasons:

  • Shoulders may be tight from lots of driving;
  • You’re sitting at a desk and typing on a laptop;
  • You’ve had a previous shoulder injury or previous shoulder surgery;
  • You’re lifting weights;
  • You’re playing sport;
  • You’ve stopped doing some of your rehabs.

The most common cause of shoulder pain is a condition known as impingement. In order to understand impingement, it’s important that we give you a little bit of an anatomy lesson.

Shoulder Anatomy

The shoulder is made of three bones: the scapula, clavicle, and humerus. They form a ball-and-socket joint. It’s the most mobile joint in the body because of the anatomical arrangement. We can go through all the ranges of motion as that ball rotates around.

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To function properly, that ball needs to be seated squarely and securely right inside of that socket. Most of the shoulder pain that we experience starts to happen when that doesn’t occur. So, the two most common causes of impingement are postural-related issues and also rotator cuff weakness.

How To Release Shoulder Pain

What we want to do is work a lot on posture so that everything can rotate freely. In other words, in order to treat impingement, we have to treat the posture issues. 

The second reason is the rotator cuff weakness. Your rotator cuff is actually four muscles whose primary function is to secure that ball in that socket and keep it nice, tight, and secure. In order for full motion to occur and for our shoulders to be pain-free, we have to maintain some space. 

What happens if that rotator cuff is not strong? You’re going to get a little bit more migration of that ball in your socket. If it pinches up against the joint, that’s going to be impingement. So, if the rotator cuff is weak and it’s not performing that function of keeping that ball secure in that socket, that’s another common cause of pain.

Now you know the anatomy behind it and know what you need to do to fix it. The first thing that we need to do is create a little more space for that shoulder to rotate. And so basically what we need to focus on is stretching the entire front of the chest, back,  and especially that anterior shoulder capsule.

So, we are going to show you some upper back pain stretches in order to keep that ball nice and secure in that socket. Let’s move on to how to stretch the upper back.

14 Best Shoulder Stretches

Here are our 14 upper back pain stretches. 

1. Posterior Capsular Stretch

We’re going to start off with a posterior capsular stretch, or some people just call it an arm across the body. Your shoulder has a capsule. It can get tight and sore when you’re starting a new program or you’re just working out and haven’t in a while, or maybe you did a little too much at the gym. 

All you’re doing is putting your arm straight out and bringing it across your body. If you like, bring your other arm up to give it just a gentle pull. Some people like to do it on the elbow.

You can keep your arm fairly straight when you’re doing this stretch. Also, you can bend it if straightening out of the elbow is uncomfortable. So just coming across, you’re feeling that stretch on the backside. 

You’re going to hold that stretch for 30 seconds. And then you’re going to alternate and stretch on the other side. 

Sometimes depending on your shoulder stability, you might feel a little pop, when you’re bringing it over. As long as it’s not painful, that’s usually not that big of a deal. That’s just that joint moving around.

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2. Triceps or Inferior Capsular Stretch

The next one is going to be a tricep stretch or an empiric capsular stretch. So this is for the capsule and the tricep muscles as well. Because these are the big muscles around your shoulder to get those nice stretches. 

For the triceps, you’re just going to bring your arm up, bend it, and place your hand on your shoulder blade. So it’s just resting there. And you want to try and get your elbow as high up as you possibly can without a whole lot of pain. The higher you can get, the better. That’s going to put a gentle stretch on the tendons and the muscles.

Then you can take your other hand, go just behind your head, and grab your elbow. You just gently pull it back a little bit. So your tricep muscles are getting that nice stretch. You want to be able to hold that 30 seconds without feeling like you need to bring it down as quickly as you can. 

Do that stretch three times on each side because most times if you’re sore from workouts, you probably really want to stretch out both sides even if one side is a little more sore than the other.

3. Chest or Pec Stretch

The next one is going to be a chest stretch or pec stretch. Because these muscles have to do with the shoulder. The shoulder blade or the scapula has over 20 muscles attached to it. And you get the pec muscles sore when you’re doing presses. 

An easy way to do this without having to find a corner to stretch is just to take your hands and clasp them behind your back. Then you’re going to push back and bring your chest forward. You are getting that nice stretch through there.

If you can’t clasp your hands together behind your back or maybe you’ve got some big musculature back, you can take a towel or a strap. So just hold the towel and do that chest stretch three times.

4. Bicep Stretch

The next one is going to be a bicep stretch. Those muscles get sore when you’re doing a lot of the bicep curls. You can do this a couple different ways.

You’re going to sit in a chair and place your hands on the back edge of the chair. But you can also just place your hand behind you. That works well too. You want your arm to be straight to put tension on your bicep muscles and tendons. 

If you’re really sore, just put it back and get a little bit of a stretch. But if you want more, you’re just going to drive your shoulder forward. So, push it forward to get that extra stretch.

Try and keep the elbow straight, because if it’s bent, then that’s not getting as much of a stretch. Keeping that arm straight as much as you can at that elbow is what’s going to help get that stretch. So just leaning forward you’re pushing your hand down a little bit into the surface to get that extra stretch. Get 30 seconds, three times on each side for that.

5. Rhomboid Stretch 

The next one is going to be a rhomboid stretch. The rhomboid muscles are the ones that pull the shoulder blades together. When you’re doing rows in the gym, you’re working those muscles in that upper body area. You can do this stretch in a couple of different ways.

You can put your legs all the way out if you’re on the floor, on the couch, or on the bed. But you can also just do it sitting, you’ll still get a good stretch. But a lot of times if you put your legs out, that gives you better stretch. 

You’re clapping your hands in front of you, you’re going to punch forward. Tuck your chin down towards your chest. And then you’re going to arch your back. The more you can get that curve in there, the more you’re going to stretch those rhomboid muscles in the back. Hold that stretch for 30 seconds and do that three times.

6. Upper Trap Stretch

The next one is going to be an upper trap stretch. The upper trap is in the shoulder and neck area. So this one is important. You are going to sit on your hand and gently pull your head away from that side. The reason you’re sitting on your hand is to make sure that you’re holding that shoulder down. You don’t have to do that, but you’re going to get a better stretch with it. 

You’re keeping your head in this upright position, and then gently pulling it over. Make sure you are not turning your head in a rotation motion. It’s just side bending towards the opposite side to get that stretch.

If you don’t want to sit on your hand, you can place it just behind you and your lower back and still get that nice stretch there. If you want a little bit more of a stretch while you’re doing it, try and bring your elbow down towards the chair. That’s going to help you bring your shoulder down and give you more of a stretch in that upper trap.

It’s not only great for your shoulder but it’s great for your neck area as well. Do this stretch for 30 seconds three times.

7. Dynamic Shoulder Stretch

You don’t need any extra equipment for this dynamic stretching. It’s a nice way not only to stretch shoulders but to warm up those muscles. For this stretch, you are doing some circular motions with the shoulders. This is a continuous movement. You can do 5 or 10 one way, reverse it, and then do 5 or 10 the other way.

8. Shoulder Squeezes

What you’re going to be focusing on is pulling your shoulder blades together towards the spine and then tucking them down into your back pockets. Then hold for about a 3-count and relax. Make sure you are not just pushing with your elbows but you’re doing a continuous motion.

Our recommendation is about 3 sets of 10. If there’s no resistance with it you’ll probably get through about 3 sets of 15. There’s a good way to start to activate the postural muscles and stretch your tight shoulders.

9. Rotator Cuff Stretch

The next one is going to be for the rotator cuff going into external rotation. This one might be a little uncomfortable or hard for people. 

The external rotation is going back. If you can, bring your other arm underneath to set your elbow in place. You’re going to pull. It’s almost like a pendulum motion. You may feel that in your rotator cuff area getting that gentle stretch for that subscapularis muscle. 

You can even bring your elbow back a little bit if you get a lot of motion. But if you’re having some shoulder pain, you might want to bring it down a little bit. Then just let that relax because that was a pretty big stretch. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds on each side, three times each.

10. A Doorway Stretch

What you’re going to do is just go up to a doorway. We are going to show the doorway stretch in three different positions. 

Low Position

You’re going to start with your hands low. Put your hands on either side of the doorway nice and low at a comfortable level. And then take a big step in through the doorway and put your weight onto that front foot. 

As you put your weight onto that front foot, you’re going to feel a good stretch all through the front of the chest and shoulder. It might even pull up a little bit through your bicep tendon.

Medium Position

Let’s move it up a little higher. Put your hands a little bit lower than shoulder level and then do the same thing. So, your hands are on the doorframe. Take a step into the door and just hang out right there.

You’re going to hold for about 20 to 30 seconds and then come up out of it. And then you’re going to repeat that three times.

High Position

The last thing is a doorway stretched high. This puts your shoulder in a little bit more of a compromising position. If you can do it, it’s great because this is the maximum way that you can stretch this out.

What you are going to do is put your forearms on the doorframe. The elbows are up high at about shoulder level. The hands are higher than the head in that position. 

What you’re going to do is step through the door just until a comfortable stretch is felt through the front of the chest and shoulders. Hold that for about a 20-second count and repeat that three times.

11. A Foam Roller Stretch

For this shoulder stretch, you need a foam roller. We recommend a 36-inch foam roller because it’s a little more comfortable and you can lay down on it. Also, it’s going to go the entire length of your spine and it’s just a little easier to work with. 

So to do this foam roller stretch, what you’re going to do is sit on one end of the foam roller and then lay down on it so that’s actually the length of your spine.

Even in this position, if you rotate your palms up and just lay on it, that is a pretty good stretch to the front of the chest and shoulders. Spend 1-2 minutes just in that position.

If you feel like you need something a little bit more aggressive, you can bring your arms up to about a 90-degree height. Now all of a sudden, the weight of your arms is pulling your chest a little bit more.

12. A’s

Lay down on your stomach arms at your side. All that you need to do is keep your arms straight and lift your arms up. Hold for about a 3-second count and then come back to that starting position.

13. T’s

Let’s jump into a T. You’re just going to bring your arms up until they’re at about a 90-degree angle straight out to your sides and then perform that same motion. You’re going to lift your straight arms up. You are going to try to pitch the shoulder blades together. You’re activating muscles in the back of the shoulder. 

14. Y’s 

Finally, if you need to go even a step further, you can do Ys. You’re still going to lay on your stomach except now with your arms overhead in the Y position. Then perform the same activity. Keep your arms straight and lift your elbows up. Hold for a 3-second count and then put them down.

Repeat the A’s, the T’s, and the Y’s 10 times. And then do that whole series three times.

A woman doing back and shoulder stretches
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Our Tips for Shoulder Stretches

Here are our 3 key flexibility and stretching tips.

1. Work On Mobility and Flexibility

Make sure you’re working on your flexibility and mobility. There is a difference between the two. Flexibility is the ability of your muscle to move passively through a range of motion. It’s about the stretch or the length of a muscle. Whereas mobility is the ability of joints to move actively through a range of motion. It’s about something like a shoulder joint and the ability of your arm to move around and the ball and socket to move freely as you do an arm circle. Both of these are really important and they work hand in hand. 

If you’re trying to stretch a muscle, you might not get the full benefit of that stretch if the joint doesn’t allow that movement. So, when we’re working on flexibility and mobility, we want to make sure we’re doing things like static stretching, active stretching, and even mobility exercises.

2. Consistency

When it comes to stretching and especially improving your flexibility, the more often you stretch, the better results you’re going to get.

We suggest stretching for a little bit every day rather than doing one big stretching session a week. Your muscles have something called muscle memory so they’re pretty good at remembering things they’ve recently done.

If we think about our workouts, maybe you’re aiming to get stronger, you want to run further, or you’re learning a skill, we usually try to consistently do our training sessions, maybe at least every third day. After three days our body usually goes through something called overtraining. All the benefits that we trained for during that session get forgotten and we might even start to become a little bit weaker and less fit. So, the aim is to at least try to stimulate the muscles before that training day happens again.

For stretching, it’s really easy for our muscles to remember what it felt like to stretch yesterday rather than trying to remember what happened a week ago. So, the key is a little bit of stretching every day. Easy ways to incorporate this is maybe doing a 15-minute stretch in the morning when you wake up or maybe stretching in front of the TV at night before you go to bed or incorporating stretching before or after your workouts.

A strong man doing shoulder stretches at the gym
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3. Be Patient

Remember to be gentle and most importantly be patient when it comes to working on your flexibility. We all come from different backgrounds and genetics. We have different workout routines. So we’re going to respond differently and at different rates to our stretching routine. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. 

How to Stretch Upper Back: FAQs

How do you stretch your shoulders to release?

There’s a lot that you can do to stretch and strengthen your shoulders. Here are the best stretches for upper back pain: a chest stretch, a bicep stretch, a rhomboid stretch, and an upper trap stretch.

What are some good shoulder stretches?

A doorway stretch, an inferior capsular stretch, and a posterior capsular stretch are good upper back pain stretches.

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About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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