At this very moment, take note of what your shoulders are doing. Are they rounded forward towards your computer screen? Or are they held back and down in perfect posture? If you’re anything like us, chances are they’re in the first position.
Many common positions and situations we frequently find ourselves in can cause tight, stiff shoulders. When we’re working at our desk, for instance, our shoulders often round, our back hunches, and our neck juts forward.
“When this happens, the muscles in and around our shoulders shorten,” explains Angelo Grinceri, a functional wellness consultant and Obe fitness instructor. “Shorter muscles mean less range of motion, which can cause that feeling of tightness in our shoulders that so many of us experience.”
Meet the Expert
Angelo Grinceri is a functional wellness consultant and Obe fitness instructor. Grinceri focuses on regeneration and human performance, offering classes that help rebuild a more resilient you after injury or due to poor posture and lack of fitness.
Sam Ostwald is a DanceBody Master Instructor promoting fitness through fun dance fitness, offering beginner-friendly and non-dancer classes that are focused on sculpting muscle and getting your heart rate up.
That feeling of “tight shoulders” also translates to our trapezius muscles, which are the triangle-shaped muscles on either side of the neck and shoulders, notes Ostwald.
Any unusual, intense, or sudden shoulder pain should be checked by a medical professional right away. Other signs to watch for include joint deformity, an inability to use your shoulder normally or move your arm away from your body, or signs of infection including swelling, redness, or warmth around the joint.
Other common causes of tight shoulders include staring down at our phones (again, guilty as charged), as well as chronic stress and anxiety. “When we’re stressed, we often clench our jaws and increase tension throughout our neck,” Grinceri explains. “This causes the muscles throughout our neck, traps, and shoulders to tighten and shorten, further limiting the range of motion of the shoulder.”
A final unlikely culprit is dehydration. "When we’re dehydrated, our muscles also become dehydrated which can cause them to shorten and remain tight throughout the day," Grinceri notes.
Luckily, some simple lifestyle modifications can help combat the aggravating tightness: “Drink more water; check your posture when you're sitting down, making sure to pull your shoulders back and down towards your rib cage; and move frequently,” suggests Grinceri. Most importantly, try to relieve some stress and anxiety throughout your days by taking a few deep breaths when you feel yourself getting worked up or even trying a mini-meditation.
Loosen up stiff shoulders by doing these 12 shoulder stretches three to four times per week.
Long Arm Chest Stretch
This stretch opens the front of your shoulder (anterior deltoid) and your chest muscles.
- Holding your arm out straight at shoulder-height, place your hand against a wall.
- Shift your body weight forward, creating a stretch into the muscles of the chest and shoulders.
- Take a few deep breaths into the muscles that you feel stretching. Repeat with your other arm.
Elbow Tuck and Open
This shoulder stretch also opens your chest and helps combat tightness from sitting at a computer.
- Place your hands behind your head.
- As you exhale, tuck your chin towards your sternum while bringing your elbows towards each other.
- As you inhale, lift your head up towards the sky and pull your elbows apart.
- Repeat 10 times.
Head Tilt Clasp
This stretch will reduce stiffness and tightness in your shoulders and trapezius muscles while improving your posture.
- Clasp your hands behind your back, rolling your shoulders back.
- Slowly tilt your head from side to side.
- Hold each ear toward your shoulder while taking up to three big, deep breaths.
- You can deepen the stretch by adding a slight backend to open the chest.
- Repeat 10 times.
Lat Pull Downs
This move helps strengthen your back muscles, which can also help improve your posture and take the pressure off your shoulders.
- Grab a resistance band or towel and hold it above your head with straight arms, keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed.
- Pull your shoulders down to activate your lats. Repeat 15 times.
Shoulder shrugs help increase blood flow, warming up the shoulder joint while loosening any stiffness.
- Take a deep inhale, and squeeze your shoulders up to your ears.
- Lower them as you exhale deeply.
- Repeat 10 times.
Palm Presses and Pulls
This active stretch will strengthen and warm up all of your shoulder muscles.
- Press the palm of your hands together with all your strength and hold for three seconds, then lock your fingers together and pull away for three seconds.
- Repeat four times.
Bent-Arm Shoulder Stretch
- Start standing or sitting tall. Place one arm across your body and bend your elbow to 90 degrees, with your hand pointing up.
- Using your other arm, pull your elbow toward your opposite shoulder.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
Thread the Needle Pose
Thread the needle is an excellent shoulder stretch, especially for your rear shoulders (posterior deltoid).
- Start on all fours. Take your right arm and thread it through under your chest to rest on a mat, resting on your right side.
- For a deeper stretch, take the left arm and place it behind your back.
- Hold for 5 deep breaths and come back to the center before switching sides.
This advanced mobility exercise will stretch all areas of your shoulder and is a great test of where you are tight and need work.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing out. Hold a broomstick or light pole out in front of you, or use a towel.
- Brace your core and lift the pole in an arcing motion above your head. Maintain straight arms the whole time.
- Slowly arc the pole behind you, feeling the stretch in your shoulders.
- Hold the stretch for 5 breaths, then slowly return to the starting position, keeping your arms straight.
This mobility exercise helps you release tight shoulder and upper back muscles. Performing this exercise consistently will increase your range of motion.
- Stand against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet out 2 or 3 steps and keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Brace your core and raise your hands up beside your head. Press your shoulders and arms against the wall.
- Raise your arms above you while still pressing against the wall. Slowly, lower your arms to the starting position and repeat.
- Repeat for 10 repetitions.
Extended Puppy (Uttana Shishosana)
Extended puppy is a deeply relaxing pose that stretches out your shoulders and entire back while building flexibility in your spine.
- Get onto all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Exhale and slowly walk your hands forward maintaining your hips over your knees. Sink your chest toward the floor resting your forehead on the floor if your flexibility allows.
- Hold the pose for 30 seconds, taking slow, deep breaths.
- Inhale, walking your hands toward you to return to all fours position.
- Repeat 5 times.
Humble Warrior (Baddha Virabhadrasana)
This full-body stretch helps strengthen your shoulders while increasing your mobility and flexibility.
- Beginning in Warrior I with your left foot forward, exhale, interlacing your hands behind you.
- Inhale, lifting your chest and making your spine long.
- Exhale, folding forward and bringing your torso to the inside of your left leg, lifting your arms overhead.
- Hold this pose while taking 5 slow, deep breaths.
- Inhale, lifting your torso and stepping your feet together. Exhale, releasing your arms. Switch sides to repeat.
- Try 5 repetitions on each side.
Cleary MA, Sitler MR, Kendrick ZV. Dehydration and symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness in normothermic men. J Athl Train. 2006;41(1):36-45.