Shoulder Opening: Stretches for Tight Shoulders

by Benji Williford on April 1, 2014

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Continued progression toward getting stronger and improving performance requires a body that is “open” to the challenge.  One of the biggest complaints that I consistently get from clients is about tight shoulders. It’s simple, you can’t move well if you can’t move. Some clients can’t hang from a bar without pain as they can’t even get their arms over their heads to get into position to do a pull-up; whereas other clients have a hard time in a plank to start push-ups without feeling neck pain (and everything in-between).

Opening up the shoulders and consequently the upper body will improve performance and help prevent injury. The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint that really could be considered more of a ball and plate joint as it relies on the muscularity of the joint to keep it from dislocating.  It is formed by the articulation of the head of the humerus with the scapula and is the most freely movable joint in the body. The main movements of the shoulder:

  • Flexion-Lifting the arm forward in front of the body. The primary movers to this position are the anterior and medial deltoid, biceps brachii, coracobrachialis, and the upper pectoralis major.
  • Extension-Pulling the arms back down and toward the back of the body. The primary movers are the latissimus dorsi and the teres major.
  • Adduction-Holding the arms out and pulling them toward the midline of the body. The primary movers are the pectoralis major and the anterior deltoid.
  • Adduction-Opening the arms away from the midline of the body. The prime mover is the posterior deltoid.
  • External rotation-Holding the arms by the side, rotate the shoulders outward so that the palms are facing up and the thumbs are pointing to the back using the posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, and teres minor.
  • Internal rotation- Holding the arms by the side, rotate shoulders inward so that the thumbs turn in toward the body using pectorailis major, latissimus dorsi, anterior deltoid, and the teres major.

Although shoulder movements can be placed in specific categories, exercises often times use combinations of those movements to complete a rep. For example in order to perform a muscle-up, the shoulders extend and external rotate to hold on to the bar. The shoulders will then go into flexion to pull the body to the bar and push the bar to the waist. Internal rotation also happens along the way. When looking at a get up, the shoulder will start in flexion with slight external rotation and will go through farther extension, abduction, internal rotation, external rotation, and extension again just to go from the floor to standing (1/2 the rep).

When stretching the shoulders, all of these movements should be taken into account in order to ensure that imbalances are fixed.  The following video will demo a series of stretches that can be incorporated in a yoga practice, used for static stretches after a workout or any time after warming up the shoulders with some mobility work.

The additional benefits are that they will also open the chest, back, neck, and thoracic spine.


Benji Williford, PCC, RYT, CF-L1 is a Personal Fitness Trainer located out of Eau Claire, WI. Benji believes that, “A successful fitness program is based on positive dialogue between the mind and body.” He can be reached through his website:, or by email:

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  • YoginiLyne

    Great stretches, can you recommend anything specific for the front of the shoulder? I work with a lot of frozen shoulders due to impingement from heavy purses, briefcases, etc……..

    • Benji Williford

      Honestly, I recommend all of them. I have clients with similar problems. My experience is that where they feel problems isn’t always the cause but the effect. One of the biggest take-a-ways for me is that some of these stretches can be very uncomfortable (nearly unbearable) for clients when they first start so it may have be a slow process in the beginning. The stretch pictured in the blog and several others were very difficult for me on my right shoulder. To get started, practicing the initial setup might be what is needed for stretch. For a couple of clients, I had to modify the stretch pictured and have them stand against the wall in order to practice the setup. This gave them time to build the brain body connection and built confidence as they initially almost had anxiety attacks anticipating pain when lying down on the floor to setup the stretch. Hope that helps!

      • YoginiLyne

        yes it does, thank you so much. I do a lot on the walls as well. I think it helps to get the hips or the knees or other “problem” areas out of the way, and directly zone in on the focused area we are targeting.

  • Great video, I work in front of a computer all day so I have rather tight shoulders and upper back. It’s improved a lot since bridging and a few other exercises but I felt instantly looser after doing a few of these exercises. Will bookmark this video and incorporate some of them into my training

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks David. Without these stretches, I would never be able to bridge. My right shoulder especially tends to be extremely tight.

  • Eric

    Thanks for sharing. My left shoulder was hurt years ago and never recovered. Both shoulders are tight, which doesn’t translate well to Aikido; tap out quickly. Will dedicate myself to doing these daily for at least a week. Already feel shoulders have released somewhat just sitting here, after doing the stretches.

    • Benji Williford

      Hey Eric. It’s been almost a week. I hope the stretches are still going well.

  • Aaron

    Thanks Benji. This is great. I surf and do martial arts, and I feel like my shoulders are always sore. Even just following your demo for the first time has helped a ton. I will definitely be watching/stretching regularly. Thanks again for posting!

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks Aaron. I hope things are still going well.

  • Chris benjamin

    This was awesome. I had no idea how tight my shoulders were until I did this, a real eye opener. From one Benji to another, thanks!!!

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks Benji!

  • William Tucker

    I have very tight shoulders and have tried many stretches and yoga moves to help but I think this may be the best I have seen so far. How long should I hold each pose, and how many reps? About a minute each, one time, or shorter for several reps? Hoping this will help lock out better on overhead lifting moves.

  • Arin

    How many times a week would you recommend performing this series of stretches?

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