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Tight Shoulder Stretches

In order to help a tight shoulder feel loose, it’s important to address what’s tight. Doing any old stretch (while it may feel good at the time) isn’t going to fix your tight shoulder unless you’re stretching what is actually tight. But, that’s also the problem – how do you know what’s actually tight?

That’s a difficult but important question. If your latissimus dorsi (lat) is tight, but you’re stretching your rotator cuff, your lat will never feel loose. Likewise, if it’s your shoulder joint that’s tight, but you’re stretching out your pec, you may get some relief, but it will be transient and minimal.

Struggling to get relief with stretching? If so, read on. We’re going to discuss the four main areas where shoulders feel tight and give you our favorite stretches for each area.

Tight Shoulder Source 1 – The Front of the Shoulder

We put tightness at the front of the shoulder first because it’s the most common. About 99.9% of the activities we do are in front of us. Because of this, we’re always leaning, tilted, or moving forwards. It’s very rare we are attending to anything that isn’t in front of us. After all, we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads! (Sorry, Mom).

Apart from our natural tendency to sit and move in ways that tighten up the front of our shoulders, these are some signs that it’s the front of your shoulder that’s tight:

  • Difficulty putting a coat on (the second arm, not the first)
  • A pinching sensation when you lift your arm directly overhead
  • Tightness with reaching behind you in the car
  • Difficulty with lifting your arms off the ground out to the sides or in a “Y” shape when lying face-down
tight shoulder

There’s some good news! While it’s very easy for this area of the shoulder to become tight, it’s also fairly easy (compared to other parts of the shoulder) to loosen up. Our favorite exercise to loosen up the shoulder is a banded opener.

Tight Shoulder Source 2 – Rotator Cuff

While rotator cuff tightness is less common than tightness in the front of the shoulder, we still see it fairly frequently. Individuals who have tightness in their rotator cuff also tend to complain of the following –

  • Tightness with reaching across their body
  • Difficulty putting their hand behind their back
  • Tightness in the back of their shoulder (if there’s pain too, it’s likely not just a tightness issue and you might want to check out this blog post for better guidance)
  • Tightness in the front rack position

Addressing rotator cuff tightness is best done by giving the muscles some love (aka doing a bit of smashing). While rolling with a lacrosse ball can give some benefit, it’s much more effective when you add some active movement in.

Tight Shoulder Source 3 – The Shoulder Joint

If you’ve heard of frozen shoulder (the shoulder joint slowly tightens, stiffens, and becomes painful and then slowly loosens over about 1-2 years), that’s not what we’re talking about. It certainly is a case of shoulder joint tightness, but for this, we’re referring to a tight shoulder in the absence of a more debilitating problem.

Those who have tight shoulder joints tend to present with the following –

  • Decreased motion in almost all directions (overhead, behind back, front rack, PVC pass throughs, etc.)
  • Pinching sensation towards the end of a motion
  • Needing to exert a lot of force to hold the shoulder at end range
  • Decreased ability to generate force overhead compared to what would be expected for their strength level

While the shoulder joint needs to be stretched in many different directions, it’s often best to just traction it. That’s the most effective way to hit (almost) all the directions without going through four different stretches. Our favorite way to distract the shoulder is through a banded overhead distraction.

Tight Shoulder Source 4 – The Lats

Last, but most certainly not least, the lats are potentially the second most complained about area of a tight shoulder. Oftentimes, the lats are weak at end-range, which is why they feel tight. (The explanation for why weak muscles are often tight muscles is a bit too long to put in here, but if you want to know, check out this instagram post for all the details).

Individuals with tight lats tend to complain of the following –

  • Increased tightness at the bottom of front squats (compared to standing in the front rack position)
  • Fatiguing quicker than they expect with pull-ups, toes to bar, and similar motions
  • Increased tightness at the bottom of the snatch (compared to standing overhead with arms locked out)
  • Difficulty getting into a full arch position in gymnastics movements

The best way to target lat tightness is by ensuring you’re stretching it when the muscle is in a position that’s fully lengthened. When your arm is fully overhead and your lower back is rounded, the lat is about as stretched out as it can get. Because of that, our go-to is using a supine lat eccentric to improve lat tightness.

If this lat exercise isn’t doing the trick, a great option is dry needling. We use this quite frequently in physical therapy and it looks like this.

But What if My Shoulder Is Still Tight

If you got to this part and are thinking ”But I already stretched all these areas and my shoulder is still tight!”, you could very well be correct.

Here’s why that could be – we can’t fully diagnose why your shoulder feels tight with only listing out movements. Everyone is a bit different and while tightness in the front of my shoulder might make it hard for me to reach behind my back, it could make it hard for you to reach across your body.

And, there’s also a lot that plays into why stretching doesn’t always help. Here’s some common reasons why individuals stretch without getting the results they want.

  • There’s no active movement into the new range of motion after the stretch (This is one of the most, if not the most common problem we see. You can’t just stretch and hope the new motion stays. You have to use that new motion immediately afterwards).
  • The stretch wasn’t performed correctly.
  • You didn’t stretch enough – 60” holds, at least 3 reps, at least 5 times per week is the bare minimum to make true mobility changes.


Your Tight Shoulder Might Not Be the Problem

If the stretches didn’t help and you don’t fall into one of the common reasons why stretching doesn’t help above, it’s worthwhile considering that the problem may not be your shoulder. It may feel counterintuitive since your shoulder feels tight, but the location of pain or tightness isn’t always where the issue is. (And I’d argue where you feel the issue is often not where the issue is).

Here’s a few examples of why that might be –

  • Something else is tight and pulling on the structure that feels tight
  • Something else is weak and the tight muscle is overcompensating
  • The ‘tight’ muscle is actually weak and tightening up to protect itself
  • Your mechanics for a specific movement or posture are suboptimal and the tight area is getting needlessly pulled on


The Body is Amazing (But Also Frustrating at Times)

You can stretch and stretch and stretch, but if the stretching isn’t helping, it’s time to consider some outside help. Physical therapy is a profession because it often takes a professional to truly figure out what’s going on and get lasting symptom relief.

If you’re frustrated by constantly feeling tight despite stretching, we suggest scheduling a free consultation here. It’s free, there’s no obligation to work with us, and you’ll come away knowing more about how your body works and why you have tightness.

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