Tight and painful shoulders compromise our ability to feel good and move well. The shoulders affect the muscles in our arms, chest, and neck. When the rotator cuff feels tight or painful, it affects any and all movement of our upper body.
This is why it’s so important to keep your shoulders strong and mobile. Unfortunately, *just* stretching or *just* exercising are not enough to maximize your shoulder health.
But how do you do both? And why do you need strength *and* mobility? Can you have one without the other?
In this article we’ll unpack everything you need to know about shoulder pain, strength, and mobility. And you’ll learn the two best shoulder stretches you can do at home (and how to turn them into workouts).
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<img class="img-fluid w-md-75 image-center" src="https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/wm-wmade-static-media/media/public/Assets/images/shoulder-anatomy-diagram.jpg" alt="shoulder-anatomy-diagram">
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">What Do The Shoulders Do?</p></h4>
The shoulder joint is one of the biggest in your body. It connects three bones—the humerus (arm), scapulae (shoulder blades), and clavicle (collar bone)—that are essential for human movement. It’s a “ball and socket” joint, meaning the shoulder has more freedom to move around than most other joints. Your knee for example, known as a hinge joint, can only move back and forth in one direction<sup>1</sup>.
A collection of muscles known as the rotator cuff sits inside the shoulder joint. There are four muscles inside your rotator cuff. But that’s not all. Your biceps (arm), lats (upper back), <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/3-simple-tricep-workouts-for-stronger-toned-arms/"><strong>triceps</strong></a> (back of arm), traps, neck, and pectorals (chest muscles) all connect to the shoulder.
With so much going on in one place, you may already see why it’s important to have strong and mobile shoulders.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">The Shoulders— “Show” Muscles vs. “Go” Muscles</p></h4>
At <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/at-home-exercises-to-strengthen-your-shoulders/"><strong>Warrior Made</strong></a>, we like to think of the shoulders as “go” muscles. We can divide most major muscles into one of two categories: “show muscles” and “go muscles.”
Show muscles are easy to remember: they’re the ones we like to show off. The <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/the-best-lower-ab-exercises-you-can-do-at-home/"><strong>abdominals</strong></a>, chest, and arm muscles are all examples of show muscles.
Go muscles, on the other hand, make our bodies mobile, functional, and healthy. They are responsible for moving when we exercise and live our lives. The shoulders, hips, legs, and back muscles are all examples of go muscles.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">Why Go Muscles (Like The Shoulder) Matter</p></h4>
“Okay,” you say. “Why bring that up?”
It’s important to note the difference because the go muscles—like the shoulders—are often neglected in favor of the show muscles when we exercise. Because we want to look good at the beach or for our friends, we target these muscles to give us our ideal physique.
But there’s a *huge* problem with only training show muscles: *muscle imbalances*. These lead to muscle tension, pain, and injuries.
The shoulders are a great example. If you only train your chest and arm muscles and neglect your shoulders, your shoulders get pulled forward and lengthened. Making them become what we call “long tight.”
You may think tight shoulders means small and cramped up, but that’s not the case. You might be experiencing tension in the shoulders because your strong arms and weak shoulders have you pulled too far forward into extension. In this position your shoulder muscles can’t flex all the way.
Over time, this “long-tightness” leads to poor posture, tightness, pain in the shoulders, and even injuries.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">What Causes Shoulder Pain and Tight Shoulders?</p></h4>
Go versus show muscles segue nicely into how our shoulder pain or shoulder tightness develops to begin with. Here are the major culprits.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">1. Sitting/Slouching</p></h5>
You’re much more likely to have tight, immobile shoulders if you work a desk job or sit in front of the computer a lot. In this position, your shoulders get pulled forward into that same long-tight position.
Unfortunately most of us live in a “box” where the majority of our daily activities involve having our arms in front of our bodies this way. This box starts at the pelvis and ends at eye level. Texting, driving, and typing are all times when we’re in the box.
In this box, some shoulder muscles get overworked while others are not worked at all. This leads to the pesky muscle imbalances we already discussed.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">2. Poor Posture</p></h5>
Bad posture—slouching forward, not engaging the <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/the-best-lower-ab-exercises-you-can-do-at-home/"><strong>abdominals</strong></a> or <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/top-5-exercises-to-strengthen-your-lower-back/"><strong>lower back muscles</strong></a>—makes the shoulders weak and tight.
Poor posture in general leads to myriad flexibility and weakness problems. Avoid prolonged sitting and engage your core when you do.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">3.Weak Shoulder Muscles</p></h5>
Not exercising your shoulder muscles means the tendons, ligaments, and muscles grow weak and prone to injury. Unfortunately, it gets worse as you age. When these areas of the body are strong, they are more likely to hold up to the rigors of daily life and exercise.
The four muscles in your rotator cuff are: the *supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor*, and *subscapularis*. Don’t feel obliged to remember these, but know that these four muscles—along with your deltoids—need to be strong to prevent pain and tightness.
Keep in mind: the shoulder is a big joint and connects so many things that a weak upper back, triceps, biceps, and pectorals also can lead to shoulder pain. They may be show muscles, but shouldn’t be trained exclusively. Train them along with the rotator cuff muscles.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">4. Immobile Shoulders</p></h5>
Do you stretch your shoulders? You should. Pain and tightness are almost guaranteed if the muscles in your shoulder are not flexible enough to reach full range of motion.
Your shoulders should be able to hit full extension and flexion. This means reaching behind your body and all the way overhead without pain.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">The Truth About Your Shoulder Pain</p></h4>
If you deal with regular shoulder pain or tight shoulders you may be guilty of at least one or more causes. The truth is that the shoulders desperately need to be both strong *and* mobile in order to stay healthy and pain-free.
If you exercise your shoulder muscles a ton but never stretch them, they *will* get tight and eventually painful.
If you stretch your shoulders but never strengthen them, the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and arms—along with the tendons and ligaments—become more susceptible to injuries from exercise or daily life.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">The Key To Pain-Free Shoulders</p></h4>
The key to keeping your shoulders healthy and pain free, then, is to focus on *both* strength and mobility when you exercise.
Using exercises and stretches, loosen your shoulders by achieving full range of motion (flexion and extension) during your sessions. Then (or at the same time) *strengthen* your shoulders with resistance exercises.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">2 Easy Shoulder Stretches You Can Do At-Home</p></h4>
Try these as stretches first. Then see how to turn these mobility enhancers into a challenging and effective workout in the next section.
<img style="width:50%; margin-left:25%;" class="img-fluid" src="https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/wm-wmade-static-media/media/public/Assets/media/exercises/beginner/UP_DOWN_DOG.gif" alt="UP_DOWN_DOG">
<h5><p style="color: #000000">1. Downward Dog</p></h5>
A popular yoga pose, downward dogs strengthen and mobilize your shoulders simultaneously. This is a full-body exercise, but we’re focusing on the cues to help your shoulders here.
In downward dog, create tension by pushing your hands into the floor and push your hips into the air. Create a straight line between your pelvis and the tip of your head. Focus on keeping your elbows locked the whole time.
To emphasize the stretch and loosen up your shoulders, push through the floor harder and drive your nose towards your toes. You won’t move much—and shouldn’t—but you should feel an exaggerated stretch in your traps, shoulder blades, and neck muscles.
<img style="width:50%; margin-left:25%;" class="img-fluid" src="https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/wm-wmade-static-media/media/public/Assets/media/exercises/beginner/TABLETOPS.gif" alt="TABLETOPS">
<h5><p style="color: #000000">2. Table Tops</p></h5>
Tabletops are our “desert island” exercise for shoulder mobility and strengthening. Meaning that if we found ourselves trapped on a desert island and could only do one exercise forever and ever—this would be the choice. (An unlikely scenario, of course, but you get the idea).
Sit on your butt with your hands placed right behind your back. Your fingertips should point to the wall behind you. With your weight on your heels, lock your elbows, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Raise your hips off the ground and rise up until your body is in one straight line.
Keep tension at the top and, well, you’ll look like a table when you do it right.
To emphasize the shoulder stretch, press through your hands and lean forward slightly with your torso at the top of the table. You will feel your pectoral, shoulder, and bicep muscles open up. If you are focusing on stretching, do these slower than Coach Tyler is in the image above.
Holding the table top at the top position is great for strengthening your shoulders and core too.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">How To Turn Shoulder Stretches Into A Workout</p></h4>
The goal is mobility *and* strength. So how do you turn these stretches into a workout? Here are two ideas.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">Super Sets</p></h5>
A *superset* means you do multiple exercises or stretches back-to-back. For example: you pair ten table tops with ten <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/top-5-exercises-to-strengthen-your-lower-back/"><strong>lower back strengthening exercises</strong></a>. Take no break between and do all twenty reps in a row. That’s one “superset.”
The volume of supersets (higher reps) will fatigue your muscles more, helping them get stronger in the process.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">High-Intensity Interval Training</p></h5>
Our favorite tool for <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/what-is-functional-training-and-can-it-benefit-you/"><strong>burning fat</strong></a> works here, too. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) uses time or a set number of repetitions with minimal rest in between.
For example, you could use the popular Tabata HIIT protocol. Using up-down dogs as an example, you would do twenty seconds of up-down dogs followed by ten seconds of rest. For a full Tabata cycle, repeat that cycle eight times.
Start to finish it takes less than four minutes—but don’t be fooled. It will be a killer workout.
<h4><p style="color: rgba(20, 117, 135, 1)">Shoulder Stretches—Wrapping Up</p></h4>
The key to developing healthy, pain-free shoulders is to keep them strong and mobile. Along with less sitting and better posture, use the shoulder stretches in this—workouts as well—to help open up the muscles in your rotator cuff. Together they should ease and reduce the symptoms or tightness you are experiencing.
Shoulders feel okay but something else feels tight or weak? We got you covered! Check out these detailed exercise guides for your <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/glutes-101-best-exercises-for-your-gluteus-maximus/"><strong>glutes</strong></a>, <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/the-3-best-hamstring-workouts/"><strong>hamstrings</strong></a>, <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/the-5-best-calf-exercises/"><strong>calves</strong></a>, <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/top-5-exercises-to-strengthen-your-lower-back/"><strong>lower back</strong></a>, and <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/the-best-lower-ab-exercises-you-can-do-at-home/"><strong>lower abs</strong></a>.
For more, check out our <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/"><strong>comprehensive exercise blog</strong></a> and <a target="_blank" href="https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZjFDJI4B4l16uujibduMFA"><strong>Warrior Made’s YouTube channel</strong></a>. From free at-home workouts you can do in thirty minutes or less to full exercise guides, we’ve got your <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/"><strong>body transformation</strong></a> covered.
<h5><p style="color: #000000">Resources</p></h5>
1. <a target="_blank" href="https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/shoulder-muscles#1">Muscles</a>
2. <a target="_blank" href="https://www.healthline.com/health/tight-shoulders">12 Stretches to Help Relieve Tight Shoulders</a>