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Stretches to Relieve Shoulder Pain

By Jana Zuidema (Bsc Physio) 

Have you ever been to a yoga or pilates class and they make you lie on your back with your arms stretched out to the sides and it pulls like crazy across your chest? You hear the instructor saying something about stretching your pecs – huh? What are pecs? They are the muscles across the front of your chest.

Most of us slouching over our computer all day develop tight pectoral muscles (aka pecs), they run from the front of your shoulder to your breastbone and ribs, and they shorten when your slouch (or you can make them very bulky and look like a bodybuilder god – but who has time for that?). Shortened shoulder muscles can cause shoulder pain, and this is not cool.

Then we get to the rhomboids (also muscles). I am always amazed when I have a massage at the magnitude of the knots the therapist finds along the inside of my shoulder blades. I am like, jislaaik those are sore! And she kneads, pushes and pokes at them until I feel like taking a bite out of the massage table, as that will be way more pleasant than the current pain I am experiencing in my back, neck and shoulders!

This happens because when we slouch (yes still slouching’s fault), we elongate the rhomboids (they run from our upper spines to our shoulder blades) and slouching puts muscles on a stretch. They then desperately fight back (even making knots in themselves to give you pain in the shoulder and neck) by trying to pull back the shoulder blades to stop you from slouching. But shame, they are such weak little puppies that the pecs just go: suckers we are much stronger than you so we are going keep the shoulder blades forward – yeah we win the slouch battle! The rhomboids can also give us a lot of shoulder pain at the back of the shoulder blades.

Ok – so what do I do to make these shoulder muscles looser and less painful? STRETCH – shoulder stretches help to lengthen the short muscles (like the pecs) and relieves the pain in the knotted muscles (like the rhomboids) and SIT UP STRAIGHT. Good posture will allow the pecs and rhomboids to bear the load equally and take the need for battle away – and don’t we all like a bit a peace and harmony? Below are the instructions for the shoulder stretches. 

How to stretch your pecs

On your chair take hold of your hands behind your back and push your chest forward – you will feel the stretch along your chest and probably along the arms (the biceps). Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.

How to stretch your rhomboids

Take your arm across your chest and push your arm further into your chest. Keep your shoulders down and feel the stretch between your shoulder blade and your spine. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times and then repeat on the other side.

How to sit up straight

Start by sitting right back in your chair so that your lower back is supported, then imagine you have a fishing hook attached to your breastbone (ouch, I know, but the analogy works). There is a string attached to the hook and it is gently lifting your breastbone up. This will elongate your spine as you straighten up and your shoulders will automatically drop into the neutral (correct) position. Don’t push your chest forward (trying to emulate Pamela Anderson) as this causes overextension of the lower back. It’s just a gentle lift of the breastbone and all falls into place naturally.

So now your pecs and rhomboids are a bit happier, let’s add some more shoulder stretches for those painful muscles and a shoulder strengthening exercise. It is important to keep tight shoulder muscles long and strengthened for them to work optimally.The upper trapezius. This muscle runs from the neck to the top of the shoulder and can become short with a prolonged hunching posture (yes here it is again – SIT UP STRAIGHT). 

Stretch the upper traps by dropping your head to one side, use the hand on the same side to pull the ear closer to the shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times. Repeat on the other side. This can be easily done in a chair.

The lattisimus dorsi muscle

This is the bodybuilders favourite muscle – it’s the one that gives you wings on the side of your chest when it is worked hard (without the need for a certain drink). For us mere mortals who don’t spend hours in the gym it is a muscle can also shorten when sitting for long periods of time. 

To stretch this shoulder muscle take hold of both your hand above your head and pull your arm up towards the ceiling, lifting your shoulder blades at the same time. You can then bend your body slightly to the left to stretch the right lat and then to the right to stretch the left one. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on both sides.

A bit of strength work

Now here is a great all over shoulder strength exercise, also easily done at your desk or in a chair. Start by taking your arms back (like Kate Winslet in Titanic), NB don’t hunch your shoulders, but aim to squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, then bring your arms together crossing them in front of your body. Repeat 5- 10 times. This is a great shoulder mobility and strength exercise. 

Always remember, if you have persistent shoulder pain it is imperative to seek medical advice. These exercises are a guideline specific for people who work at computers all day and have a sore shoulders aches and pains.

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