Arm Stretches

Arm stretches can help to improve flexibility and reduce shoulder pain. Whether you are recovering from an injury, are feeling a bit stiff or are looking for shoulder stretches for when you work out, these stretches can help you.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the whole body – no other joint moves through such a large range in each direction. But tightness and stiffness can easily develop. Here, we will look at a range of shoulder, arm and rotator cuff stretches to help you improve the movement at your shoulder, increase your flexibility and reduce any shoulder pain. However, do be aware that if you have injured your shoulder, you should always check with your doctor or physical therapist before starting any stretches as in some cases they can be counter-productive. You may need to start with some gentler stretching and strengthening exercises first which can be found in the rotator cuff exercises section.

How To Perform Arm Stretches

With each of these arm stretches, we will start by looking at the purpose of the exercise and then look at how to perform the exercise correctly. You will also find top tips and suggestions on variations or progressions so that you can get the best results from these shoulder stretches.

At the end of this section you will find some really useful information on how to stretch safely and effectively with loads of advice on how to get the best results and make sure you don’t injure yourself.  So let’s get started.

1) Corner Wall Stretch

Corner Wall Stretch to stretch the front of the shoulder.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: To stretch the front of the shoulder and the pecs (stretches both shoulders at once)

Starting Position: Stand in a corner and place your arms against the wall as shown. Your elbows should be bent, at shoulder height and your forearms resting on the wall.

Action: Step one leg forwards towards the corner and bend the front knee until you feel a stretch across the front of your shoulders and chest. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

Top Tips: 1) You can change where you feel the stretch by change the height of your arms – try moving them up or down small amounts to find the best position of stretch for you
2) Control the amount of stretch by bending or straightening your front knee
3) If you are wanting to stretch one shoulder slightly more, as you hold the stretch, twist your body away from that side

2) Sleeper Stretch

Sleeper Stretch to improve shoulder internal rotation.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Improve internal rotation e.g. putting your hand behind your lower back

Starting Position: Lie on your side, your head resting on a pillow, with the arm you want to stretch underneath you. Your elbow should be bent and slightly below the level with your shoulder. Your forearm should be pointing to the ceiling and your palm facing down towards your feet

Action: Using your free hand, gently draw your forearm down towards the bed, feeling a stretch in your shoulder. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

3) Wall Twist Stretch

Wall Twist Stretch to improve shoulder external rotation.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Improve external rotation e.g. putting your hand behind your head

Starting Position: Stand at the edge of an open doorway, and place your palm on the inside of the door frame. Your elbow should be bent at a right angle and tucked in to your waist

Action: Keeping your arm still and your elbow tucked in, slowly turn your body away from the door feeling a stretch at the front of your shoulder as you twist round. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

4) Triceps Stretch

Triceps Stretch.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Stretch the triceps muscle on the back of the upper arm

Starting Position: Sitting or standing, raise the arm to be stretched up towards the ceiling aiming to get your elbow covering your ear. Let your elbow bend so that your hand rests on the back of your shoulder

Action: Grasp the elbow with your free hand and gently draw the elbow backwards until you feel a stretch under your arm. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

Top Tip: Don’t lean backwards as you do this exercises – keep upright

Progression: You can increase the stretch by 1) Keep pressure through the thumb on your free hand to keep the elbow fully bent
2) Tilt your upper body to the opposite side while maintaining the stretch i.e. if stretching your right arm, tilt to the left

5) Biceps Stretch

Triceps Stretch.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Stretch the biceps muscles on the front of your upper arm

Starting Position: Stand sideways on to a wall and place the palm of your hand on the wall between shoulder and waist height. Your fingers should be pointing backwards

Action: Step forwards until your elbow is fully straight then gently twist your body away from the wall, feeling a stretch down the front of your upper arm and elbow. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

Top Tips: 1) You can increase the stretch by pushing your elbow towards the wall – your arm won’t move but you should feel more of a stretch
2) Changing the height of your hand will slightly change where the stretch is felt – find the best position for you
3) Turn your hand over so that the back of your hand is against the wall to again change where the stretch is felt – do this in addition rather than as a replacement stretch
4) If you notice any pins and needles or numbness in your arm of fingers, stop this exercise immediately

6) Deltoid Stretch

Arm stretches for Deltoid - stretches the back of the shoulder.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: To stretch the back of the Deltoid muscle, behind the shoulder

Starting Position: Sitting or standing, cross the arm to be stretched across the front of your chest

Action: Grasp the elbow with your free hand and draw the arm further across your chest towards your opposite shoulder until you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder (your elbow can be bent or straight). Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

Top Tips: 1) Keep your shoulders drawn down – don’t let them creep up by your ears
2) You are aiming to draw the arm around from the elbow, not push the elbow towards the chest
3) Keep your body and hips facing forwards – don’t let them twist round (doing the exercise sitting on a chair makes it easier not to cheat)

7) Prayer Stretch

Prayer Stretch.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Stretch underneath the shoulder

Starting Position: Kneel on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips

Action: Keeping your hands fixed, gently sit back onto your heels. Hold for 15-30 seconds

Repeat: 3-5 times

Progression: You can increase the stretch by moving your hands further forwards at the start

Top Tips: Have a gap between your knees to allow you to get your chest lower to the ground and increase the stretch

8) Towel Chest Stretch

Towel Chest Stretch.  Approved use www.hep2go.com

Purpose: Stretch the front of the shoulder and chest including the pecs. 

Starting Position: Roll up a large towel into a cylinder and place it on the floor/bed. Lie down on your back on top of the towel so it is between your shoulder blades and running down the length of your spine in the middle of you back. You may find it more comfortable to bend your knees and have a pillow under your head

Action: Let your shoulders drop back over the towel towards the bed until you feel a stretch in your chest

Repetition: Spend 5-10 minutes like this to fully stretch out – you might want to try some of the variations below during this time

Variations: 1) To feel more of a stretch, draw your shoulder blades backwards towards each other as you lie on the towel
2) Gradually bring your arms out to the side and up above your head to change the position of the stretch. You can try moving the arms slightly, holding for 30 seconds and then move them again – like really slow snow angels
3) Increase the thickness of the rolled up towel underneath you so you are higher off the ground – you can go up to two large bath towels rolled up together
4) You can use a foam or air roller instead of a towel for a more effective stretch

Top Tips: This is one of my favourite arm stretches and is also a great stretch for upper and middle back pain and stiffness. And it’s a great excuse to lie down for 10 minutes!

How to Stretch Safely & Effectively

Let me start by reminding you that if you have injured your shoulder, arm stretches may not be the best place to start. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, stretching can cause further damage particularly with an injury such as a rotator cuff tear as it can over-stress the affected muscles/tendons. Secondly, if you are wanting to do arm stretches because there is stiffness in your shoulder, it is important to first find out why there is stiffness. It may be that there is an underlying condition and the stiffness is actually a protective mechanism to prevent further injury. In both of these case it may be more appropriate to start with a combination of gentler stretching and strengthening exercises first to improve the mobility, stability and strength of the shoulder muscles before starting to do arm stretches – visit the rotator cuff exercises section to find out more.

There is much debate on how best to perform arm stretches with some people preferring large numbers of reps each with a short hold time, and others performing a small bouncing movement at the end of the stretch. But studies have shown that the most effective way to stretch if you are focused on increasing muscle length, is to hold the stretch for thirty seconds and do three repetitions. This might not be possible at first in which case reduce the hold and increase the number of repetitions. 

In terms of how arm stretches should feel, as long as there is no underlying pathology, stretches should feel a bit uncomfortable – if you can’t feel the stretch, you’re unlikely to change the length of the muscle. But any discomfort should settle quickly, certainly within thirty minutes of stopping the exercise. If it still feels sore after that, you have likely overdone things – reduce how far you stretch and how long you hold the stretch for until there are no ill effects.

Please be aware that if there is an underlying condition or injury, do not push in to pain with arm stretches as you may do more harm than good. Always follow the guidance of your doctor or physical therapist and don’t be tempted to try and progress too quickly.

What Else Can Help?

Arm stretches will be most effective when combined with strengthening exercises as well. Muscles need a combination of strength and length to work properly so it is important to do both. Have a look at the rotator cuff exercises section for loads of great exercises that can help alongside arm stretches.

Go to Exercises Guide or Homepage


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