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If you sit at a desk for most of the day, the chances are that your shoulders are right up by your ears. These stretches will help to loosen that upper back in no time.
There can’t be a desk worker in the land who hasn’t walked away from their work station with crippling neck and shoulder ache. Most of us are tight and knotty in our shoulders, and it’s usually only when we’ve been in a relaxing yoga session or massage that we realise just how much tension we’re holding up top.
Having tight shoulders is a hugely common problem. If you’ve ever had a PT or gone to a strength class, you’ve probably been told to retract your shoulders… and struggled to do so. But however ubiquitous an aching upper body may be, tightness in our anterior, lateral and rear delts can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the body, including causing impingements, tendinitis, generic sinequan tablets and degenerative changes.
It can also hugely impact your training, as tightness reduces mobility and makes moving through overhead press, lateral raises and downward dog tricky.
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“The reason behind shoulder tightness is two-fold: physical and mental,” says PT Emma Obayuvana. The physical causes include sitting down for extended periods of time, especially hunching over your desk or computer screen. But bad posture and misalignments generally can also be to blame.
Overuse is also an issue: “If you’re exercising a lot and not stretching the shoulders pre- and post-workout, the muscles will tighten up,” says Obayuvana.
But the mental impact on muscle tightness can’t be overlooked, she warns: “When you are stressed, what happens? Your shoulders go up towards your ears, your back rounds, your chest contracts. Your shoulders are so sensitive to stress, and this doesn’t have to be long-term stress. It can simply be when you are rushing around one afternoon, or really focusing on a task to meet a deadline, that we tighten up.”
Right now, that’s more relevant than ever. Burnout caused by the “always-on” culture emphasised by working from home, isolation, loneliness and anxiety are already increasing. While all breaks should involve getting away from your work station, at least one should be focused on moving your body. And when you are feeling tense and tight, stretching it out can help. Mixing up your stretches with both dynamic and static moves is the best way to help joints loosen and also release tightness in the muscles.
These are some of our favourites.
Dynamic shoulder stretches to improve mobility
Low lunge and reach
Typically, we think about this move as a hip opener, “but having the thoracic rotation in this stretch really works through the shoulders too,” says Obayuvana.
- Come into a low lunge with the right foot forwards and the back left knee off the floor
- Extend the right arm up towards the sky, twisting through the upper body so your gaze follows your hand
- Repeat for a few reps on each side
Modified thread the needle
- In all-fours position, take the left hand to your left ear (keeping your right hand on the floor)
- Twist the left elbow up towards the sky
- Keep your pelvis and hips square so the stretch is just coming through the back of your shoulders
- Switch sides
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“Not only does this open up the shoulders and chest, but it also activates the glutes and stretches the front of the hips, so it’s amazing to do pre-workout,” says Obayuvana.
- Sitting on the floor with your feet hip width apart and your hands behind you, begin to lift your hips up into the air
- As you do this, lift the right hand off the floor and twist your body so that your arm comes up and over your head towards the left, supporting hand
- Bring the arm back down as you return down to the ground and repeat on the other side
Static shoulder stretches to ease tightness
Standing forward fold
“I like anything that uses gravity to take away tension,” says Obayuvana. That’s where a forward fold comes in.
- Clasp your hands behind you as you fold forwards
- Hinge at the hips so that your arms come over head and your forehead comes towards your knees
Supported chest opener
Although this mainly focuses on the chest, you’ll feel the stretch through your anterior delts (the front of your shoulders).
- Simply place one hand on a wall or door behind you, at shoulder height or above
- Start to twist your body in the opposite direction to feel the stretch through the front of your body
Over the body hold
“Everyone knows this one because it’s so good,” says Obayuvana.
- Take one arm across your chest, folding the other arm over
- Squeeze it into the body to intensify the stretch.
Reverse prayer stretch
- Take the hands in a prayer position behind your back, squeezing your shoulder blades together but pushing the elbows forwards
- You can also turn your hands upside down too, so your fingers are facing down, depending on which stretch feels better
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