I’m going to say something we all know but sometimes forget: we’re not machines. Humans are an intricate combination of bones and muscle - and one key to a pain-free lifestyle is knowing how to relax our muscles, specifically how to relax tight shoulders.
That also comes with knowing how to relax those tight shoulders while sleeping, knowing some key stretches for tight shoulders, knowing exercises for tight shoulders, and having an arsenal of yoga poses for tight shoulders.
And this handy guide of 15 activities is going to help get - and keep - everything in balance for you. They may even reduce shoulder pain, reduce shoulder knots in your back, and help alleviate those tension headaches that are ruining your afternoons.
But first, let’s address one thing:
Can you stretch out a knot or muscle pain?
Sorry for the bad news, but not usually.
Stretching has great benefits, such as increasing blood circulation, increasing your range of motion, promoting healthy muscle function, and helping increase your flexibility.
But when you stretch your muscle, you’re not actually stretching out the knot.
In fact, the knot will inhibit your stretch from reaching its potential. That’s because stretching a muscle and contracting a muscle are opposites. And a knot is a collection of fibers in your muscle that are constantly contracting.
Muscle knots are what’s left behind when your muscle was contracted for a long period of time and then moved back to a neutral position. They are the parts that stayed contracted.
And, ironically, to get them to “stretch” back out is about applying pressure, not pulling them. This is called muscle release and is the first step to full relaxation and range of motion.
So, as you go into the rest of this post, think of stretching more as knot and shoulder pain prevention than a knot cure.
15 Exercises and stretches for tight shoulders to get you through the day
Take these exercises slowly and see what suits you the best. The most important thing to remember is to listen to your body. Just as tight shoulders are an indicator to slow down, focus on muscle release, and adjust your alignment, discomfort, and pain while stretching is a clear sign you’re pushing your muscles too far.
Stretches - even for very tight shoulders - and gentle mobility exercises should never hurt. If they do, don’t go as deep into the stretch. Or stop the movement immediately and look for others that don’t cause pain.
Finally, remember that intro about knots. Pre-existing knots that you may already have are going to make it difficult to get deep into your stretch without added pain.
Now for the good stuff. I’ve organized these 15 shoulder stretches around a 24-hour cycle, but that’s not mandatory. You can pick and choose which ones help relieve shoulder tension the best. Our bodies are each unique and varied, so try these stretches on and stick with only the ones that you like the most.
Let’s dive in!
1. Greet the day with an overhead stretch
Your shoulders, like the rest of you, have been (mostly) inactive while you slept. But you shouldn’t just jump into your day without warming up your shoulders, neck, and other muscles. Your extra cup of Joe may revive your energy levels, but it can’t fix shoulder mobility.
This starts before you get out of bed.
- Sit on the edge of your bed, with feet flat on the floor.
- Raise your arms above your head, interlocking your fingers and pushing your palms through.
- Continue with gentle but constant stretching and hold for 10 seconds.
- Then rotate your hands so they come together in a praying position and raise them as high as you can. This is activating your upper trap muscles as well as encouraging circulation to the area.
2. Get the morning rolling with shoulder rolls
This second exercise comes straight after the first, while you’re still sitting on the edge of your bed. Roll your shoulders forwards and backwards in circular motions.
The key here isn’t speed, it’s depth. You should feel how your rhomboids start to wake up. These are the muscles that attach your shoulder blade to your spine (you know, the ones that you always wish your masseuse would spend more time on).
It’s the kind of stretch that just feels so good when you’re into it.
Complete 10 rolls forward, and 10 backward. This is not only good for your shoulders but is a great way to gently encourage blood circulation to get your whole body rolling.
3. Say no to full rolls for the neck
Some people love to roll their heads around like they roll their shoulders, but there’s danger in that. You should avoid this full movement - especially if you have hunched shoulders, an injury, neck knots, or if the cause of your tight shoulders is tech neck.
While the shoulders are ball and socket joints that have a circular range of movement, your neck does not. Your neck is much more fragile and delicate.
Tilt your head gently to the left and feel your right levator scapulae stretch, and you can roll your head forwards and you feel the stretch move through your rhomboids to the opposite levator scapulae. This is a perfect example of a time when less is more for a stretch.
4. Circle your shoulders while scrubbing in the shower
Another morning activity that gets your shoulders up and ready is to face the shower. Whether you like your showers hotter than an inferno (like me) or cold and arctic (like a mad survivalist - but to each their own) then try this:
- Raise your hands up above your head.
- Hold your right elbow in your left hand and pull gently as your right hand goes behind your neck.
- As you’re showering, that right hand should be holding a sponge (or loofah or back brush) to scrub in small circles on your neck and back.
This is a great way for my multitasking madmen (and women) to fit a shoulder stretch into a regular activity.
5. Ignite your shoulders with shrugs
It’s time for the commute or perhaps the school run. Driving, or even being stuck in traffic for sustained periods of time is a nasty recipe for hunching your shoulders over the wheel as you worry about being late. Aside from shoulder pain, it’s also the perfect environment for hip pain from driving.
Let’s flip that script.
As you sit in the driver’s seat, take the time to do 10 shoulder raises or shoulder shrugs.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Isolate your shoulders and lift them then let them relax back to normal.
Doing this just before driving is going to help your posture at a moment where it’s easy to slump into an unhealthy position. The best thing about the exercise is not just the exercise itself (because, of course, you can do this whenever you want) but the timing of when you’re about to do it.
6. Bow to your laptop
Maybe you love your job. Maybe your job is bearable. Maybe you’re thinking of making a change when it’s possible.
In any case, you’re going to take your work seriously even though it’s a battle sometimes. And battles can be tense. So, as you open your laptop - whether you work in an office or at home - treat it like you’re stepping into a martial arts fight.
That is, with a bow. But make it shoulder-friendly.
Instead of bringing your hands together in a praying position in front of you and bowing, try putting them behind you instead. Start by reaching behind your head and touching your fingertips. This may be all you can get at first. And that’s okay.
Eventually, you’ll be able to touch your entire palms to each other.
This lets your shoulder muscles know that they’ve been stretched (turned off and on) recently. It makes you less likely to hunch the shoulders over from the moment you log in. You can make the effects of this shoulder stretch last even longer with an ergonomic office setup.
7. React to a difficult email with your chin
The worst thing about emails or messengers or Slack is that each notification could be a call to do some extra work. Work that draws your attention away from your planned to-do list.
So, instead of sighing loudly (which only distracts you more), we’re going to take a trick from the absurd and rewire your brain so you can stay on task while helping out your shoulders.
Stick with me.
Every time you get a new notification, jut your chin out forward to start. Then retract your head (as if you were pressing your head back into your car headrest) and tuck your chin (creating a double-chin) to stretch those muscles at the base of your skull. You’ll feel a gentle pull at the back of your neck. Hold that for 2-3 seconds.
Do this 10 times, moving slowly and while practicing mindful breathing through your nose.
Not only are you helping out those important neck muscles at the base of your skull, but you’re increasing circulation to the brain stem that’s located just above them. Your brain stem is responsible for basic human functions like emotional responses.
Condition yourself to do this chin and mindful breathing exercise at moments of difficulty and you’ll be circulating blood around the brain stem at just the time when you most need to keep your cool.
8. Check your sitting posture
When it’s time to hydrate or caffeinate (pick your poison), it’s also a good time to think about how the muscles in your shoulders are ready for that break, too.
Before getting up from your chair, check in to see if you’re maintaining a healthy sitting position. - or if you’re in a hunched position.
Realign yourself for the sake of muscle memory. This will make sure you're bringing your shoulders into a healthy posture if they’d started to slump while you were typing.
Then get ready to use that same form, only standing up in our next stretch for tight shoulders...
9. Take a coffee shoulder break
When you’re standing up out of your office chair, it’s time to do some standing arm swings.
- Stand with your shoulders hip-width apart and your arms by your side with your palms facing your body.
- Swing your arms forward to bring your arms as high up as they will go without raising your shoulders.
- Lower your arms back down and keep the rest of your body still.
Try this for about a minute, moving nice and slowly.
You shouldn’t try this exercise while your shoulders are slumped forward because it’s going to cause a pinch point with your rotator cuff (on the back of your shoulders). So if you feel a limited range of motion in this activity, rotate your shoulders first. Then, pull them back and then try again.
This exercise lets your shoulders know that you’re (and they’re) on a break.
10. Check your back-to-work alignment
We’ve saved this stretch for tight shoulders until now because the range of movement is larger and it sounds more intimidating than the others.
But like all things, it’s manageable once you understand it.
- Stand with your feet wider than hip-distance with your toes facing forward.
- Interlace your hands behind your back and open your chest.
- Engage your leg muscles and keep a small bend in your knees.
- Pivot at the hips and fold forwards, reaching your hands behind you up to the ceiling as your head moves towards the floor.
- Then, let your head hang down and tuck your chin in slightly to your chest.
Keep this up for about a minute if you can and if it feels okay.
This sets your shoulders (and your mind) up for another stint in the office chair, whether that’s if you’re in the office or the home workstation you recently set up.
11. Release and relieve your post-work shoulder tension
Remember how I said muscle knots likely won’t respond to more stretching or stress?
After a long day, one of the best exercises for tight shoulders is to ensure your neck and shoulder muscles have an effective release.
This exercise is done by using the NUCKLE, a muscle release tool designed specifically to help you relax your shoulders and alleviate tension.
- Following the directions included in your package, locate the exact place where your muscles connect to the bones at the base of your neck.
- Place the tool in that place while lying down on a hard surface, such as your floor or the ground.
- Then, slowly apply your body weight for constant pressure to the area.
- Hold for 30-90 seconds and take some deep and relaxed breaths.
12. Practice your cat and cow poses
No article about gentle, effective stretches would be complete without including some yoga for tight shoulders. Your yoga mat will come in handy here.
- Place yourself on all fours, using additional blankets under your knees, if needed.
- Align your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- As you inhale, look up as you fill yourself with air.
- As you exhale, look down and engage your abs, tucking your chin into your chest and rounding your spine.
- Repeat nice and slowly, paying special attention to how to relax your shoulders in this movement.
13. Thread the Needle
Yes, just a bit more yoga for tight shoulders while you’re already on the mat (honestly, there are many poses that soothe tense muscles, these are just two of my favorites!).
- Stay in a neutral spine position on all fours.
- Lift your right hand and slowly bring it over to your left side - and under your armpit - with your palm facing up.
- Place your body weight over your right shoulder.
- Lean forward and gently place your shoulder on the ground, if it’s comfortable.
- Turn your head towards the left.
- Hold the pose for about 30 seconds or however long you’re comfortable with.
Remember to repeat the movement on the other side of your body to maintain balance across your muscular system.
14. Give yourself a pre-bed massage
This one is not quite an exercise or a stretch, but it sure feels delicious.
And that is a shoulder massage, of course.
While sitting on a chair or standing in an upright position, reach over one shoulder with the opposite hand. Starting at your rotator cuff, begin massaging in a circular motion, moving upward.
Continue up to your neck, applying steady pressure to any areas that feel extra tense.
Then, switch sides, going until the stresses of the day have effectively washed away.
15. Know how to relax shoulders while sleeping
To relax your shoulders while sleeping, you’ll need the help of two pillows.
Put one on top, slightly staggered. Lie on your side or back (lying on your front is surprisingly bad for you) and have the bottom pillow supporting your shoulders while the top one supports your neck.
Put a pillow between your legs if you’re on your side.
This should put your whole body in a neutral, comfortable position to sleep in and get an efficient rest. Gentle breathing should encourage a healthy, natural, beautiful sleep.
And there you have it!
A full 24 hours of stretches to teach your body how to relax the shoulders and get you through your busy day.
Which one is your favorite?
FAQs for shoulder stretches and exercises
How do I get rid of muscle knots?
Most of us have knots, but it’s important to know that they cannot be stretched out. The only way to effectively release a muscle knot in your shoulders and neck is with steady, applied pressure. This can be done with your fingers or, even better, with a muscle release tool such as the NUCKLE.
Can anxiety cause tense shoulders?
Anxiety and stress are common causes of muscle tightness throughout the body - not just in your shoulders. When a stressful situation arises, our fight or flight response is triggered, and our body tenses up to take action.
And, with the increased amount of stress in our day-to-day lives, our bodies tend to stay in this phase for much longer than they should, requiring us to mindfully include muscle release, shoulder stretches, and massages in our day.
How can I relax my shoulders naturally?
The best way to relax your shoulders is by first releasing the muscles that connect your upper back and lower neck. Once you’ve achieved this release with a tool like the NUCKLE, you will be able to gently stretch, massage, do yoga for tight shoulders, and move your shoulders to promote a healthy range of motion and flexibility.
To prevent shoulder tension and pain in the future, adopting a healthy shoulder exercise routine like the one here is the best way to naturally promote healthy muscles.