Shoulder Stretches: 5 Stretches to Improve Reaching Behind Your Back

If you are dealing with shoulder pain you probably have a few movements that are painful or even impossible.  One of those movements is likely reaching behind your back.  During our typical day we routinely reach behind our backs for personal hygiene, retrieving our wallets, putting on a belt, or for females, fastening your bra. People with many different shoulder problems experience a great deal of pain and stiffness when attempting these types of activities.  Thankfully, there are shoulder stretches that can help.

Oftentimes, reaching behind the back is the last movement to return to normal when dealing with a shoulder problem.  There are exercises you can perform at home to speed up your recovery.  This article highlights 5 shoulder stretches we regularly prescribe for people who struggle reaching behind their back.

Breaking Down Behind the Back Movements

Reaching behind your back involves complex movements of your spine, shoulder blade, shoulder joint, and elbow joint.  All of these areas must be mobile in order to fully reach behind your back for functional tasks.  Your thoracic spine has to extend and rotate.  Your shoulder blade needs to tilt backwards.  And, your elbow must bend.  Most importantly, your shoulder must rotate internally.  Shoulder internal rotation stiffness is the most common problem associated with limitations reaching behind your back.  However, stiffness in any of the previously mentioned areas must be addressed in order for you to function without pain.

Proof Shoulder Stretches Work

In order to reach your back pocket or perform personal hygiene your shoulder must internally rotate at least 45 degrees.  People recovering from shoulder surgery or those with a frozen shoulder typically have about 50% or less of this range of motion.  Those with rotator cuff tendinitis or impingement usually have about 2/3 of the required range of motion.  A recent study published in the journal Sports Health showed people with shoulder impingement and limited internal rotation range of motion respond very well to home shoulder stretches.  Those that performed shoulder stretches daily saw more than a 50% improvement in their range of motion and pain after 4 weeks.

Pec Minor Shoulder Stretch

The pectoralis minor muscle attaches onto your ribs and shoulder blade.  Short pec muscles will pull your shoulder forward.  In order for hand to get behind your back, your shoulder blade must tilt back.  If it can’t you will be limited and place more stress on other structures around your shoulder.  To stretch your pec minor, lie on a foam roll long ways or with a rolled up towel between your shoulder blades.  With your elbow bent allow your arms to fall down towards the floor.  Fully exhale and relax in this position for 30 seconds.  Perform 3 to 5 stretches each day.

Thoracic Reach Backs

Your upper back has to extend and rotate when you reach behind your back.  Many people have stiffness in their upper back.  This places additional stress on your neck and shoulder.  To perform the reach back stretch, begin sitting back on your heels, with one hand behind your head and your other forearm resting on the ground in front of you.  This position minimizes movement in your low back and maximizes movement to your upper back.  From here, rotate your elbow up to the sky while exhaling.  Your other forearm remains in contact with the ground.  Return to the starting position and repeat for 10 to 20 repetitions before switching to the opposite side.  You can modify or progress this exercise by placing your hand behind your back instead of behind your head.

Cross Body Stretch

This shoulder stretch addresses muscles in the back of your shoulder which are prone tightness.  This stretch is performed lying on your involved side with  your hips and knees bent.  Your involved shoulder and elbow are positioned in 90 degrees of flexion.  Your hand of the uninvolved arm grasps your elbow and gently pulls it across your body.  Once a mild stretch is felt on the outside or back of your shoulder, hold for 30 seconds.  Perform this stretch 2-3 times each session.  Research from several studies suggests this stretch is the most effective for improving shoulder internal rotation range of motion.  I agree.

Sleeper Stretch

The sleeper stretch is also very effective for improving internal rotation range of motion.  For this stretch, assume the same starting position as the cross body stretch.  However, with the sleeper stretch, gently move your wrist and forearm down towards the table.  Once a mild stretch is felt on the outside or back of your shoulder, hold it for approximately 30 seconds.  The stretch is typically performed 2-3 times each session.

Hand Behind the Back Stretch

The final stretch in this series is the most uncomfortable and in many cases, the most effective.  It is important that you perform this stretch gently without significant pain.  Restoring hand behind the back movements takes time.  Consider it a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t try to regain all your mobility back at one time.  Slow and steady is best with this stretch.

Stand holding a towel or stretch-out strap.  Drape the strap over your opposite shoulder and gently pull your hand up your back.  Your body will want to lean forward.  Try to remain standing tall.   Also, avoid holding your breath.  Concentrate on each slow breath.  Hold the stretch at least 10 seconds to start.  Work up to performing each stretch for 30 seconds for 3 to 5 repetitions each day.

Want Help Getting Started Stretching Behind the Back?

These are the 5 shoulder stretches we think are best for improving range of motion reaching behind your back.  Most people can perform the first 3 shoulder stretches without considerable pain or difficulty.  The sleeper stretch and stretch behind the back will likely cause some pain.  Start easy, be consistent each day and go slow.  If you need more help give us a call.  We are here for you.  Many people do better when they perform their home shoulder stretches supplemented with manual therapy performed by your physical therapist.


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