How to relieve shoulder tension and pain

Feel the difference a few minutes of moment can make

Are you aware of the position of your shoulders right now? Are they a little closer to your ears than they should be? Maybe one is a little higher than the other. Do they hurt?

You wouldn’t be alone.

ruth macgillivray, nait grad and personal fitness trainer“All of my clients have shoulder issues,” says Ruth MacGillivray (Personal Fitness Trainer ’21) owner and trainer at 46 64 Fitness.

“They all have trouble with mobility [and] pain. It seems pretty universal.”

Sometimes the cause is basic wear and tear of the rotator cuff, she says, or the interior muscles that hold the shoulder together. But many issues come from imbalances brought on by repetitive motions involved in everything from cooking to driving, MacGillivray adds.

In general, overused chest muscles shorten to pull one’s posture in on itself, while neglected deltoids (which wrap around the shoulders), trapezius (a wing-like muscle spanning the upper back, and from neck to mid-back) and rhomboids (between the shoulder blades) weaken.

And it tends to happen without us knowing it. “You're tightening your abs, you hold your breath, and you start rounding your shoulders,” says MacGillivray.

Ultimately, the effects are felt across the activities and duties of the day, be it getting a box off of a high shelf or driving a golf ball down the fairway. Over time, it usually worsens, says MacGillivray, further inhibiting mobility.

What can be done? The answer is stretches and exercises like those our trainer suggests in the video below.

Exercises to relieve should tension and pain

Pectoral stretch – “This is probably the easiest one that anybody can do anywhere,” says MacGillivray. Pull back your elbows to squeeze the shoulder blades together, hold for 30 seconds, and feel the chest open up.

Rotator cuff strengthening and stretch – To strengthen this muscle complex, place an elbow in front of you on your desk or on a raised knee, with your hand straight up. Lower your palm to the desk and return it to the original position, like a windshield wiper. Repeat eight times for three sets.

To stretch while strengthening, put your back against the wall and raise your arms while keeping your elbows – bent at 90 degrees – against the wall, too. Slowly slide your arms (with your elbows still on the wall) as high as you can then down, eight times for three sets.

Deltoids – Start with your arms at your sides, raise them like wings to shoulder height, hold for a few seconds and lower – eight reps as well, three sets. “It's more effective with weights,” says MacGillivray. “I tell my clients who don't have weights to use soup cans or something like that.”

General shoulder stretches – Stand up a few steps back from a desk or table, feet shoulder-width apart. Lean forward, bending at the hip, and place your palms on the surface. Slowly drop your head between your arms and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.

Target the shoulder by taking a step closer to the table and placing one hand on it. Slide the other arm toward that hand, under your body, palm up. Hold for 30 seconds, three times. “If you press your shoulder toward the floor, then you're going to feel a stretch,” says MacGillivray.

Banner image by PeopleImages/

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