Keeping your shoulder muscles flexible will help prevent injury.
The shoulder is the body’s most complicated joint. It’s where the ends of the collarbone, upper arm bone, and shoulder blade meet. And it’s prone to arthritis (a wearing away of the cartilage between the bones), as well as tears or tendinitis (inflammation) in the rotator cuff — the group of tendons that helps you raise and rotate your arm. Shoulder pain can keep you from being able to raise your arms to get dressed, or reach up to a cupboard or out to a door.
But an easy way to stave off shoulder problems is to regularly stretch the muscles that support the joints. “The muscles need to be long and flexible to stay healthy. You’re more vulnerable to injury when your shoulder muscles are tight and restricted,” explains Clare Safran-Norton, clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
How stretching helps
Muscles are a little like cotton fabrics. They may shrink up slightly, but if you pull on the fibers, you can stretch out the fabric again.
Stretching your muscles fixes the shortening that occurs with disuse and extends muscles to their full length. The more you stretch the muscles, the longer and more flexible they’ll become. That will help increase your range of motion, ward off pain, reduce the risk for injury, and improve your posture.
Types of stretches
The best way to stretch muscles is with long, static (motionless) stretches that last 30 seconds to two minutes. But don’t jump right to this step.
Warm up the muscles first to get blood and oxygen to them and make them more pliable. You can do this with exercise (take a brisk walk, pumping your arms, or go for a swim). Or you can try a few minutes of dynamic stretching — repeatedly moving a joint through its available range of motion, without holding a position. Just roll your shoulders backward and forward a few times or make windmill motions with your arms (but not too vigorously).
Safran-Norton says that stretches should be gentle and pain-free. “If there’s pain, you may be injuring your muscles,” she notes.
She also warns never to bounce your stretched muscles, which can cause injury and keep you from a productive stretch. “Bouncing sets off a protective mechanism called the stretch reflex. The muscle will recoil so you won’t overstretch it. But as a result, you’ll never get to a true stretch,” she says. “A true stretch is sustained, with no bouncing.”
Try the shoulder stretches we’ve laid out here. All you need is a doorway or wall.
Safran-Norton recommends stretching your shoulders three to seven times per week. “If you’re really stiff, stretch daily. If you’re already flexible, it’s fine to stretch every other day,” she says. But avoid stretching for too long or too vigorously: back off quickly if you start to feel pain.