You may be able to improve mobility in your shoulders with stretches, such as the cross-arm stretch, and exercises with and without weights. These can include rows and arm swings.

Whether you have tightness in your shoulders, are recovering from an injury, or simply want to boost the strength of your shoulder muscles, there are specific stretches and exercises that can be especially beneficial.

Including shoulder-specific exercises and stretches in your overall workout program may help increase your shoulder mobility and flexibility. These movements may also build strength in your shoulders, improve your shoulder function, and prevent injury.

Keep reading to learn more about the shoulder exercises and stretches that may help boost your functional fitness and make it easier to move your shoulders.

Mobility and flexibility are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing, says Alan Snyder PT, DPT.

Flexibility refers to the muscle’s ability to lengthen. Mobility, on the other hand, is the ability of the joint to move through its full range of motion. While they both refer to the overall range of motion in the shoulder, it’s important to know where the limitation is coming from.

“As a physical therapist, joint mobility and the actual biomechanics of the ball and socket joint tend to play a much bigger role in dysfunction,” explains Snyder.

Performing shoulder-specific exercises, like the ones outlined below, can help build strength and mobility in your shoulder muscles and joints. These exercises may also help prevent tightness and subsequent injury.

Before you do any of these exercises, spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up with dynamic upper body stretches such as arm circles, arm swings, and spinal rotations.

“Warming up this way is great for increasing blood flow to a specific area, which also helps with overall performance,” explains Snyder.

If you’re recovering from a shoulder injury or surgery, work with a physical therapist who can help you do the right exercises and stretches for your condition.

1. Standing arm swings

This is a great dynamic exercise that helps to increase blood flow to the shoulder joint.

Doing this exercise as part of a warmup before performing upper body exercises can improve mobility and flexibility in your shoulders and upper back.

To do this exercise:

  1. Stand tall with your arms by your sides.
  2. Engage your core and swing your arms forward until they’re as high as you can go. Make sure you don’t raise your shoulders.
  3. Return your arms to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Do this movement for 30 to 60 seconds.

2. Shoulder pass-through

The shoulder pass-through exercise helps to increase joint mobility while still engaging the surrounding muscles of the shoulder.

This exercise requires a holding a long stick, like a broomstick or PVC pipe.

To do this exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms in front of your body.
  2. Hold a stick, like a broomstick or PVC pipe, with an overhand grip. Your arms will be wider than shoulder-width. Make sure the stick or pipe is parallel to the floor.
  3. Engage your core and slowly raise the broomstick or pipe above your head, keeping your arms straight. Only go as far as comfortable.
  4. Hold the pose for a few seconds.
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat 5 times.

3. High-to-low rows

According to Snyder, hi-to-low rows really challenge the upper back and thoracic muscles, which provide a lot of stability to the shoulder joint. This exercise requires a resistance band. You can also do this exercise at the gym using a cable machine.

To do this exercise:

  1. Secure a resistance band to a sturdy object above shoulder height.
  2. Kneel down on one knee and grab the band with the opposite hand. The other hand can rest at your side.
  3. Pull the band toward your body while keeping your torso and arm straight. Focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat.
  5. Do 2–3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side.

4. Reverse fly

Like the high-to-low rows, the reverse fly exercise targets the upper back and thoracic muscles that provide a lot of stability to the shoulder joint. This exercise requires a set of light dumbbells.

To do this exercise:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  3. Engage your core and bend forward at the waist. Keep your back straight. Your arms will be extended.
  4. Raise your arms away from your body. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together. Stop when you get to shoulder height.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
  6. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

5. Rotation with dumbbell

Rotation with a dumbbell allows you to warm up the shoulder for overhead and throwing motions. According to Snyder, this is standard practice for most athletes who extend their arms overhead and externally rotate during their sport.

To do this exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a light dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Raise your arm so your elbow is at shoulder height. The front of your hand will be facing the ground.
  3. Rotate your shoulder to bring your arm and weight up so your hand is raised toward the ceiling.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat before changing sides.
  5. Do 2–3 sets of 12 repetitions on each arm.

The main benefit of stretching the shoulder, says Snyder, is to prevent injury to the muscles and joints.

Since the stretches listed below fall under the category of static stretches, consider doing them after a workout or immediately following a warmup that includes dynamic stretches.

6. Cross-arm stretch

The cross-arm stretch targets the rotator cuff muscles. You should feel a good stretch in the rear shoulders.

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart and bring your right arm up to a little less than shoulder height.
  2. Place your left hand on your right elbow and gently pull your right arm across your body using the left hand to support your arm.
  3. Hold this position for up to 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side.
  5. Do each side 3–5 times.

7. Sleeper stretch

Snyder likes the sleeper stretch because it’s an excellent way to work internal rotation for the shoulder.

This stretch is often recommended when dealing with a shoulder injury or during rehab.

While you can do this stretch on both sides for general health, if you have an injury, the emphasis should be on the affected side.

To do this stretch:

  1. Lie on the affected side. If you have no injury or pain, choose a side to start with. Your shoulder should be stacked underneath you.
  2. Bring your elbow straight out from your shoulder and bend this arm, so your fingers are pointing toward the ceiling. This is the starting position.
  3. Gently guide this arm toward the floor using the unaffected arm. Stop when you feel a stretch in the back of your affected shoulder.
  4. Hold this position for up to 30 seconds.
  5. Do 3 repetitions before changing sides.

8. Doorway stretch

The doorway stretch allows you to stretch each side of your chest individually, which helps if one side is tighter than the other.

This stretch helps to open the pectoralis muscles in your chest and increases the range of motion in your shoulders.

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand in a doorway with elbows and arms forming a 90-degree angle. Your feet should be in a split stance.
  2. Bring your right arm up to shoulder height and place your palm and forearm on the doorway.
  3. Gently lean into the stretch, only going as far as comfortable.
  4. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds.
  5. Change sides and repeat. Perform on each side 2–3 times.

9. Chest expansion

Chest expansion is a good way to stretch your back muscles, open your chest, and increase range of motion in your shoulders. Snyder says it can also help expand your lungs to receive oxygen better.

To do this stretch:

  1. Stand tall with your feet together.
  2. Hold the end of a towel or exercise band in each hand, with your arms behind your body.
  3. Use the towel or band to help move your shoulder blades together and open your chest. This will cause you to look toward the ceiling.
  4. Hold this pose for up to 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat 3–5 times.

10. Child’s Pose

Commonly known as a yoga move, Snyder says Child’s Pose is a good way to open the shoulder joint into flexion (forward bending) and to stretch your latissimus dorsi, or lat, muscles. Your lower back can also benefit from this pose.

To do this stretch:

  1. Kneel on an exercise mat. Make sure your body is upright.
  2. Slowly crawl your hands forward until your arms are extended in front of you. Keep your gaze downward.
  3. Lower your torso onto your thighs and your forehead on the ground.
  4. Hold this position while taking three deep breaths.
  5. Repeat 3–5 times.

To keep your shoulder mobility exercises safe and effective, keep these tips in mind.

  • Stop if you feel any pain. Slight discomfort is normal, but you shouldn’t feel sharp pain while you’re doing these exercises or stretches. Stop right away if you experience pain.
  • Remember to breathe. Breathing can help relieve stress and tension in your shoulders, back, and the rest of your body. Breathing well may also help you do an exercise or stretch for longer.
  • Start slowly. If you’re new to working out or doing shoulder exercises, don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with just a few exercises and stretches at first, then add more as you build your strength.
  • Check with your doctor or physical therapist. If you’ve had shoulder surgery, an injury, or a lot of shoulder pain, it’s important to check with your doctor or physical therapist before doing shoulder mobility exercises and stretches.

Whether you’re an athlete, gym enthusiast, or just trying to improve the health, strength, and mobility of your shoulder muscles and joints, specific shoulder exercises and stretches are an important part of any workout routine.

Performing shoulder-specific exercises and stretches can help:

  • increase your range of motion
  • reduce tension
  • improve flexibility
  • prevent injury

If you’re new to shoulder exercises and stretches, consider working with a personal trainer or physical therapist. They can help you perform the movements with the correct form and technique.