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The sleeper stretch is an exercise that improves the range of motion and internal rotation in the shoulders. It targets the infraspinatus and the teres minor muscles, which are found in the rotator cuff. These muscles provide stability in your shoulders.

Regularly doing the sleeper stretch may help to improve movement in your shoulders, allowing you to complete daily or athletic activities with more ease. It can also help you develop the flexibility and stability you need to prevent injury.

Here’s how to make the most of this stretch.

The sleeper stretch can help when treating shoulder conditions such as impingement, tendinitis, and tendon strains.

It can also help you to recover after an injury or surgery. It can help relieve general pain, tightness, and imbalances due to sitting for long periods, repetitive motions, and daily activities.

Instability, tightness, or loss of internal rotation in the shoulders are also issues often found in athletes who frequently use the overhead arm motion, such as baseball, tennis, and volleyball players.

Stay comfortable and relaxed while doing the sleeper stretch. Experiencing increased tightness or tension is a sign that you’re pushing yourself beyond your limits or doing it incorrectly.

Woman lying down on side pressing her left forearm toward the ground using her right hand

To do the sleeper stretch:

  1. Lie on your affected side with your shoulder stacked underneath you. You can use a pillow under your head.
  2. Bring your elbow straight out from your shoulder.
  3. Bend your arm at the elbow so your fingers are pointed toward the ceiling. Keep your arm bent in this L position.
  4. Use your other hand to push your forearm down toward the floor.
  5. Press as far down as you comfortably can.
  6. You’ll feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder, arm, or upper back.
  7. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Do 3-5 repetitions.

Perform the sleeper stretch a minimum of 2-3 times per week. Depending on your condition, a physical therapist may recommend that you do it more often. Continue for six weeks or until you’ve made a full recovery.

It may be beneficial to do the stretch before and after a workout and before bed. You can perform the stretch regularly to maintain your results and prevent further injury.

Slight modifications to the sleeper stretch may help reduce strain and discomfort. Here are a few modifications you can try.

Change the angle of your body

Try rotating your body slightly backward. This can help stabilize your shoulder blade and prevent shoulder impingement. If you’re working with a physical therapist, they may put their hand on your shoulder blade to help guide the movement.

Use a towel under your arm

You can place a towel under your elbow or upper arm to deepen the stretch in the back of your shoulder. This modification is thought to help target the shoulder muscles.

It’s generally better tolerated than doing the stretch in the rollover position. The extra support from the towel helps reduce pressure on your shoulder.

Try out different modifications and get advice from a healthcare professional or physical therapist to see what works best for you. You are your own best guide for what feels right for your body and brings about the best results.

Use proper form and technique when doing this stretch to prevent further injury. Go easy. Experiencing increased pain could be a sign that you’re doing it incorrectly or using too much force.

  • Align. Don’t pull your grounded arm in toward your torso. Draw your shoulder blades into your spine, keeping your neck in line with your spine. Experiment to find the shoulder position that works best for you.
  • Warm up first. Do a few gentle stretches to warm up before doing the sleeper stretch. This helps to increase blood flow to your muscles and prepare them for action. Finish with a few stretches to cool down your body.
  • Talk to an experienced professional. A physical therapist can help you decide on the best approach by showing you proper technique and recommending complementary exercises or treatments.

There are risks to doing the sleeper stretch. Incorrect form could put strain on your body, leading to complications. The stretch should feel comfortable and never cause pain.

It’s better to do too little than too much. Don’t push yourself too hard or too quickly. Be gentle and go easy on yourself, especially if you’re using the stretch to heal from an injury.

Often the sleeper stretch is one of the first methods recommended to people with limited internal rotation.

Clinical research supporting the sleeper stretch is mixed.

Could help if you already do repetitive activities

A small 2008 study of 66 men found the sleeper stretch was effective in acutely increasing internal shoulder rotation and range of motion in the dominant arm of men who play baseball. No changes were shown in external shoulder rotation.

The men were divided into two groups, those who played baseball and those who hadn’t recently participated in overhead-throwing sports. The non-thrower group didn’t show any significant changes. Measurements were taken before and after three sets of 30-second sleeper stretches.

Further research is needed to confirm and expand on the findings of this small study. Researchers still need to understand if increasing range of motion has a positive effect on athletic performance and injury prevention.

May not be as effective as other moves

A 2007 study found the cross-body stretch to be more effective than the sleeper stretch in increasing internal rotation in people with tight shoulders. Both stretches showed improvements compared to the control group, which did no stretching. However, only the cross-body stretch group showed significant improvements.

This was a small study with only 54 people, so results are limited. The people in the stretching group did five repetitions of the stretch on the affected side, holding the stretch for 30 seconds. This was done once a day for 4 weeks.

There are several other options for increasing flexibility and mobility in your shoulders. You can do these stretches in place of or along with the sleeper stretch. If you’re experiencing intense pain, it’s best to rest completely.

Cross-body stretch

  1. Stretch your arm across your body, supporting your elbow.
  2. Make sure your arm doesn’t come higher than your shoulder.
  3. Hold this position for 30 seconds on both sides.
  4. Do a few repetitions throughout the day.

Pendulum stretch

  1. From a standing position, lean forward a little, allowing your affected arm to hang down.
  2. You can rest your opposite hand on a surface for support.
  3. Relax your shoulders, keep your spine straight, and bend your knees slightly.
  4. Gently move your arm forward and back.
  5. Then move it side-to-side, and in circles in both directions.
  6. Do the opposite side.
  7. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions for all of the movements.

If you’re recovering from an injury, try applying a heating pad or ice pack to the affected area for 15 minutes every few hours.

Your doctor may recommend that you take an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen. Natural anti-inflammatory options include ginger, turmeric, and fish oil capsules.

You can also consider an alternative treatment such as massage or acupuncture.

The sleeper stretch is one way to increase your range of motion and relieve stiffness in your shoulders. However, it may not be the most effective exercise for you. Talk to a doctor or physical therapist before starting any exercise program.

Always practice the sleeper stretch with safety and care. Stop if you experience any pain or any of your symptoms worsen.