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Exercises for Shoulder Pain and Upper Back Stiffness

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Exercises for Shoulder Pain and Upper Back Stiffness

Exercises for Mobility and Functional Strength
Mobility Exercises

This is a routine of mobility exercises that can help address chronic shoulder and upper back pain and stiffness. You can find more details on doing each of the exercises described below by searching for them in our Mobility Exercises Archive.

Start with Cow-Cat, alternating between full flexion and extension of the spine while on all fours.

Follow this up with Spinal Skipping rope, which involves moving your spine in an imaginary circle, clockwise, then counter-clockwise.

Then, have one leg out in front of you with your knee bent at 90 degrees and foot flat on the ground and do slow arm circles with the same-side arm, forward and backward. Do the same on the other side. Having the same-side leg out in front helps prevent trunk rotation, which allows for more effective arm circles for shoulder mobility.

Next, use a resistance band, elastic band, towel, or even a long dowel to do arm dislocates whereby you keep your arms straight and spread apart, start with your arms in front of you, and take your arms up and behind you and then back again. You can do this while kneeling, standing, in horse stance, while seated with your legs crossed – any position that you feel comfortable with; just be sure to keep your core engaged and keep your spine as straight as possible.

Inverted Cat Pose is next. While on your knees, anchor your hands on a stable object above your head, and lean your upper body and head down toward the ground, thereby creating flexion through your shoulders. A good visual cue is to try to make your armpits big, or have them open up. In this pose, once you reach your end range of shoulder flexion, you can pulse your upper body down toward the ground to further induce flexion through your shoulders and also create more extension through your spine.

Follow this up with Inverted Cat Pose whereby you lie back on an exercise ball and anchor your hands on a stable object behind and below your head. In this position, actively take your pelvis down toward the ground, then back up, and repeat this several times – you should feel this movement creating more flexion through your shoulders and extension through your thoracic spine.

Finally, do the Inverted Cat Pose with your hands on an exercise ball in front of you. Starting from this stretch, push down on the ball with your hands to have your upper body and head slowly come up. After about 10 to 20 seconds of pushing down on the ball, move to a prone position on the ball or on the ground and actively raise your arms as high as they will comfortably go (shoulder flexion) – you can do several repetitions of this movement. Alternate between pushing down on the ball while in Inverted Cat Pose and actively raising your arms up (taking your shoulders through flexion) while prone on the round or on the ball. Alternating between these two states is a technique called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, a highly effective method for creating lasting gains in mobility.

For an overview of exercise progressions that you can work at to improve your mobility and balance in a systematic way, please feel free to visit our Mobility Exercise Progressions page here:

Mobility Exercise Progressions

For some suggestions on how to set up a simple workout area at home, please feel free to view:

Suggested Resources for a Home Gym

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