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shoulder tension relief exercise

If You Have Tight and Tense Shoulders, Try These 3 Exercises

exercise pain relief shoulder pain

By “shoulders,” I mean your upper trapezius, and sometimes also your levator scapulae and rhomboids. 

A gymnastics instructor said to me, “what most people don’t realize is that your ‘shoulders’ really extend all the way to the middle/lower part of your back!”

Why is this such a common area of pain and tension? 


So much of what we do every day involved forward bending:  driving, computer work, picking up kids, and cleaning things.  When your body moves forward, it’s tempting, especially if you’re tired, to forget about your posture and slump.  When your neck slumps forward, the shoulder muscles tense up. 

Why Does Stress Cause Shoulder Tension?

1. When we’re stressed, we're tired, and then we slump more. 

2. Times of stress also usually coincide with times of increased work, when we’re also doing more of these forward-motions. 

3. Stress causes us to hold our breath, which leads to a build-up of CO2.  More CO2 and less oxygen leads to impaired circulation, more toxins, and then more pain.  

What can we do then – just stop working?  Our bodies are designed to work and do things, so doing nothing is not a good solution either.  But we have to work smart. 

The Intelligent Design of Your Body

Each muscle has an opposite muscle.  When one contracts, the other relaxes. 

For the muscles on top of your shoulders to relax more, we need more activation through the core, specifically the back part of your core.  (The core is WAY more than your abs!)

Typically, if the top of your shoulders have more tension, it’s the muscles that pull your shoulders down (lats, serratus anterior, and lower traps) and open your chest that need more activation.

There are exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles that keep the tops of your shoulders more relaxed.

This shoulder exercise is one of my favorites. 

It’s easy to do laying on a bed with your arms dangling over the side; or on a mat.  

Start with your arms in a goal-post position with your elbows directly out from your shoulders.  

  • Push your belly into the bed/mat;
  • squeeze your shoulder blades together and down as tight as you can as your elbows move toward your side;
  • your chest will come slightly off the bed/mat;
  • hold for one good, long breath;
  • release. 
  • Repeat until you can’t do any more. (until fatigue)

You can do this exercise once or twice a week to maintain healthy shoulders. 

Another great way to relieve the tops of your shoulders is with a scapular pull-up. 

Not to be confused with a regular pull-up, which is a great exercise, but often done incorrectly, which can lead to injury.  

Start by just hanging off a horizontal bar (at the gym or a playground is great too).  It’s OK to start this with your feet on the ground or a surface so you’re not putting all your weight into your shoulders until you have the strength built up.  

Activating the lower traps will slightly pull your body up and forward; hold a few breaths, or until fatigue, then release.  Try to get in at least 3-5 rounds.  

An Exercise While You're at Work 

Schedule this one hourly while you're at a desk or driving for long periods of time. 

One at a time, bring each shoulder a little forward, then a little bit up, and lastly, a lot of movement going down and back. 

Do both sides.  

Feels nice?  Let me know in the comments!   

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