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Upper Body Stretches


The upper body presents challenges for personal trainers in regards to stretching. When we think of stretching the muscles of the upper body, we generally are referring to the muscles that cross the shoulder joint. Briefly, the difference between the bones of the shoulder joint and the shoulder girdle is this:

Movements of the shoulder girdle are ones in which humerus movement is not necessary. These movements include elevation, depression, retraction, protraction and rotation of the scapulae. However, the shoulder joint allows movement initiated by muscles that attach to the humerus including flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal and external rotation and horizontal abduction and adduction. The muscles we work in the gym are traditionally the muscles that cross the shoulder joint (e.g., lats in lat pulldown; pecs in chest presses, etc).

The shoulder joint is a very mobile joint. Compared to the hip joint, for example, it has a much greater range of motion. However, this can potentially lead to less stability of the joint. When stretching, we must always consider the flexibility of an individual muscle as it relates to the respect of the entire joint. For example, a client may have a hypermobile shoulder joint but will want to stretch their pecs. It is a constant negotiation between what is safe for the joint and how much flexibility the client needs in that one muscle.

When stretching the upper body muscles, it is important to cue the client on the following:

Stretches presented in this article include the following:

Pectoralis Major Stretch

The actions of the pectoralis major are many, depending on the angle of resistance. The stretch presented addresses the action of horizontal adduction and internal rotation, making the stretch from a position of horizontal abduction and external rotation.

Active range of motion for horizontal abduction is approximately 45 degrees and 90 for external rotation. If the client can move in a range greater than “normal,” you need to re-evaluate the necessity of the stretch.

Cue the client to sit up tall (the position of the client will obviously depend on your height as compared to theirs). If the client can maintain a neutral posture with the head (as opposed to a “forward head” position), cue them to place their hands behind their head, thus achieving an externally rotated position of the shoulder joint.

Cue the client to move through a few repetitions of horizontal abduction (i.e., “take your elbows behind you and then forward again”), verifying that they experience no joint pain during this movement. When using the PNF protocol of contract-relax, you start at the point where the client feels a stretch in the targeted muscle group. At this “end point,” cue the client to gently push into you, isometrically contracting the targeted muscles (i.e., the pecs) for about four to six seconds. Immediately afterwards, you may feel a release of the muscle fibers, allowing you to bring the arms into a further stretched position.

Do not force the limbs into more of a stretched position. Only “follow” the limbs after the muscle fibers have released some tension, allowing for more of a stretch.

Lat Stretch

The action of the latissimis dorsi is adduction, extension and internal rotation of the shoulder joint. Though they also act at the shoulder girdle, only the shoulder joint movements will be addressed here.

Active range of motion for abduction and flexion (the opposite movements) is approximately 180 degrees and approximately 90 degrees for external rotation.

Cue the client to sit up tall with good posture and move through active range of motion for a few repetitions to ensure there is not pain and/or discomfort in the shoulder joint. Place your hand on the client’s humerus and go to where a stretch in the lats is felt. As you hold the client’s arm, think of “lifting up and over” in an arching fashion. This will feel better on the shoulder joint as well as increase the likelihood of feeling a stretch.

Using contract–relax, cue the client to adduct the shoulder (e.g., “push your arm out to the side, into my arm”) for four to six seconds. Immediately afterward, you may feel a release of the muscle fibers, allowing the lats to stretch further. This would then be your new starting point for another cycle, which can be repeated two to three times.

Do not force the stretch to increase. Attempt a new cycle if the muscle fibers do not release after one.

External Rotators

Stretching the major muscles contributing to external rotation (i.e., infraspinatus, teres minor, posterior deltoid). Active range of motion for internal rotation is approximately 80°.

Client can be either lying on the floor or on a stretching table. With the shoulder girdle neutral and stable, cue the client to allow the forearm to drop forward, down towards the floor and into internal rotation.

Ensure there is no pain and/or discomfort in the shoulder joint. Place one of your hands on the client’s shoulder to feel whether they maintain stability. Do not force the shoulder girdle/shoulder joint to stay stable, but just feel whether it is or not. Starting at the end point and using contract-relax, place your fingers of your other hand on the top side of the client’s forearm. Cue them to push up gently into your fingers, engaging the external rotators in an isometric contraction for four to six seconds. Immediately afterward, you may feel a release, allowing the forearm to “fall” closer towards the floor. This would be your new starting point for a second cycle.

Internal Rotators

Stretching major muscles contributing to internal rotation (i.e., subscapularis, lats, pecs, anterior delts, teres major).

Active range of motion for external rotation is approximately 90 degrees.

In the same position as described above, cue the client to allow the forearm to fall towards the floor into external rotation. Keep one of your hands on the client’s shoulder to ensure you feel them maintaining stability, and put your other hand gently on the under side of the client’s forearm. Cue them to gently push into your fingers or hand into internal rotation for four to six seconds. Immediately afterward, you may feel a release, allowing the forearm to “fall” closer towards the floor. This would be your new starting point for a second cycle.

Remember, always be conservative with stretching and use your client's comfort as your guide.