Stretching For Healthy Shoulders and Back

January 9, 2009
Category: Health

It doesn't require too much imagination to think of situations where greater flexibility would confer a great advantage. (I'm thinking of myself on my back with my feet next to my ears, for example…) Men often avoid flexibility training either because they hold the ridiculous notion that it is just for women (Remember Jane Fonda in tights?) or that it is just not as sexy as pumping iron or sweating on a treadmill. Stretching does involve a certain degree of sustained discomfort, however slight, and without the sex appeal of cardio and weight training flexibility training is all too easily skipped over.

This is unfortunate because one cannot claim to have a complete fitness program without doing some flexibility training. This kind of training is important for everyone to speed recovery from other forms of exercise, reduce the duration and severity of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and improve your versatility in a variety of situations. It becomes especially important as our bodies age because greater flexibility means less likelihood of injury in even normal, everyday activities.

We used to think that stretching should be done before weight training as part of a warm-up routine. However, research has shown that deep stretching of muscles actually reduces their ability to contract strongly, and this effect is definitely not desirable when you are trying to build some lean tissue.

In my articles so far I have discussed weight training and cardio, and that is precisely the order in which these exercises should be done for maximum benefit of both. Of course, one should do a brief (five-ten minutes) cardio warm up before lifting, but save the longer cardio session for after weight training to help your body warm down, burn more fat as a primary source of energy, and speed the removal of waste by-products from stressed muscles. Save the bulk your flexibility training for last of all before hitting the showers.

Flexibility training consists of two kinds of exercises, those that involve keeping joints loose and mobile and those that increase the range of motion of muscles. The upper body exercises I describe in this article, derived from martial arts, mostly develop joint mobility with some muscle stretching. They especially target the rotator cuff, a common site of injury when the shoulders are not properly warmed up before lifting. Therefore, these exercises are also good to do right before you lift weights working your arms, shoulders, back, chest, or traps. Try doing a few of these between lifts, too, to keep joints warm for the next set.

Remember to Breathe. Deep breathing alone is inherently relaxing. This is part of what makes flexibility training therapeutic to your mind as well as to your body. We often hold back feelings by shallow breathing or holding our breath. See how your mood warms up along with you body as you perform these exercises.

First Exercise: Windmills

Stand upright with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your arms relaxed at your sides. This is a good time to take a deep breath and correct your posture if you have a habit of hunching or rolling your shoulders forward. Pull your shoulders back with your chest out and buttocks contracted and thrust forward to flatten the lower back. Good. Now, slowly and gently at first, with your elbows almost straight and your arms close to your body, rotate both your arms at the same time in the same direction to make wide circles, like a windmill (or like you're doing the breaststroke). After 20 rotations, reverse the direction of the rotation. As you feel the rotator cuff warm up, you can increase the speed of the rotation. You may feel quite stiff in the shoulder joints if you haven't exercised like this in a while, so take it easy. Remember to breathe as needed, and be careful not to hold your breath.

Second Exercise: Crossovers

Start as before standing in a relaxed, upright posture with your arms relaxed at your sides. Check your posture again as you inhale deeply and release the breath. Lift your arms to your sides parallel to the floor, making a “T” shape, keeping your elbows more-or-less straight or slightly bent but not locked. Then cross your arms over in front of you as if you are going to hug yourself. Instead of pausing for the hug, when your arms are crossed over as far as they will go without bending the elbows much, move your hands in the same plane parallel to the floor back as if you are a great eagle or condor stretching its wings. Feel the stretch in your chest and shoulders as you reach the rearmost limit of your range of motion. Again, start slowly and gradually increase the speed, as you feel comfortable. Do 20 repetitions (reps) of crossovers. Try varying the angle of your arms relative to the floor, upward and downward from parallel, to stretch the chest and shoulder muscles in slightly different directions. Keep your attention at the point of the stretch to cultivate the body-mind connection that will give you greater kinetic awareness and help you avoid injuries. This is not a time to space out.

Third Exercise: Flying!

Well, not actually flying, but flapping your arms as if you could fly that way. Begin in the easy, upright posture as before with your arms at your side. Then raise both arms at the same time up over your head, keeping your elbows relaxed but mostly straight and almost touching your hands at the top of the lift. You can extend your fingers like a paddle or make fists, if you want to look more butch. Do 20 reps of flying. Did you remember to keep breathing? Try taking a deep breath in as your raise your arms, and exhaling as you lower them. Don't do this too quickly, or you'll become lightheaded. Breathing in as you lift your arms will expand your rib cage and help increase your lung capacity over time.

I'll describe more upper-body flexibility exercises in my next articles.

You can write to William at

Tags: Advice, Fitness
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Post written by William Schindler (View Author Profile)
About this author: William Schindler, a.k.a., Brother William, founder and Spiritual Director of Ashram West, obtained a B.A. in Sanskrit from UC Berkeley (1975), where he also studied Hindi and Bengali, and a Master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University (1986). He has been studying and practicing traditional Hindu Tantra since 1969...
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Totally agree with you. I have been doing stretching exercises for 2 years now. Enormous improvement in posture. Thanks for the confirmation.

Now thats what I call an All American Back. Well done. Free Edmund White!! Nuke Europe!