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July 02, 2021 10 min read

It goes without saying that we use our arms for a lot of things. From throwing, pushing, pulling, to finer motor movements that utilize intrinsic muscles. The complexity of our arms, and the joints that make them up, is what allows us to perform such a variety of movement patterns and activities.

It then follows that to make the most out of our arms, we should be keeping them as mobile as possible. With more shoulder mobility comes a greater range of motion, and a greater range of motion makes tasks more comfortable, easy, and efficient. But, as we all know by now, modern life isn’t exactly catered to developing this mobility.

Bringing your arms behind your back is one of the simplest, yet most complicated movements that the arm can do. It takes a ton of movement patterns, muscles, and joints all working in synchrony.

It’s therefore no surprise that it’s so difficult to do for many people.

Further below we’ve gathered five stretches that can help us get the most out of our arms by developing mobility. But first, let’s take a closer look at what exactly goes into bringing your arms behind your back—and what exactly can go wrong.

strong young muscular man stretching his arms and looking away.

The Mechanics of the Movement

The two main “components” of bringing your arms behind back are shoulder extension and internal rotation. Along with these two patterns, there are also all the motions that the shoulder blades go through.

Depending on where exactly you want your arms to be, the scapula (or shoulder blades) perform scapular rotation, depression, elevation, adduction, abduction, and shoulder flexion.

As we can see, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes when we go to scratch an itch on our backs. This also emphasizes where our stretches will be placing the most attention: in the shoulders and the scapula.

Why Can’t I get my Arms Behind my Back?

There are several reasons why we might not be able to get our arms behind our backs. But these can be broken down into two different groups, one of which can benefit from stretching.

For one, poor posture can be to blame for a lack of shoulder flexibility. Sitting at a computer all day is not good for your health, as we’ve all heard before a million times. Not stretching these muscles enough can lead to shoulder pain, shoulder impingement, and chronic conditions that are more difficult to fix.

Other reasons usually concern lifters or people who use their chest muscles at the expense of their back muscles. Both the tightness and overdevelopment of the pectorals and biceps can lead to a loss of mobility and a hunched-over look. This is why it’s so important to properly develop your back muscles along with the flashier muscles at the front of your body.

The pecs and biceps are the kingpins of the aesthetic muscle world, but too much emphasis on these can lead to problems with arm mobility. Furthermore, a reduction in the range of motion can impact the efficacy of your lifts: you won’t be able to get as much out of working out if you’re not able to go through the full movement.

The Physiology Behind the (Lack of) Arm Movement

The issues described above are all soft tissue problems. That means that they all involve muscles and tendons—pliable things that can be developed. However, bone deformities can also form, preventing you from fully utilizing your arm.

These boney changes are often found in baseball pitchers because the overhead plane of movement is overutilized. The stretches that we’ll be looking at below deal entirely with the soft tissue aspect of the shoulders. If you think that that might not be what’s wrong with your mobility, it’s best to seek out a healthcare practitioner.  

Before You Shoulder Stretch

Normally this is where we’d tell you to warm up and stretch before starting any exercise or workout, but since you’re already going to be stretching this isn’t very necessary.

However, do keep in mind that safety comes first—even with stretches. Don’t go too far outside of your physical ability, especially when it comes to stretching.

If you have some serious mobility issues or injuries that affect mobility, it’s best to seek physical therapy. A physical therapist will be able to better tell you what’s wrong and how to improve it. The stretches below all emphasize different aspects that could be limiting your mobility, in terms of soft tissues.

Knowing exactly what the problem is will enable you to better cater your stretches (and exercises) to your particular needs, allowing for more efficiency in mobility development. For example, if you know that your pecs are tight or overdeveloped, including more back exercises can help mediate that.

But if you’re stretching simply for the sake of adding to your mobility, a well-rounded stretching routine is the way to go. This will help to develop mobility in a holistic manner, allowing you to get more out of daily activities and gym sessions. Without further ado, here are five of our favorite stretches to help get your arms behind your back more easily.

Sleeper Stretch

The sleeper stretch is great for a range of arm-centric movements. It specifically targets the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles, found in the rotator cuff. They control the stability and mobility of your shoulders. Along with helping to relieve tightness and general pain in the shoulders, it can also help treat conditions such as impingement, tendon strains, and tendinitis.

To perform this stretch, you’ll want to get down on the ground, lying on the side that’s affected. If you’re trying to increase mobility in both shoulders, alternate the side that you do this stretch on. You can use a pillow under your head to make things more comfortable. Using the arm that’s in contact with the floor, bring your elbow straight out from the shoulder.

Then, make a 90-degree angle with your elbow, pointing your fingers straight up towards the ceiling. This is the position you’ll want to maintain throughout the stretch. Using the hand on top, take the mid-forearm of the arm below, and gently push it down towards the ground—go as far down as you’re able to comfortably.

Pushing down on your forearm this way should allow you to feel a stretch going through your upper back, arm, and shoulder muscles. Once you feel this stretch (remember, don’t go too far), hold it for about 30 seconds. After you’ve come back to relax your arm, repeat it anywhere from 3 to 5 times.

Depending on how tight your shoulders are, you’ll likely want to do this stretch up to 3 times a week, but a physical therapist might advise you to do it more often. Doing this stretch before or after a workout, or before bed, is a good way to develop mobility in this area.

Cow Face Pose

This is a slightly more difficult stretch, but if you can pull it off and implement it into your routine, it’s an amazing way to create a more mobile upper body. Not only will the cow face pose stretch out your shoulder muscles, but you’ll also feel it in your triceps, chest, and armpits. All in all, this stretch hits several of the problem areas that we looked at above.

Beginning with the right arm, stretch it out to your side and have your palm face down towards the floor. Then, continue by trying to roll your palm even further. The goal is to get your thumb to point behind you and have your shoulder rolled completely forward. Then, take your left arm and bend it at the elbow so it’s pointing straight up. Try to place your hand on your back, right in between your shoulder blades.

Coming back to the right arm with your thumb pointed behind you, bend the elbow and bring your arm behind your back. You should try to get far enough so that the back of your hand is resting just against the lower back area. The goal of this stretch is to bring your hands as close to each other as possible.

If you can touch your fingertips, or even clasp your hands together, putting some tension between them is a great way to maximize the stretch. Try to keep your arms parallel to your spine, instead of angled outward or inward.

Hold this stretch for about 30 seconds or so, and repeat 3 to 5 times. As always, don’t go further than you’re comfortable going. This is a slightly more advanced stretch, so we’ll take a closer look at an easier version next. The cow face pose, however, is a great position to work your way up to.

Seen from behind fitness woman with towel in loft gym

Hand Behind Back with a Towel or Band

This stretch has all the same benefits as the one above, but it’s targeted more for those who are much less mobile in the shoulder and arm area. Nevertheless, everyone can benefit from including this stretch into their workout routine, since it really opens up the upper body.

As the title suggests, you’ll want to get a hold of a towel or some sort of band. The basic premise is that instead of reaching up and back with your arm, you’ll instead be using the towel to grab onto instead of your hand.

Take one end of the towel or strap with your left hand. Similar to the stretch above, straighten your arm up, bend at the elbow, and let the other end of the towel fall behind you on your back. With the towel dangling behind your back, reach around with your right arm. You’ll want to straight it to the side, then twist your palm so the thumb is facing backward.

Then, bend at the elbow and bring it behind you where the towel should be dangling. Grabbing onto the towel with your right hand, relax for a moment to gauge the tension. If it’s not enough tension, either change the positioning of your hold or gently raise your left arm holding onto the towel. Hold this stretch for a few seconds, and then repeat on alternating sides.

Side Bend

This stretch focuses more on the sides of your body, allowing your lats, teres major, posterior delts, and obliques to open up. The key with the side bend is to ensure that you’re strictly bending from side to side, trying to avoid flaring out your rib cage or rounding your back. This will garner the best results and will help you become more mobile, faster.

Either sitting or standing, raise both of your arms straight up towards the ceiling. Take one of your hands and have its palm face straight up, while the other hand clasps onto the wrist. Breathe out as you initiate the movement, gently leaning to the left and pulling the opposite arm with your left hand.

Continue as far down as you’re comfortable going, and then hold that position for around 30 seconds. This is also the point where you want to focus on your ribs, preventing them from flaring out.

You should feel the stretch primarily throughout the length of the torso, so keep your spine from going forward or backward too much. This should be enough to place the entirety of the focus on your sides and arms. Once you’re ready, switch sides and continue alternating.

Reverse Arm Hold

The reverse arm hold isn’t done very often naturally, but this also makes a great stretch for further developing your mobility. If you have serious issues with getting your hands behind your back, then this stretch should either be avoided or done with a lower range of motion. After we go through the basic stretch, we’ll also look at a slightly more advanced version.

Begin by either sitting or standing. Continue be stretching out your arms to either side, in a “T” shape with your palms face down. Focus on your shoulders and roll them forward—the aim here is to get your palms to face behind you, which is a good way of getting the proper “roll” in the shoulders. You want to maintain a straight posture throughout.

Bending your elbows, your arms should swing back and behind due to the position of your shoulders. Once they’re behind you, clasp your hands together. If your mobility allows for it, grab your wrists or elbows instead. Slowly put some pressure on your arms by pulling your hands away from one another, and hold this position for about five deep breaths. Since one hand will naturally be on top, you’ll want to switch hands each time you do it.

The more advanced version of this is called the reverse prayer hands. It’s a bit more difficult than above, especially if you’re looking to get perfect form. However, along with being a great arm stretch, it’s also good for stretching your forearms. Once again, begin by either sitting or standing.

Similar to the stretch above, bring your hands behind your back with your fingertips pointing down at the ground. With your elbows bent, try to rotate your fingertips so they’re pointing towards the ceiling instead—you’ll likely need to press your hands together to get some leverage for this.

The key with this stretch is to go as deep as you feel comfortable. If simply touching your fingertips together and trying to point them up is enough, then stop there. But if you want to get a deeper stretch, try moving your hands closer together. The end goal with this stretch is to get both palms flat against each other as your fingertips point straight up. Once you’ve achieved this, emphasize pressing together your thumbs and that entire side of your hand.

Patience for Consistent Progression

The stretches that we’ve described above will put you well on your way to a more mobile shoulder joint, allowing you to get more out of life. However, these exercises have to be incorporated with some thought into your daily routine.

Stretching—maybe even more than working out to develop muscle—takes time and patience. While working out with weights gives you the immediate satisfaction of a pump and pleasant hormones, trying to develop your mobility is the opposite. There is no immediate positive feedback loop, and you can oftentimes feel worse immediately after, rather than better.

This is why it’s so important to incorporate these stretches into a set-in-stone daily routine. The payoff will only come further down the line, but it’ll pay itself off in dividends when you’re able to move with a greater range of motion. Not only will this allow you to easily perform functional, everyday exercises, but you’ll also see benefits in the gym.

To get the most out of lifts, you need a good range of motion.

If you’re looking to get jacked, then full mobility is a must. Take things one day at a time, keep your eye on your goals, and you’ll be reaping the rewards of your work soon enough.

Better mobility will give you more freedom to move your body, more comfort in doing daily tasks, and unlock a range of movement that wasn’t previously possible. Just stick to the plan.