How to Do Shoulder Rolls

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

girl stretching

Getty Images / Koldunov

Targets: Shoulders, upper back, neck

Equipment Needed: None

Level: Beginner

Need a gentle, easy stretch to relieve pain and tension in your neck and shoulders? Try shoulder rolls, a simple stretching exercise you can implement anytime, anywhere. It requires no equipment and anyone can do it.

Benefits

There are numerous benefits to doing shoulder rolls.

Relieves Neck Tension and Tightness

How many times do you rub your neck each day, wishing for a massage? If you’re like many people, probably several times a day. Shoulder rolls can alleviate pain and tension by encouraging the flow of nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to tight muscles in your neck. 

Opens Chest

If you’ve been feeling a bit like a hunchback lately, shoulder rolls can help you pull your shoulders back and open up your chest, bringing much-needed relief to your upper body. 

Loosens Shoulders and Upper Back

Those who deal with tight shoulders and back muscles on a regular basis will want to add shoulder rolls to their stretching routine. Just a few sets of shoulder rolls will leave your shoulders and upper back feeling much better. 

Helps With Posture

Practicing shoulder rolls requires you to put your body in posturally correct positions, which can help you develop better posture. Shoulder rolls also loosen up tight muscles in the neck and upper back, two areas most often associated with poor posture. 

Great for Desk Workers

All of the above benefits make shoulder rolls a great stretching exercise for people who work desk jobs, because sedentary jobs are known to contribute to poor posture and related aches and pains.

Step-by-Step Instructions

You can do shoulder rolls in a number of ways depending on your range of motion, flexibility, and other factors such as injuries. These step-by-step instructions describe shoulder rolls for people with a healthy shoulder and neck range of motion. 

  1. Start by standing or sitting tall with a proud chest, neutral spine, and engaged core. Pull your shoulders back and down. Keep your gaze forward. 
  2. To begin the shoulder roll, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears as high as you can. Do this without hunching your back, protruding your neck, or allowing your shoulders to collapse forward.
  3. Once you shrug up as high as you can go, squeeze your shoulder blades together to pull your shoulders back. 
  4. Engage your mid-back to pull your shoulders down. 
  5. As you reach the neutral starting position, slightly round your upper back to push your shoulders forward while maintaining a strong core. 
  6. Shrug up again to start another shoulder roll. 
  7. Complete 10 to 15 shoulder rolls, resting 30 seconds before going into a new set. Try for three to five sets. 

Common Mistakes

While they may seem simple enough, shoulder rolls still have room for error. Learn what common mistakes to avoid to get the most of this stretch.

Going Too Fast

Many people rush through stretches just to get them done. You’ll enjoy the most benefits if you take your time and slowly, gently move through all stretches, including shoulder rolls. Stretching too quickly can cause you to overstretch and consequently strain a muscle, which is painful and might require medical care. 

Unengaged Core

Make it a habit to keep your core engaged for all exercises and stretches, as a tight and strong core protects your spine from injury. You can even practice engaging your core when you’re just sitting down watching TV or working. 

Hunched Back

Many people exhibit poor posture due to sitting too much and hunching over phones and laptops. Stretching can help you improve your posture—unless you perform stretches with poor posture. When doing shoulder rolls, it should be top-of-mind to maintain a tall, neutral spine without rounding your back. 

Protruding Neck

With shoulder rolls, you’re trying to relieve tension in your neck, not add to it. Be careful not to stick your neck out while doing shoulder rolls, as you might wind up with more neck pain rather than less. 

Modifications and Variations

Shoulder rolls can be performed in a bunch of different ways, from more or less challenging.

Need a Modification?

Sitting Shoulder Rolls: If you can’t perform shoulder rolls while standing, you can perform them while sitting. This modification is a great option for people with limited core or leg strength, people with balance problems, or people who simply want a quick stretch to do while sitting at their desk for work. 

Half Shoulder Rolls: For those with limited range of motion in the shoulders, half shoulder rolls can still offer some neck and shoulder relief. If you can’t complete the forward motion, perform only the first half of the shoulder roll (shrug, pull your shoulders back and down, then relax and repeat). Vice versa if you can’t complete the backward motion—shrug, roll forward, relax, and repeat. 

Up for a Challenge?

Banded Shoulder Rolls: If you’re looking to make shoulder rolls a bit more challenging, try adding a resistance band. Keep in mind, though, that this makes shoulder rolls more like a strength exercise and less like a stretch. To do banded shoulder rolls, you’ll need a long looped resistance band. Loop the band under your feet and stand on it. Step into the band, place the other end over your head so it rests on your shoulders. Do shoulder rolls as described in the step-by-step instructions above. 

Safety and Precautions

Make sure to prioritize your safety when doing shoulder rolls to minimize the risk for injury.

Feel Free to Sit Down

There’s no shame in sitting to do shoulder rolls (or any other stretch or movement). If your mobility or strength prevents you from doing shoulder rolls while standing, you can still reap the benefits of this great stretch. Just make sure to keep the other technique tips in mind, like keeping your core engaged throughout the entire movement.

Don’t Overdo It

Though it’s just a stretch, it’s still possible to do too much. Don’t try to force your body into a range of motion that feels painful, and don’t overdo the rep count. Start with just a few reps and work your way up to bigger sets. 

Take It Slow

Avoid the mistake many people make when stretching: going too fast. Stretching should consist of careful, articulate, smooth reps. Doing stretches too fast kind of defeats the purpose, which is to loosen your muscles and joints with gentle movement. If you do shoulder rolls too fast, you might strain your neck or end up with sore shoulders, so take it slow. You might find it helpful to incorporate deep breathing during shoulder rolls, as it’ll force you to focus on something slow and rhythmic. 

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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  1. Daneshmandi H, Choobineh A, Ghaem H, Karimi M. Adverse Effects of Prolonged Sitting Behavior on the General Health of Office Workers. J Lifestyle Med. 2017;7(2):69-75. doi:10.15280/jlm.2017.7.2.69