How to Stretch Your Supraspinatus: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

 Hero Images

Also Known As: Upper back muscle

Targets: Arms and shoulders

Equipment Needed Table, chair, towel

Level: Beginner

The supraspinatus is an upper back muscle that aids in shoulder abduction and stabilization. It’s also one of the four shoulder muscles that makes up the rotator cuff, helping to lift your arm away from the side of your body.

If your supraspinatus lacks flexibility, you could be at increased risk for impingement syndrome. This overuse injury can lead to tenderness, swelling and a limited range of motion, as well as shoulder pain.

Fortunately, stretching the supraspinatus can easily be done standing in a gym setting or at home. These moves are best performed after 5 to 7 minutes of light cardio activity, such as brisk walking or jogging. Here is what you need to know about stretching your supraspinatus.

How to Stretch Your Supraspinatus

One of the most efficient ways to stretch your upper back muscle is to perform the cow face pose on each side. Here is how to do the stretch.

  1. Stand with your arms relaxed at your sides.
  2. Attempt to grasp your right wrist with your left hand behind your back. If you have difficulty and cannot reach it, toss a towel over your left shoulder and grasp that instead.
  3. Use your right hand to grab your wrist or the towel behind your back, while relaxing your neck and tilting your head to the left for added intensity.
  4. Continue holding your wrist the towel behind you from both ends and use your left hand to pull your wrist or the towel up your back, keeping your right shoulder relaxed.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat up to four times before switching sides.

Benefits of Stretching Your Supraspinatus

Stretching the rotator cuff is important for stabilizing the muscles surrounding the shoulders and upper back, improving posture, and reducing head and neck pain. The supraspinatus is a muscle that is also at high risk for injury, especially during strenuous repetitive activities such as swimming or painting areas of your house.

Stretching moves target the upper back and shoulder muscles. As previously mentioned, it’s key for your stabilizer muscles. These stretches also can help you feel less stressed and, in turn, be more productive in your everyday life. 

Other Variations of a Supraspinatus Stretch

You can perform a supraspinatus stretch in many ways depending on your shoulder flexibility and range of motion. Here are some variations you might want to try.

Pendulum Exercise

If you cannot reach your fingertips together, try this move against a surface instead.

  • Stand adjacent to a bench, table, or another surface, placing your left hand lightly on top of it for support.
  • Keep your spine straight and lean forward from your waist.
  • Let your right arm hang freely in front of you and relax your right arm and shoulder completely.
  • Move your right arm gently forward and backward, then back and forth from side to side, and around in a circle.
  • Repeat with your left arm.

Double Shoulder Stretch

Double up on the stretch by targeting both shoulders at the same time. Here's how.

  • Stand with a straight spine, stretch your right and left shoulders at the same time by place your hands on your hips with your palms facing outward and your fingers pointing back.
  • Press the backs of your hands against your hips and slowly move your elbows forward until you feel a bit of tension behind your shoulders.
  • Hold for up to 30 seconds before returning your elbows to the original position and relaxing.
  • Repeat up to four times.

Seated Stretch

Stretch the upper part of your shoulder with this seated variation. Here is what you need to do to perform this stretch.

  • Sit on a stable chair or bench with a firm surface.
  • Bend your right elbow at a 90-degree angle, positioning the arm in front of you with the elbow lying across your lower ribcage.
  • Send your left upper arm under your right upper arm and reach up with your left hand to grab your right thumb.
  • Relax your right arm and shoulder, lightly pulling your right thumb toward the right, while rotating your right arm out.
  • Hold for up to 30 seconds, relax briefly and repeat up to four times before switching to your other shoulder.

Common Mistakes

Be sure to breathe deeply and evenly while doing the stretch. Focus on inhaling as you reach into the stretch and exhale to deepen the extension. Hold each stretch for a few breaths then relax the hold. Activate the stretch again while resuming deep breathing.

The simple act of deep breathing can enhance the effects of the stretch significantly. Studies have shown that incorporating deep breathing into a stretching routine for neck pain can help in reducing the discomfort and increasing relaxation.

Additionally, not relaxing your face, neck, and shoulder muscles is another common mistake when performing cow face pose. Help decrease head-neck pain by actively relaxing your facial and neck muscles. Remember to start at the top—relax your forehead, cheeks, mouth, chin, neck, and finally, shoulders. This mental exercise will ensure you're not tense throughout the stretch.

Safety and Precautions

If you feel any pinching, numbness or pain while doing any of these stretches, stop and move out of the stretch you’re performing. While studies confirm that stretching helps ease stiff nerves and increases the ability to withstand pain pressure, remember to stop at the moment you feel sudden pain or increased discomfort.

If you begin to experience pinching or numbness, take a breath and release out of the stretch hold. Allow your muscles and nerves to settle. The recovery may take anywhere from a few minutes to days. Once you're ready again, then attempt a modification of the exercise. Use a towel to perform the stretch or try the pendulum exercise instead.

The injury of the shoulder (or rotator cuff area) is common, and researchers note that tears are more common with age. Extra caution should be practiced if you've experienced shoulder pain or tears previously or are older.

Try It Out

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

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Garving C, Jakob S, Bauer I, Nadjar R, H. Brunner U. Impingement syndrome of the shoulder. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2017;114(45):765-776. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2017.0765

  2. Sambandam SN, Khanna V, Gul A, Mounasamy V. Rotator cuff tears: An evidence based approach. World Journal of Orthopedics. 2015;6(11):902-918. doi:10.5312/wjo.v6.i11.902

  3. Daher A, Halperin O. Association between psychological stress and neck pain among college students during the coronavirus disease of 2019 pandemic: a questionnaire-based cross-sectional study. Healthcare. 2021;9(11):1526. doi:10.3390/healthcare9111526

  4. Wongwilairat K, Buranruk O, Eungpinichpong W, Puntumetakul R, Kantharadussadee-Triamchaisri S. Muscle stretching with deep and slow breathing patterns: A pilot study for therapeutic development. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. 2019;16(2). doi:10.1515/jcim-2017-0167

  5. Thomas E, Bellafiore M, Petrigna L, Paoli A, Palma A, Bianco A. Peripheral nerve responses to muscle stretching: a systematic review. J Sports Sci Med. 2021;20(2):258-267. doi:10.52082/jssm.2021.258

  6. National Library of Medicine. Rotator cuff injury.

Additional Reading

By Emilia Benton
Emilia Benton is a freelance writer and editor whose work has been published by Runner's World, SELF, SHAPE, and more.