When new people enter my CrossFit Box, I know that one of two things will happen in the next three months:
- People will complain about lower back soreness/pain; or
- People will complain about shoulder soreness/pain.
Now, before we start to blame CrossFit for these issues, let me make it clear that we are not talking about injuries. As I mentioned above, people describe it as a pain or heavy soreness. They still have a full range of motion, but they just feel stiff and sore.
I had the same experience when I started with CrossFit, and after a lot of research and testing, I finally started to understand what was going on.
In CrossFit, we use our hips and shoulders quite a lot. We do Olympic lifts, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, handstand push-ups, etc.—all exercises that will challenge the mentioned areas.
In my case, I was coming from a traditional Monday-to-Friday desk jockey job where I would sit most of the day, typing on my keyboard. My core muscles would stay unengaged most of the day due to sitting, and my shoulders had learned to hang in a bad internal rotated position, making them weak and stiff. I had been doing that for ten years before I started doing CrossFit 3–4 times a week.
Do you see what I’m coming to?
For ten years, I had been working heavily on making my hips and shoulders weak and stiff, only to suddenly hit them hard with demanding exercises—it’s not strange that I felt pain and soreness.
What Causes Weak and Stiff Shoulders
Most people today sit for around 7–15 hours a day (if you want, you can calculate your own sitting time here). Besides creating an actual health risk, it also has a big impact on our musculoskeletal systems. The biggest muscles in our body—the glutes—become weak, and our hamstrings and hip flexors become short. The outcome is that we are no longer able to move with a full range of motion and our bodies have to compensate with another type of muscle activity now that the big guys no longer work correctly.
For the shoulders, the issues that we face are also related to our sedentary lifestyle—or said in another way, it’s related to what we do when we are sitting. Writing on a keyboard, holding a mouse, texting on a cell phone, or driving: we spend hour after hour with our arms in front of us.
The result is stiff and weak shoulders that are not working the way they are supposed to and, therefore, can’t handle what we expect from them.
Stiff and Weak Shoulder Fixes
Above was what I experienced when I started CrossFit, but I was also so lucky to find solutions for the problems. Now I have been doing CrossFit for many years without issues, and if something appears, I know what to do. Let me show you some fixes that have worked well for a lot of my clients and me as well.
Exercises for Stiff Shoulders:
Scapular Retraction and Protraction
We start with this simple movement that, for some, can be difficult because our shoulders have been inactive for a long time.
- Start with palms flat against a wall, arms fully extended.
- Push yourself backward with a movement only in the shoulders—arms stay extended. Shoulder blades should be as far apart as possible.
- Reverse the movement by pushing yourself forward without bending the arms. Shoulder blades should get as close together as possible.
- Don’t shrug your shoulders during the movement—they should stay down.
- Do it slowly and controlled.
- Get as much range of motion as possible.
Do 10–12 repetitions for 3 rounds.
The next level would be to do the exact same exercise but from a push-up position. It’s perfectly fine to start on knees and then move on to a proper push-up position when you are ready.
Again, we want to prioritize form over everything else.
For this exercise, you need a bar that you can pull yourself from, but let’s start to learn the movement on the ground.
- Raise your arms above your head as if you had to push against the ceiling.
- Lower your shoulders without bending your arms.
- Reverse and press your shoulders up again.
When we have a good feeling about this, it’s time to try it on a bar. Simply hang from a bar and pull yourself up only using the shoulders and without bending your arms. It might be more difficult than it sounds.
Repetitions should be around 5–10 and done for 3 rounds.
Scapular Press / Handstand Pushup
This is one of the best exercises for weak shoulders and is difficult but can be modified to an easier version.
The motion is the same as above, but the challenge will be to press above the head. There are two ways to do it.
- Stand with a manageable weight overhead. A barbell or two dumbbells are preferred.
- Press the weight up only using the scapulars.
- Reverse the movement and repeat.
- Keep arms shoulder-width apart.
A more difficult version is to do the same but in a handstand.
Of course, many stretches exist for stiff shoulders, but this is one of my favorite ones because it covers a lot of muscles and joints. Sink stretch proves to be one of the best exercises for stiff shoulders.
- Stand with you back against something that you can hold on to—sink, bar, etc.
- Start with a wide grip.
- Extend your arms fully behind you.
- Make sure that shoulders are not rolled forward; they need to back and down.
- Lower yourself to apply the stretch.
- Hold for 1–2min
- The more flexible you become, the more narrow a grip you can take, and the lower you can go.
If you want to try out more upper body stretches, you can see some here.
Lacrosse Ball Massage
There is one thing I always bring when I’m out traveling—my massage ball. I use a lacrosse ball because it’s textured, and the size is good for this purpose, but you can definitely find other types of balls that will work as well.
Some people like to do this on the floor, meaning that they place the ball on the floor and then lay on the ball so that the body creates the pressure. I prefer to do it against a wall because I have more control of the pressure.
- Start with the ball against a wall. Press into the ball with the point just under your collarbone.
- With small movements back and forth, cover the complete area under your collarbone
- Continue the same way on the front of your shoulder.
- Then your side of the shoulder.
- Then the upper part of your shoulder.
- Then space between your shoulder blade and spine.
- Below your shoulder blade.
- And finally, the lats.
Spend 5 minutes on each site.
I warn you, you can become addicted to this!
You have now learned how to fix your stiff and weak shoulders. The first exercise will regain full range of motion and make them stronger, and the last two exercises will help you with the stiffness.
Over to you!
My name is Henrik Nielsen.
I’m co-owner and head coach at CrossFit Landskrona in Sweden.I’m also the founder of Fits-Me which delivers online bodyweight training for any fitness level.