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Can’t Straighten Your Arms Over Your Head? Here’s What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

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Can’t Straighten Your Arms Over Your Head? Here’s What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

Do you feel a twinge in your shoulders when you’re brushing your hair? Maybe your back overarches when you try to grab a book from a high shelf? The task may seem simple but straightening your arms over your head can be more difficult than you might imagine.

You may have some mobility issues if you can’t straighten your arms over your head.
Credit: FilippoBacci/E+/GettyImages

The connection point between your arms and body, your shoulders have the potential to move in all planes of motion, according to the American Council on Exercise. But if you want to successfully (and comfortably) move in all directions, you need good mobility in these joints. After all, your arm movement is only as good as your shoulder’s range of motion.

Unfortunately, shoulder mobility is a pain point (literally and figuratively) for a lot of people. You may even struggle to fully extend your arms over your head, making everyday tasks — like reaching a jar off the highest shelf — a challenge.

If that’s you, there may be some strengthening and stretching you need to incorporate into your exercise routine. Consider these tips — credit to Sam Becourtney, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City — on how to get your shoulder mobility on the right track.

Read more: Can’t Balance on One Leg? Here’s What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

If You: Overarch Your Lower Back

You Might: Have a Weak Core

If your core lacks sufficient strength, it’s common for your lower back to overextend and ribs to flare, Becourtney says. This, paired with limited mobility in your thoracic spine (aka upper back), causes your body to rely on your lumber spine (lower back) for support.

“Think about it, if you have limited thoracic spine extension, you are likely in a slouched or rounded shoulder posture, which will automatically impede your ability to bring your arms overhead,” he says.

To fix this problem, you’ll want to build your core strength, Becourtney says. Including core exercises, like high planks, into your daily routine can help you do this. As you perform your core exercises, think about keeping your butt tucked, rib cage pulled down and core engaged.

High Plank

  1. Begin kneeling on the floor on your hands and knees. Keep your arms fully extended, hands directly beneath your shoulders.
  2. One leg at a time, straighten and extend your legs behind you, keeping them straight.
  3. Avoid lifting or sinking your hips, ensuring you form a straight line from head to hips to toes.
  4. Keep your ribs pulled down and core engaged as you hold the plank for 30 to 60 seconds.

Read more: What Are the Signs That Your Core Muscles Are Weak?

If You: Bend at Your Elbows

You Might: Have Tight Shoulders

If you bend your elbows whenever you try to reach your arms over your head (think: ballerina-style), you may have limitations in your shoulder’s range of motion, Becourtney says. As a result, your elbows bend, giving the false appearance that you’re able to lift your arms over your head.

Working on your shoulder mobility is a must if you want to fix this problem. Incorporating exercises and techniques to improve your range of motion will eliminate the compensation at the elbow. Stretches like thread the needle help you loosen tight muscles and increase your mobility.

Thread the Needle

  1. Begin kneeling on the floor on your hands and knees.
  2. Extend your arms out in front of you, then thread your right arm under your left arm, reaching out the left side.
  3. Hold and repeat on the other side.

Read more: 5 Stretches for Tight Shoulders to Finally Get Some Relief

If You: Have Shoulder Pain

You Might: Have Tight Shoulder Muscles

It’s not uncommon to experience shoulder pain when you try to grab something off a high shelf. But that doesn’t mean you should just accept it.

If you’re feeling pain in your shoulders, you’re experiencing shoulder impingement, which happens at the end of your range of overhead shoulder flexion, Becourtney says. This happens due to a lack of space for the tendons and rotator cuff to glide smoothly.

To correct this issue, you’ll want to work on lengthening and stretching the tighter muscles. This means the foam roller should be your new best friend. Using a foam roller to massage your pecs, lats and traps will help the muscles relax and increase the blood flow to the area. Over time, you’ll see a decrease in pain when you reach over head.