Let’s talk about the overhead tricep stretch. Do you do this stretch? Are you doing it properly? Are you stretching the correct soft tissue? Let’s make sure, keep reading.
As I am out and about in my life of circus and fitness, sometimes I see people doing this stretch: pictured to the right. Now, not everyone can get their arm into this place, but those who can should not and I am going to talk about why. And those people who can’t get their arm here, should not aspire to get it here either.
Now you may be thinking “Holy S@#t, how does an arm go there?” A person who can get their arm into this position or even with their elbow inline with there head or just past their head potentially has some form of Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) or a connective tissue disorder like Ehlers-Dalos Syndrome. Or someone has stretched their soft tissue into this place and now their joint has not become less stable and potential more prone to injury.
On the other hand you may be thinking, “My elbow does go [ast 180 degrees. Are you saying I shouldn’t be doing this?” This is where I would instructor you to stack the elbow over the shoulder for better joint alignment.
Or if you’re thinking “My elbow goes that far, do I have something wrong with me?” I am not saying there is anything wrong with you, however, if you can get into some pretty bendy places I recommend seeking a medical evaluation to find out if you have one of the conditions noted above–both have some other health issues to consider.
What I am saying is that if your arm can go as far as seen in any of these photos above, please don’t bring your arm to these extremes. This is over-stretching your ligaments and joint capsule; it is not stretching your muscles. Your shoulder ligaments and joint capsule are meant to be somewhat tight; they are your first defense in keeping your arm attached to your body. Next is your rotator cuff– those lovely muscles we’ll talk about some other day. If your arm can get to any of these positions demonstrated above, your muscles don’t need to be stretched. (however if they still feel tight we’ll address that further down the post.)
I also need to reference this photo to the right, at no point in time when performing a tricep stretch should your head be forward and turned. We’ll discuss proper alignment further down in this post.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “But my muscles feel so tight.” I get it. I am ever so slightly hypermobile in my joints and have said the same thing and I have even asked a physical therapist (while in therapy for my shoulder) to stretch me because my pectoral muscles felt too tight, but really they didn’t need stretching, I already had way more than the average range of motion than the joint needed. What I needed was soft tissue work, and this is probably what you need too.
The main reason you are feeling tight is that your first line of stability–your joint capsule and ligaments–are either naturally loose, have been over stretched for some reason or both and now the ligaments and joint capsule can’t properly keep this joint stable and the joint is relying on the muscle around it to tighten up to keep the joint stable and in the case of your shoulder, your arm bone in the socket.
This is where I have to say stretching is not something hypermobile people (generally) need to do. I know, I know, but you love stretching. I love stretching. It feels good. Also, most people like to do stuff they’re good at and when being flexible is something a person is naturally good at, we generally tend to do more of it, even though a hypermobile person doesn’t need to. Soft tissue work, yes, and strengthening exercises for the stabilizer muscles of the joints–shoulders, hips, ankles for example–but not stretching.
To stretch your triceps all you have to do is bring your lower arm so closer to your upper arm-like in a bicep curl. This stretches 2 of the 3 tricep muscles: your lateral head and medial head. These two are attached to your humerus (upper arm bone) and insert on your elbow joint at your ulna, one of your forearm bones. The long head of your triceps originates on the lateral side of your scapula and also connects at your ulna. This muscle is generally stretched when we bring our arm up overhead in a typical tricep stretch.
This video shows a really good breakdown of the triceps.
The stretch and it’s alignment
Raise the arm up, pat yourself on the back. There should be a little space between your ear and your shoulder. Use your other hand to help stretch the elbow up and back just enough so you feel a stretch or so that it’s aligned over your shoulder. See photo to the right.
Things to be aware of
- Make sure you are standing up straight and not flaring your ribs or arching in your low back. Draw your ribs in by contracting your obliques and align your shoulders over your hips. Your back should be in neutral position.
- Keep your head from drooping forward out of neutral spinal alignment. If your elbow doesn’t align all the way over your shoulder then keep the hand that’s holding the elbow in front of/on top of your head. Don’t drop the head forward to get the holding arm behind your head just because this is how it’s always demonstrated. Proper spinal alignment and posture are super important.
- Lastly, make sure not to pull the elbow towards the head or past the head as seen in earlier photos, again because you are stretching the wrong soft tissue.
You can ensure you are stretching your triceps properly and not pulling the elbow out of being stacked over the shoulder if you line yourself up against a wall as you bring your arm over head. As shown in this video:
Something’s not quite right?…
- If you find that when you have your arm is lined up in proper alignment for this stretch and you are not feeling a stretch, but still feel tight you probably will benefit from some soft tissue work: a massage, foam rolling/self-myofascial release or other body work. And….. to state it again, this might be a stretch you just don’t need to do.
Here’s a video that shows using a rolling stick to perform self-myofascial release techniques on your triceps, but you could easily do this with a foam roller on the floor, too.
- If you feel some pain in the back of your shoulder when you raise your arm up or try to move the elbow inline with the shoulder, then stop. You are either impinging some soft tissue or you could be coming up to a bony stop. A bony stop will depend on the shape of all the bones involved in your shoulder. (See photo below) If you feel this discomfort and are doing things in the overhead range of motion, seeking an assessment from a medical and/or athletic professional would be best.
- Now, impingement happens every time we raise our arms overhead, but how much we’re impinging depends on our thoracic mobility, the shape of your acromion and our scapulohumeral rhythm. As you can see from the photo below showing the different types of acromion (the bone on the top right), if you have the type III (far right) you are really smushing (that’s a technical term) the muscles, tendons, bursa or ligaments that fit in the space between the head of your humerus and your acromion and coracoid process (that’s the other bony piece to the left). There is a name for this space, it’s your subacromial space, but really that space is filled, mostly with your bursa (kind of like a gel pac) and your supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) and biceps tendon.
This video shows all the shoulder’s movement-it’s cool. At 2:35 through 2:53, you will see how the shoulder blade should be moving as we raise our arm overhead and how the head of the humerus naturally moves up in the socket and towards the acromion.
- Lastly, if you experience a big low back arch and flare of the ribs as you bring your arm up over your head to perform this stretch, even after you engage your obliques, there are a few things you’ll probably need to work on for a bit:
1) Finding how to engage your abs in various planes and motions.
2) Soft tissue work for more muscular length in your lats, teres major and minor, triceps and even your serratus muscles.
3) Creating more mobility in your upper back so that your scapula can move correctly on your rib cage and you can get the small bit of upper back hyperextension that is needed when we raise your arms overhead.
(Need some ideas on how to foam roll these places or create mobility, check out a previous post of mine.)
Well I hope you find this helpful and it helps to keep you safe, strong and flexible in your overhead and fitness endeavors. Please let me know if you have any questions, I love hearing from you. Contact us here.
P.S. A note about the photos in the post. I purchase most of the photos for my blog from a stock images company. It was hard not to get shoulder stretching photos that I needed to demonstrate incorrect movements where they weren’t females dressed in sports bras. These are not my first choice, just as I would have preferred to have found ‘incorrect movement photos’ without showing a face of the model. The nature of stock images is that sometime the model doesn’t know the movement being asked to model, sometimes the photographer has no idea and sometimes both. I do my best to find appropriate photos without labeling a face/person ‘incorrect/wrong’ or using people who are wearing the bare minimum clothing, unless of course I have no other alternatives or because the body is needed to be seen to get the point of my blog post across.