The Towel Shoulder Rotation Stretch

Use a towel or a belt to improve shoulder mobility

The towel shoulder internal rotation stretch is a great exercise to improve the way your shoulder or rotator cuff moves. It can be an effective stretch for a frozen shoulder and as part of your post-op rotator cuff surgery protocol. If you are experiencing tightness around your shoulder, your PT can show you how to do the internal rotation stretch.

Shoulder problems.
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The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint that allows you to move your arm in many different directions. Tightness in the shoulder may cause shoulder pain and may limit your ability to reach for things or perform basic tasks such as combing your hair or reaching behind your back to put on a belt.

Tightness in your shoulder may be caused by many different problems. If you have injured your shoulder, the rotator cuff muscles and tendons may become tight. If you have had shoulder surgery, like a rotator cuff repair, the muscles may need to be stretched as part of your physical therapy program. Fractures to the arm may also cause tightness in the shoulder, especially if you were required to wear a sling to protect your shoulder while it was healing.

A condition called a frozen shoulder may also cause tightness around the joint. This painful condition causes a gradual loss of range of motion around your shoulder. It may take many months of stretching to restore normal shoulder mobility if you have a frozen shoulder.

Sometimes, your shoulder may become tight for unknown reasons; it just stops moving in certain directions and may need to be stretched to help restore normal mobility.

The towel rotation stretch is a great exercise to help improve the flexibility and range of motion of your shoulder. It is actually a combination of three motions around the shoulder: internal rotation, adduction (moving your shoulder closer to the body), and extension.

You can use the rotation stretch after an injury to regain mobility, or this stretch can be done to help maintain the mobility you have and possibly prevent shoulder problems. Just be sure to speak with your healthcare provider or physical therapist to make sure that this exercise is appropriate for you to perform.

How to Perform the Towel Shoulder Rotation Stretch

  1. Obtain a long towel, like a bath or beach towel. You can also use a long strap or your belt.
  2. Hold the towel in one hand and drape it over your shoulder and down your back. If you are stretching your right shoulder, the towel should be placed over your left shoulder and be held in your left hand.
  3. Reach behind your back with your other hand and grip the towel.
  4. Gently pull the towel up and allow your hand behind your back to move across and up your back. A gentle stretch should be felt in the front or side of your shoulder.
  5. Once you feel a stretch in your shoulder, hold the position for two or three seconds, and then slowly release the stretch. Repeat 10 times, trying to pull your arm up your back a little further each time. Be sure to move slowly and avoid sudden or jerking motions.

Remember, you should feel a gentle stretch or pulling sensation around your shoulder joint during the internal rotation stretch. It should not cause pain. If you feel any lasting pain in your shoulder after the stretch, check in with your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

The shoulder rotation stretch is a great stretch that can help improve the mobility of your shoulders. It can be performed just about anywhere, and it is a safe and effective method to help you regain normal motion in your shoulder joint and rotator cuff muscles after an injury. See your PT to learn the proper way to do the stretch and to keep your shoulders and rotator cuff muscles working great.

2 Sources
Verywell Health 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. Harvard Health Publishing. How to release a frozen shoulder.

  2. Drayer Physical Therapy Institute. Shoulder stretches.

Additional Reading
  • Reuther, K. E., Larsen, R., Kuhn, P. D., Kelly IV, J. D., & Thomas, S. J. Sleeper stretch accelerates recovery of glenohumeral internal rotation after pitching. Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery25(12), 1925-1929.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.