What you need to know about tight lats and shoulder pain

Let’s talk tight lats and shoulder pain. Can tight lats cause shoulder or neck pain and if so, what are the best shoulder pain exercises that you can do to release tight lats? 

But first, how do you know if you have tight lats?

Here’s a simple test for tight lats

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Slowly reach your arms up to the ceiling and overhead while trying to keep the back of your ribcage connected to the floor.
  3. Is it hard to keep the back of your ribs on the ground or does your back want to arch when you start to reach your arms overhead?

Your lats might be tight.

What causes tight lats?

Tight lats are typically caused by 2 things:

1. Not frequently moving your arms and ribs in a way that stretches that requires your lats to be in a stretched position.

This is common, because your lats are in their most “stretched” position when your arms are reaching overhead. Your lats are also “stretched” when twisting or bending your spine. 

Daily life requires a lot of sitting and not very much reaching overhead. We also don’t twist or bend our backs very much, unless we are actively practicing upper body mobility drills on a regular basis. 

2. Weakness in the lats and your other shoulders and back muscles.

Contrary to popular belief, “tight” muscles are not “strong” muscles. Oftentimes when something feels tight, it’s actually weak!

This is especially true if you are hypermobile where your muscles will feel tight to stop you from moving into a position that you don’t have the strength to support.

This is also the case if you don’t regularly practice upper body strength exercises. Examples of these exercises include overhead presses, pull-ups, deadlifts, and rows in a well thought out resistance training program. 

It’s also important to know that many of us who have tight lats are also weak in our backs and the surrounding muscle groups, including the deltoids, rhomboids, lower traps, middle traps, and upper traps. While you may think that overly strong upper traps are a cause of neck pain, this is seldom the case. In fact, one of the best ways to reduce neck pain is to strengthen your upper traps.

This is why strength training is an important part of addressing shoulder pain if your lats feel tight. You want to release tight lats and then you want to strengthen all of the muscles of your upper back and shoulders. 

Can tight lats cause shoulder pain? 

The simple answer is yes, tight lats may contribute to shoulder pain. 

The broader (and more helpful answer) is that our lats often feel tight AND we often have shoulder pain, because we don’t have enough mobility in our upper back, ribs, and shoulder blades or enough upper body strength. 

Can tight lats cause neck pain?

Tight lats may contribute to neck pain for the same reasons why they can cause shoulder pain. You don’t have enough upper body mobility and strength, which causes neck pain and tension.  

You lats can also get tight and contribute to neck and shoulder pain if you do upper body exercises incorrectly. 

A biomechanical rule of the shoulder blade is that your shoulder blade needs to move in the same direction as your arm and elbow. This means that when you reach your arms overhead (e.g. the top of an overhead press or when your arms are straight at the bottom of the pull-up) your shoulders need to be in upward rotation.

Conversely, when your elbows are bent at the bottom / starting position of an overhead press or the top of a pull-up, your shoulder blades need to be in downward rotation. This video includes a demonstration of upward and downward rotation of the shoulder blade. 

The shoulder blade is often cued incorrectly in Pilates, yoga, and fitness classes, where the instructor will tell you to “pull your shoulders back and down” during an upper body exercise. This cue correct if you are pulling down from an overhead position for something like a pull-up. 

However, if you pull your shoulders down when you do an overhead press or lateral raise, then you may have neck or shoulder pain. This can also irritate your shoulder and contribute to a shoulder impingement, which can be very painful. 

What are the best shoulder pain exercises to fix tight lats?

Since tight lats are caused by limitations in upper body mobility and weakness, you’ll want to release and strengthen your lats. 

How do you release tight lats to alleviate neck and shoulder pain?

The best options to release tight lats are foam rolling, stretching and upper body mobility drills.

Releasing, stretching, and mobilizing your lats will: 

  • Teach your body what it feels like to move the shoulders in an upward position if you’ve been pulling them back and down in everything you do. 
  • Reduce pain and tension across the lower back and shoulders
  • Temporarily increasing your flexibility to make strength work more effective

Below is a video tutorial with some of my favorite exercises to release tight lats.

Video: 3 best stretches for tight lats and shoulder pain.


3 best stretches for tight lats and shoulder pain

How do you strengthen weak lats?

After you’ve released your lats, you’ll want to strengthen them. Some of the best lat strengthening exercises include:

How strength training reduces shoulder pain and risk of injury

If your goal is less neck and shoulder pain or fewer injuries, you’ll want to strengthen your entire upper body. The best way to do this is through a weight training program that focuses on progressive overload.

Progressive overload is the process of gradually increasing the amount of weight or repetitions of strength building exercises over time. This is the best way to get stronger with fewer injuries and build muscle. 

If you’re looking for a personalized routine to address tight lats or shoulder pain, I’m available for virtual movement consults and custom workout plans

If you need a free resource, I created a free simple and easy to follow full body strength program. You can do it in the gym or at home using bands, kettlebells, or dumbbells.  It includes all the lat strengthening exercises that I listed above. It also includes exercises to strengthen all the major muscle groups of your upper and lower body. 

Get it emailed to you via the opt-in below!

I also have a DIY beginner strength program designed for progressive overload called PUSH IT, which you can learn more about here AND a FREE guide that includes a beginner minimal equipment strength training program, that you can have emailed straight to your inbox, using the opt-in form below.