Even if you use the best body mechanics, a full day of working with massage clients leaves many therapists’ shoulders feeling not quite right. Over time, slight restrictions in range of motion can compound, and deviations in joint position can increase your risk of injury. Fortunately, targeted self-bodywork techniques can help relieve your shoulder stiffness.

Here is a short sequence for taming tightness in the shoulder girdle with help from an inflatable ball, a spinal roller and a marble-sized, medium-firm ball. Take care to work slowly, and stay within a therapeutic range of sensation. If you find yourself involuntarily holding your breath or tensing other areas of your body, ease off.


1. Chest Release

Position the inflatable ball just below your collarbone on one side of your chest. Allow your head to relax. Shift your torso side-to-side, slowly guiding the ball across the pectoral tissue. Pause and breathe into any tender spots. Repeat on the other side of your chest.



2. Outer Shoulder Release

Place the inflatable ball along the outer border of your shoulder blade, near the junction of your arm and torso. Support your head on your arm or a pillow. Shift your body slightly side-to-side to massage the area. Repeat on the other side.




3. Upper Back Rolling

Slide one or two spinal rollers—or two tennis balls in a sock—underneath your back so the balls lie on either side of your spine. Massage your back with very small up-and-down movements. Keep your head and neck relaxed as you move, and avoid hyperextending your neck. You may work your way down your spine or linger in one area.



4. Upper Back Focused Work

Place the small ball between your spine and the inner border of your scapula. Slowly shift your body to explore for areas of tightness. To address a particularly tight area, pause, wrap your arms around yourself in a gentle hug and slowly move your elbows in a circle. Do not place the ball directly on your spinal column. Be sure to address the muscles on both sides of your spine.




Prevent Shoulder Stiffness

Practicing these exercises several times a week—especially after a long day of treating clients—can help keep your shoulders mobile and optimally aligned. For best results, try pairing the self-bodywork techniques with targeted strength training. A personal trainer or physical therapist can help you determine where to concentrate your efforts. Many massage therapists will find that the front of their shoulders and chest are quite tight, while their upper back and lateral rotators are relatively weak. 

Focused strengthening and the self-bodywork tips above can go a long way in preserving musculoskeletal balance in your body—and when your body feels good, you’ll be better primed to care for your massage clients and respond to their soft-tissue needs.

About the Author

Liv Gold is an orthopedic massage therapist, yoga instructor and communications consultant for soma system®, a Boston-based self-bodywork solutions company ( She has written for numerous publications, including MIT Technology Review and Boston Magazine.