Ah, the sleeper stretch. Pretty popular right now, huh? Seems like a ton of people are preaching the value of the sleeper stretch and why everyone needs to use it. It’s so popular now that physicians are asking for it specifically.
I don’t like the sleeper stretch and I rarely use.
There, I said it, I felt like I really had the get that off my chest! Every meeting I go to I see more and more people talking like the sleeper stretch is the next great king of all exercises. Then I get up there and say I don’t use it and everyone looks at me like I have two heads! Call me crazy, but I think we probably shouldn’t be using it as much as we do.
3 Reasons to Not Use the Sleeper Stretch
So why don’t I use the sleeper stretch? There are actually a few reasons. Let me describe each in detail.
1. It Stretches the Posterior Capsule
If you have heard me speak at any of my live or online courses, you know that I am not a believer in posterior capsule tightness in overhead athletes. Maybe it happens, but I have to admit I rarely (if any) see it. In fact, I see way more issues with posterior instability. The last thing I want to do is make an already loose athlete looser by stretching a structure that is so thin and weak, yet so important in shoulder stability.
Urayama et al in JSES have shown that stretching the shoulder into internal rotation at 90 degrees of abduction in the scapular plane does not strain the posterior capsule. However, by performing internal rotation at 90 degrees of abduction in the sagittal plane, like the sleeper stretch position, places significantly more strain on the posterior capsule.
2. It is an Impingement Position
This one cracks me, check out the photos below, if you rotate a photo of the Hawkins-Kennedy impingement test 90 degrees it looks just like a sleeper stretch. I personally try to avoid recreating provocative special tests as exercises.
3. People Get WAY too Aggressive
Despite the above two reasons, this may actually be the biggest reason that I don’t use the sleeper stretch – people just get way to aggressive with the stretch. The whole “more is better” thought process. Being too aggressive is only going to cause more strain on the posterior capsule and more impingement. You may actually flare up the shoulder instead of make it better.
When the Sleeper Stretch is Appropriate
There are times when the sleeper stretch is probably appropriate. I could see recommending it in two cases, in young overhead athletes that don’t have anyone that can stretch them and in people with tight posterior capsules (I’m not talking about overhead athletes, you know my thoughts on this, but more so the adhesive capsulitis patient). But of course, there are good ways to perform the sleeper stretch and there are bad ways, technique is important.
For more information on how to correctly perform the sleeper stretch and some alternatives to the sleeper stretch, check out some of my other articles:
Together, these three articles should really help you understand the pros and cons of the sleeper stretch.