5 Exercises To Instantly Improve Shoulder Mobility

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The Most Common Pain In Fitness…

According to current injury incidence trends, the longstanding king of pain and dysfunction, notorious generalized non-specific lower back pain syndrome, is no longer the most common pain complaint among the active population. It may come to a surprise to many, but surely a confirmation for many coaches, trainers and rehab pros out there working with human beings that generalized front sided shoulder pain now leads the way as the most common pain and/0r dysfunction complain among people with a physical practice. And as we’ll see, common self shoulder mobility drills are usually NOT the cure.

But lets be honest, are you really THAT surprised that shoulder aches and pains are just as common, if not MORE common than lower back pain? While spikes in shoulder pain incidence among the active population is of course a multi-factorial problem, much of this alarming trend can be correlated to an inordinate amount sedentary screen time spent on cell phones, computers and other hand held technologies with poor ape-like postures.

No, most shoulder problems do NOT turn into injuries overnight, but rather accumulate unwanted stress over time leading to chronic based issues, that can cause regional tissues become chronically short and tight throughout the entire kinetic chain associated with the shoulder complex. But sometimes doing nothing at all can be more effective than making the wrong moves when it comes to self-treating your shoulders with loads of shoulder mobility drills.

Shoulder Mobility Gone Wrong

Even when exhibiting signs of pain or marked dysfunction at the shoulders, the average active person still wants to STAY active, essentially adding insult to injury and attacking their training and workouts with no idea that they are actually pouring gasoline on their shoulder problems, not helping to improve them. Simply put, when mixed with chronic postural stress disorders that are becoming more and more common, training is actually leaving people’s shoulders hurt more than ever as they are less prepared than ever to actually accept load and train pain-free.

But when pain or limitations present themselves, it’s not uncommon for an active person to train through pain, or to try and improve the pain response on their own. While self maintenance is a mandatory part of living an active and pain-free lifestyle, doing the wrong types of drills with the wrong intentions can actually exacerbate chronic shoulder pain. Before we get into the top 5 mobility drills that will help aid pain and improve function, it’s pivotal to ensure that you are NOT making these two mistakes when self-treating your own shoulder pain with shoulder mobility techniques:

Mistake 1: Attacking shoulder flexibility.

The typical shoulder mobility routine involves stretching and yanking on a band in some funky positions. This in itself is a huge problem. Attempting to add more passive range of motion to the single most mobile joint in the body is asking for trouble. More shoulder mobility is not always better.

band yank

More shoulder mobility and flexibility is rarely the answer. Think of it as useless ranges of motion. Range that requires an external force to achieve. Such as using a band as leverage and  twisting your body in the opposite direction (pictured above). Because you cannot get into such positions without external ‘help’, this kind of movement often fails to transfer to improved function and performance.

What you need to do is focus on improving shoulder MOBILITY (flexibility + strength). Range of motion that you can control.

This distinction between flexibility and mobility is  important. One that a lot of people fail to understand.

With better mobility comes better movement capacity. Meaning that you will be less likely to compensate and more capable of getting into correct positions. Only then can you display stellar movement execution. Pretty damn important if you want to maximise results while keeping your shoulders pain free!

Mistake 2: Forgetting the other joints that play into shoulder mobility.

Another typical mistake is to blame poor shoulder mobility on the shoulder joint itself. We cannot possibly have a chat about shoulder mobility without taking into account THE BIG 3:

  1. The true shoulder joint (AKA the glenohumeral joint)
  2. The scapulohoracic joint (shoulder blades moving on the rib cage)
  3. The thoracic spine (mid back)

Realize that the shoulder complex is referred to as a “complex” for a reason. All of the joints that comprise this complex need to beg accounted for in order to rebuild health and performance.

The Top 5 Mobility Exercises For Better Shoulder Health

Yep, the shoulder complex is a tricky beast. And lack of mobility across any of these three joint systems is enough to screw up shoulder function. But just as there are many poor strategies to remediate shoulder pain and dysfunction, there are also superior alternatives that will rebuild your shoulder health while helping to bulletproof this region from pain and injuries into the future.

Here are the top 5 mobility exercises you should be using for better shoulder health.

#1 Shoulder CAR (Controlled Articular Rotation)

This shoulder CAR drill involves actively moving the shoulder joint through its greatest rotational range of motion. Moving through a full range of motion is beneficial for many reasons. It signals healthy tissue remodelling, improves motor control and it trains the dynamic stabilising muscles to function at the outer limits of motion. All in all, this exercise does wonders for improving mobility and joint health. See the key coaching and executional points below:

Start position: tall kneeling – straight line from shoulders to knees. Stabilse the body by squeezing the opposite fist, depressing the shoulder girdle, bracing abs and squeezing the glutes.

The movement: Flex the arm straight up until you hit YOUR end range. Shrug up a little and turn the palm down while inwardly rotate the arm. As you reach back, try to keep the arm in the same movement plane without compensating (shoulders rotating or side bending the body). When you reach the hip, the palm should be facing away from your body. Reverse the motion by extending back then turning the palm up to outwardly rotate the arm. Continue until you’re back at the start position.  

Programming: 2 sets of 3-5 reps each side.

#2 Scapula CAR (Controlled Articular Rotation) 

Similar to shoulder CARs but this time for the scapula. You should be able to perform smooth, coordinated movement of the scapula on the rib cage. If not, you can be sure that the shoulder will take up the slack  – leaving it vulnerable to injury. Prepare to be humbled by this seemly simple move. Most people have a hard with it. A major reason why this ought to be regularly practiced!

Start position: tall kneeling – straight line from shoulders to knees. Stabilse the body by squeezing the opposite fist, depressing the shoulder girdle, bracing abs and squeezing the glutes. Raise your arm so that its parallel with the floor then abduct out to the side 30 degrees (scapula plane).

The movement: Start by reaching forward as far as you can, this will raw the scapula around the rib cage. Shrug the arm up by thinking ‘shoulder to ear’, this will elevate the scapula. Pull the scapula back to the spine, this will retract the scapula. Lower the arm down by thinking shoulder away from the ear and/or scapula in the back pocket. Stitch those movements together to form a smooth, continuous circular motion.

Programming: 2 sets of 5-10 reps each side.

#3 Lumbar Locked Cat Camel

The shoulders plug directly onto the thoracic cage. If its locked up, the shoulders cannot move properly. This wrecks havoc on movement quality, particularly with overhead work. Yes that means vertical pushing AND pulling exercises like pull ups and pull downs! If the thoracic spine lacks extension capacity, the shoulder blades will be unable to upwardly and downwardly rotate properly. See how everything is connected? Once again – your shoulders will take up the slack and ultimately pay the price. 

The lumbar locked cat / camel is a variation that allows you to focus on mobilising the thoracic spine. This is because the ‘heels to butt’ position blocks the lumbar spine from contributing to the movement. Here are the key points:

Start position: Sit back on your heels with the torso at about a 45 degree angle.

The movement: Cat – Round the back. Tuck your chin and think about the spine lifting up, crunching the muscles on the front side of your body. We want to see a nice even curve. Camel – Arch the back. Lift your chin and think about driving the sternum toward the floor while contracting the back muscles. We want to see a nice subtle arch across the entire mid back.  

Programming: 2-3 sets of 5 reps.

#4 Dead Bug Floor Slides

You might be familiar with wall slides. World class coaches like Eric Cressy have been championing them for years – a sign that you should probably  be doing them too!

Wall slides open up anterior muscles like the pecs and engage posterior muscles like the external rotators and shoulder blade retractors . They are a phenomenal exercise for combatting rounded shoulder posture and do wonders for shoulder mobility.

But hold on a sec – I have a variation for you that’s even more effective.

When performing the wall slide, people often have a hard time engaging the core to keep the spine neutral and stable. This leads to the ribs flaring and low back arching. No bueno.

A quick and effective solution is to perform the wall slide on your back in the ‘dead bug’ position. This makes it significantly easier to engage the core and stabilise the spine. Which allows you to work through the movement without compensating.

Start position: On your back with hips and knees at 90, toes pulled up and low back flush with the ground. Brace abs to lock down the spine. Attempt to keep forearms flush with the ground with a 90 degree angle at the elbows.

The movement: Imagine  you are performing a behind the neck pulldown. Slide your arms up into a Y position then drive the elbows down, squeezing the lats and depressing the shoulder girdle. Try to keep your forearms flush with the floor and press down firmly throughout the movement.

Programming 

  • As part of an upper body day warm up: 2 sets of 5
  • As a stand alone exercise: 3 sets of 8-10
  • As part of a mobility routine or movement break at work: 2 sets of 5

#5 Swimmers Hovers

If I could pick just one exercise to maintain shoulder health for all of eternity – it would be this! Talk about bang for your buck. The swimmers hover works all those ranges we rarely utilise. It smokes the rotator cuff, the postural muscles and just about every fibre involved with dynamic shoulder stability.

Start position: Prone position, forehead in contact with the ground and arms behind head.

The movement: Pinch the shoulder blades and raise the elbows as high as possible. Straighten arms to form a Y. Sweep back turning the arms inward and palms up. When the arms reach a 45 degree angle to the torso, bend the elbows and place as high up your back as possible. Reverse the motion, starting with pinching the shoulder blades and lifting the elbows. Straighten arms and sweep around turning the arms out and palms down. When you reach the Y position, bend the elbows and place your hands behind the head. Allow the elbows to tap to the ground and relax. That’s just 1 rep! Burn much!?

Programming:

  • As part of an upper body day warm up: 1-2 sets of 3
  • As a stand alone exercise: 2-3 sets of 3-5
  • As part of a mobility routine or movement break at work: 1-2 sets of 3

About The Author

jack hanrahan

Jack Hanrahan, CSCS, NMT, is a personal trainer and soft tissue therapist based in London UK.  Jack has worked with a wide range of clients worldwide.  From high-level athletes to A-list Directors and Actors on films such as X-Men Apocalypse and Bohemian Rhapsody. Jack believes in a well-rounded approach to training in order to build functional strength, muscle, cardiovascular fitness and long term joint health. This is his ethos to build a body that looks, moves and functions the best it can. Visit: JackHanrahan.com

RELATED: “The Lifter’s Guide For Training Through Shoulder Pain”

RELATED: “The 20 Most Effective Exercises To Train Through Shoulder Pain”

Kolber MJ, Cheatham SW, Salamh PA, Hanney WJ. Characteristics of shoulder impingement in the recreational weight-training population. J Strength Cond Res 28: 1081–1089, 2014.

3 Comments

  1. Ted July 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Feel pain on the dead bug slides when the arm gets to 90. Can not go any further. Any suggestions

  2. T July 9, 2018 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jack. Improving shoulder mobility is my big mission at the moment. For the wall slides / dead bug one of my forearms is 45degree off the floor when at 90degrees. I’ve been adding a weight to it to flatten to the floor for 4-5 mins at end of training for the past few weeks but no real. mprovement. feels great at the time though! Any tips?

  3. Cara July 10, 2018 at 5:52 am - Reply

    Very impressive article, thank you X

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