Introduction to shoulder mobility

You’re here because you want to improve your shoulder mobility. Perhaps you’re in pain or perhaps you just feel restricted and unable to perform certain exercises well (overhead press, anyone?).

Either way, it’s limiting you and you’re motivated to resolve it.

You’ve come to the right place.

There is not a more fundamentally important fitness goal than improving your mobility.

Granted, it’s not sexy.

But the discomfort and setbacks are only going to get worse if you don’t address it.

I know this first hand. I’ve had my fair share of aches, pains and niggles as a result of poor mobility. So much so that I took a slew of industry leading courses to understand how to fix myself – Functional Range Conditioning®, Kinstretch®, TRS mobility coach, Animal Flow and more. 

This was years back mind you. Since then, I’ve completely become fully mobile and pain-free. I’ve helped numerous people do the same and today I’ll help you too.

So, where do you start?

First, you have to understand why your shoulders are tight. Only then you can make informed decisions about what needs to be done and why.

Why is shoulder mobility important?

Remember swinging around on the monkey bars as a kid?

Did you ever say “I can’t do that, my shoulders are too stiff to raise my arms overhead?” Of course not.

That’s because you had what Dr Kelly Starrett would call “full physiologic range”. Your shoulders moved freely and you could enjoy swinging around without restriction. At its core, that’s why mobility is important. It enables you to go about your day and enjoy the physical activities you love to do without restriction.

Shoulder exercises and lifting weights

In the context of lifting weights, shoulder mobility is a prerequisite to training safely and effectively. If your shoulder mobility needs work, issues tend to arise when you perform anything overhead. That includes exercises like shoulder press, pull-ups and pulldowns. But there are more subtle ways that poor shoulder mobility can limit you. If the joint isn’t functioning well, you can’t move as efficiently.

That means you won’t engage muscles very well and your strength will be limited. It also means that you are susceptible to damaging your joint health and soft tissues further. Form is everything and it’s only possible to have good form if your joints move well.

That’s why Mobility is priority #1.

What’s making your shoulders tight?

Culprit 1: Not moving enough.

Take your mind back to being that kid, swinging on monkey bars …

Now think about when you stopped doing that and moved less in general. You became an adult, your life got busy and for 10+ years, you’ve spent most of your time in two positions – lying in bed, or sitting at a desk.

Because your shoulders have received less movement, your body has slowly started to eliminate the outer limits of your range of motion. Fibrotic tissue gets laid down because there is no signal  that tells your brain these ranges of motion are being used.

Moving less is one reason why we get tight. Ranges of motion get eliminated and resting muscle length adapts to the positions we spend the majority of our time.

Take sitting …

The upper back is rounded and the shoulders are rolled inwards. Muscles like the pecs and lats are ‘short’.

This becomes the new normal and as soon as you try to move out of that posture, you feel “tight” because your stretch reflex kicks in prematurely and limits your movement.

Culprit 2: Being weak at your end range of motion.

Another reason why you may struggle to achieve certain body positions, like raising your arm overhead, is because you are weak there.

This is a protective mechanism. If your body doesn’t perceive that you have strength in a certain position, then it won’t allow you to go there. It doesn’t trust that you are safe…and it’s right, you’re not.

Culprit 3: Lifting weights in a non-functional way.

Moving less and positional weaknesses are two major reasons why we get tight. But there’s another issue, isolated to gym goers, and that’s the way you’re training.

For one. There’s the issue of poor form. If you’re lifting heavy loads with inefficient movement, you are bound to create micro trauma that starts to deteriorate joint health. 

As a very simple example, when you perform bench press, your elbows should be pointed at a 45 degree angle, not flared out to the sides like a T. Moving through inefficient planes of motion will likely damage the joint and soft tissues.

Then there’s the issue of not having organizational balance with your exercise selection.

  • Too much pressing and not enough pulling.
  • Too much squatting and not enough hinging.
  • Too many bilateral exercises and not enough unilateral exercises.

Over time, this is what creates muscle imbalances, which screws up the length-tension relationship between muscles surrounding joints, leading to inefficient movement and the loss of mobility.

How do you test your shoulder mobility?

How can you be sure that your shoulder mobility needs work?

With an assessment. 

Different tests tell you different things.

I’ll share a few favorites.

  • Shoulder rotation.

-Adopt a tall kneeling or standing stance.

-Squeeze glutes and brace abs.

-Hold the arm out to the side, elbow in-line with shoulder with a 90 degree angle.

-Rotate the arm up and down, keeping the shoulder blade down.

Goal: Achieve a vertical forearm with a straight wrist (external rotation) and hand at least 10 degrees lower than the elbow (internal rotation).

  • Shoulder overhead.

-Adopt a tall kneeling or standing posture.

-Squeeze glutes and brace abs.

-Hold straight arms by your sides with fingers spread.

-Raise arms up in front of your shoulders.

Goal: Raise your arms overhead past the ears without the lower back arching, ribs flaring, elbow bending or arms rolling inward).

  • Scapula circles.

-Adopt a tall kneeling or standing posture.

-Squeeze glutes and brace abs.

-Hold the arms in front of your shoulders, in a perfect straight line.

-Draw a circle with your shoulder blades; reach forward, lift the arms up, pull the arms back, lower the arms down.

Goal: Perform a very controlled, smooth, circle with the arms perfectly straight like a shelf.

How do you fix poor shoulder mobility?

Step 1: Restructure your strength training (and train around your limitations)

Lifting with good form and correcting muscle imbalances is a must if you’re serious about resolving shoulder mobility issues. At minimum, aim for a 1:1 ratio of pushing and pulling in your program. It would also be a good idea to include some isolations for the posterior delts like reverse fly’s to build some end range shoulder strength. 

At the same time, modify any shoulder exercises that force you to compensate e.g. arch the low back and flare the ribs. My guess is that your overhead range of motion is limited right now. So substitute direct overhead press for landmine press variations and perform pulldowns with your torso leaning slightly backwards as opposed to perfectly upright. This will avoid doing further damage until your shoulder mobility is in a better place to perform these exercises safely.

Step 2: Move your shoulders through a full range of motion, daily

Daily movement, through a full range of motion, is imperative.

  1. This will stimulate all the mechanoreceptors that feedback information about your shoulder joint to your brain.
  2. It will help to signal biological and neurological changes that get your shoulder moving better.
  3. It also ensures that you don’t see your shoulder mobility further decline.

The exercise that will do this best is shoulder CARs (controlled articular rotations).

Step 3: Address your mobility deficits

Doing a targeted shoulder mobility routine a few times per week can help to restore your shoulder mobility.

Here’s a nice simple circuit to get you started. Repeat for 3 rounds.

Shoulder mobility exercises (or shoulder routine)

  • Cat / Cow 5 reps
  • Axial Rotations 5 reps
  • Floor Slides 8 reps

Make shoulder mobility a priority

I hope you found this blog insightful and I hope you feel empowered to start taking action and improve your shoulder mobility.

Make it a priority, because as we’ve discussed, mobility is priority #1. It is the prerequisite to moving well, becoming resilient and pain-free.

Understand that this didn’t happen by accident. Now that you’re better informed about the root cause (or causes) you can appreciate why steps 1-3 all have a place and why you need to take a holistic approach to fixing it.

Be patient and give it time for your joints to remodel. Re-assess every month and you’ll know, objectively, if things are moving in the right direction. In 2-3 months, you should be in a much better place.

An important caveat

Shoulder mobility is a complex issue, as you can now appreciate. There are shoulder pathologies that are well beyond the scope of this blog and not all shoulder pain can be attributed to a lack of shoulder mobility. Seek medical guidance if you need to.

Sign up for more on the PRGRM App

If you found this helpful and you’d like to learn more from me, then I encourage you to sign up to my App PRGRM. It provides evidence based strength training programs that include mobility routines as part of your weekly routine. I have a whole series on shoulder mobility like the routine included here.

Thanks so much for reading,

Coach Jack.