If you look at the anatomy of the shoulder joint, you might notice that it kind of looks like a golf ball on a tee. This structure allows for an incredible amount of motion, from reaching all the way above your head to behind your back. As such, the shoulder has the greatest range-of-motion of all the joints in the body.
It’s this mobility that enables us to perform powerful athletic motions in multiple directions. For instance, when a baseball pitcher throws, his arm can rotate around the shoulder at around 8500 degrees per second. That’s about 24 full revolutions in just 1 second. This wouldn’t be possible without full flexibility of the shoulder complex.
When most people think of shoulder flexibility, they typically focus solely on the glenohumeral joint (the ball-and-socket joint where your arm bone connects to your shoulder bone).
However, it’s just as important to maintain the flexibility of the muscles and joints that support the glenohumeral joint – mainly your scapula (shoulder blade) and your upper trunk. Without adequate flexibility in the rest of your body, you tend to cause more wear-and-tear on your shoulder.
For instance, try throwing a ball as far as you can without moving or turning your trunk. You’ll probably notice that you’re not able to throw as far as you normally could. You might even feel a strain on your shoulder.
Without the help of your trunk to generate power, your shoulder has to do all of the work, which can cause it to wear down faster.
I’m going to give you an example from baseball to highlight the importance of shoulder and torso flexibility.
Imagine you’re a baseball pitcher. Full movement (and especially retraction of your shoulder blade) is vital to creating a full wind-up, which helps to unleash and transfer all of the power from your body into your arm.
This retracted shoulder position creates a pre-stretch on your front-body muscles (your anterior deltoid, pecs, and abs in particular), just like the pulling of a bow-string. Combined with the coordinated turning and rotation of your body, your arm can then whip around and launch itself forward to throw the ball at high speeds.
If your shoulder range-of-motion is limited, your ability to transfer forces across your body also becomes hindered.
Proper shoulder range is critical not only to creating powerful athletic movements, but also to help prevent common injuries such as impingement.
A person with healthy shoulders is able to reach straight overhead without pain, and without having to arch their back or flare their ribs.
If you feel a strain in your shoulder when extending your arm up by your ear, then you should avoid exercises like a basic military press or snatch. These movements require full overhead mobility, and you’re at a high risk of injury if you perform them with poor form and technique.
As mentioned earlier, the shoulder is comprised of more than just the glenohumeral joint. Your ability to move and protect this one joint depends on your ability to move and stabilize your scapula. If your upper back is stiff, or if your scapula can’t move, you’ll limit your total shoulder mobility.
The posterior rotator cuff can get tight with excessive use and poor posture. The pec muscles tend to be over-exaggerated in workouts, which can make them tight and contribute to forward shoulder posture.
Here are three great stretches to increase the flexibility of these muscles and improve your shoulder range-of-motion:
Instructions: They key is to feel it in the back of the shoulder. Make sure to securely pack your shoulder down so that it doesn’t roll up towards your ear. Lightly push your hand down and hold. Do 3 x 30 seconds.
Instructions: Pull your arm across your body while also pulling your shoulder blade back. This will focus the stretch into the rotator cuff. 3 x 30 sec
Instructions: When your pec muscles are tight, they pull the scapula forward and prevent it from going back into a retracted and posterior tilted position. You can increase your pec flexibility with a foam roller pec stretch. Start by laying down on a foam rolling from head to tailbone. Bring your arms to 90°, and let gravity pull them towards the floor. After a few breaths, slowly reach overhead, then pull your elbows in towards your sides.
If you don’t have a foam roller, you can do a traditional doorway stretch. With one arm along a doorway, focus on pulling your scapula back and turning your chest away from your shoulder. You should NOT feel this in the front of your shoulder joint, but instead along your chest muscles.
Not to be underestimated, poor posture (link) plays a huge role in limiting your shoulder mobility. When your shoulders roll forward, you increase the tension along the rotator cuff, which can lead to chronic tightness. This also limits the ability of your scapula to move, which causes an increased strain on the glenohumeral joint.
In addition, forward head posture pulls on your rhomboids and your levator scapula. When these muscles are tight, they limit scapula mobility even more. This makes it all the more important to use good form & technique during every exercise, and to workout with a neutral spine (link).
People that lift weights a lot, or do a lot of pulling movements (for example, rock climbers), tend to have strong and possibly tight latissimus dorsi muscles. This can limit your ability to fully raise your arms above your head. The lower trapezius is critical to proper scapula stabilization and should be emphasized whenever possible!
Instructions: Perform modified child’s pose with your palms face up. The rounding of the low back will tighten the lats on the inferior attachment, and the arms above your head with palms up will tighten the lats on the other end. Breathe deeply and hold the stretch 3 x 30 seconds.
Bonus: Perform an active lower trapezius strengthening exercise in this position. Try to lift one arm up at a time off the floor and hold for 5 seconds. Feel your scapula pull down your back and away from the ears.
After ensuring that you have your full range motion, the last step is to continue to move and strengthen through that full range-of-motion.
Instructions: Start with the basic wall angel exercise, focusing on moving your shoulder blades while keeping your ribs down (link) and maintaining a neutral spine (link). After ensuring proper movement, add resistance via gravity or light cables. You can perform this with arms straight (trapezius bias) or bent (rotator cuff bias).
Instructions: Only go through the full motion if it’s pain-free. By using dumbbells, your shoulders have to stabilize through the entire motion, which helps engage the rotator cuff.
Instructions: Not only will this exercise strengthen your rotator cuff, you’ll reinforce proper movement with trunk rotation and scapular retraction.
For this exercise I like to do the “one-and-a-half” method where I do the full pulling motion with the rotation (emphasize full body coordination and movement), and then follow it with a half rep and hold (emphasize scapula positioning). Your hand position can vary, but I prefer to perform this in the high row position, with full external rotation of my hand (to bias the rotator cuff). As always, make sure keep your shoulders away from your ears and your upper trapezius relaxed.
A well-designed, proper warm-up can help you achieve (and maintain) optimal flexibility. If you want to increase your shoulder range-of-motion, incorporate these exercises into your warm-up and cool-down routine. This will help prevent injury, and over time can boost your athletic potential.
Strength train through a full range of motion, but be careful in extreme end-range positions where your shoulder is fully stretched out, as it gets weaker at all of its extended positions. Remember – if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Have any lingering questions on how to get more flexible in your shoulders? Reach out below!