Struggling to achieve perfect technique in the gym? Maybe you recently hit a plateau in your athletic performance and aren’t sure why? It might be due to limitations in your shoulder mobility.
In this article we’ll explain what shoulder mobility is, common problems for lifters and athletes, and some quick tips (with exercises) to help improve your shoulder mobility for optimal performance.
In a hurry? Here’s a few things you need to know about your shoulder mobility:
- Shoulder mobility is your ability to achieve and control movement at your shoulder joint, which is distinct from flexibility.
- Most shoulder mobility issues involve end-range limitations, especially with rotation of your shoulder.
- You can increase your shoulder mobility by focusing on specific stretches and strengthening exercises, along with watching your form in the gym more carefully.
- Improving your shoulder mobility means less pain and better performance during exercise, which translates to more gains in the gym.
- If you’re an athlete, you should focus on your shoulder mobility to improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury.
What exactly is Shoulder Mobility?
You’ve probably heard the term “mobility” thrown around at gyms and on social media, but what does it even mean? More importantly, how are flexibility and mobility different?
Flexibility is your body's ability to achieve range of motion passively (someone else or gravity moving you) or actively (you doing the work). Think about something like going into the splits - all you have to do is get there. More specifically, flexibility doesn’t require you to control the movement that’s happening (1).
Mobility, on the other hand, is your ability not only to move your body into different positions, but to achieve specific movements within each joint. In the case of shoulder mobility, this would mean not only are you able to reach your arm overhead (pure flexibility), but your shoulder complex is performing the correct movements within the glenohumeral, acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular, and scapulothoracic joints (2).
When it comes to exercise technique and sports performance related to your shoulder joint, mobility is usually the goal you're striving for - that is, moving your arm, a dumbbell, or a ball with smooth control. Flexibility is great, but it's not much use if you have no control of your body once you've gotten into a position. Mobility is usually what helps us achieve our fitness goals and push through plateaus.
Some of the major factors that affect your shoulder mobility are muscle strength, tension of the shoulder capsule and ligaments, and your nervous system’s control of movement at your shoulder joint - otherwise known as your movement patterns. Maintaining a healthy shoulder joint is essential for maximizing your shoulder mobility.
What are some common Shoulder Mobility issues?
Lots of otherwise healthy people have issues with their shoulder mobility, and you might be one of them. Three of the most common shoulder mobility issues are limited overhead mobility, limited behind-the-back mobility, and limited thoracic spine mobility.
Overhead shoulder mobility refers to (of course) performing shoulder movements overhead - think shoulder presses, winding up a pitch, or freestyle swimming (3). Getting enough overhead mobility is important for sports performance, safe weightlifting, and preventing chronic shoulder injuries. That means that performing activities with full shoulder mobility is required to reduce injury risk. When you consistently perform your movements with limited mobility, repetitive stress on your shoulder joint can lead to pain and dysfunction during movement. Some of the main causes of reduced overhead shoulder mobility are short or tight latissimus dorsi muscles, shoulder impingement syndrome, and weakness of your rotator cuff.
Behind-the-back mobility (technically called functional internal rotation reach) is your ability to reach behind your back and do work - think pushing yourself up from the ground or passing a ball behind you. Getting enough behind-the-back mobility isn’t just important for sports performance, but everyday activities like putting on a jacket and washing your back, making it critical to maintain (4). You might experience reduced behind-the-back mobility due to a tight posterior shoulder capsule or rotator cuff tendinitis.
Thoracic spine (upper back) mobility is a commonly overlooked but essential piece of shoulder mobility. Your thoracic spine and shoulder joint work as a team to perform different movements that come up during sports and workouts, and limitations in one will lead to compensations from the other (5). For example, when performing an overhead shoulder press, your thoracic spine needs to extend (lift up) towards a neutral position to allow full motion of the shoulder joint - if you are unable to achieve the right position with your thoracic spine (think about what bad posture looks like), then your shoulder joint will not be able to get into the top position of the exercise correctly. Some common causes of reduced thoracic spine mobility are upper back weakness, tension in the chest and shoulders, and poor posture habits.
Can you increase your Shoulder Mobility?
Limited shoulder mobility can seriously limit our performance in the gym and on the field. Luckily, there are two time-tested methods that you can use to improve your shoulder mobility without a trip to the surgeon’s office: stretching and strengthening (6).
Stretching can mean a lot of things, but for us it means stretching a muscle and holding the position for a specific amount of time. When it comes to maximizing shoulder mobility, your stretching routine should focus on muscles that might be limiting the type of mobility that you’re struggling with (7). For example, if you’re struggling with overhead mobility, you might need to focus on stretches for your latissimus dorsi muscles. Likewise, if you’re struggling to reach behind your back, you might want to focus on stretching out the external rotators of your shoulder.
Strengthening exercises are essential for getting your shoulder mobility back. Most of us spend time working on our shoulders in the gym with exercises like shoulder presses and lateral raises, and while these exercises are great for developing big deltoid muscles, they typically leave smaller muscles out of the picture. What's more, most exercises don't train any mobility of your shoulder joint! Just like with stretching, strengthening exercises should be focused on the muscles or movements that are limited (8). Unfortunately for most of us, this means leaving your pride at the door and focusing on bodyweight or lightweight exercises to get real work done for your shoulder mobility.
What are the benefits of Shoulder Mobility?
Working on your shoulder mobility can have numerous benefits to your exercise performance and overall fitness - two of the biggest are improved performance and reduced injury risk.
When you improve your shoulder mobility, you can expect to see improvements in your exercise technique and endurance. Having ideal shoulder mobility during your resistance exercises will help your body align correctly and produce the most force possible with less effort, leading to improved strength and muscle gains. Even better, increased strength will lead to better maintenance of the mobility that you already have.
Performing your exercise movements with ideal shoulder mobility will also reduce your risk of injury, but why? When you exercise with correct technique, you are getting the most force with the least stress on your shoulder joint. This allows your tendons, bones, and other tissues to move smoothly and limit excess friction. On the other hand, exercising with poor technique will cause increased stress on your shoulder and nearby structures in order to compensate for a lack of mobility. This means that your shoulder will suffer increased friction, accelerated wear, and ultimately increased injury risk (9).
Regardless of your experience or strength level, staying on top of your shoulder mobility routine will help you reap the benefits in the gym.
Does Shoulder Mobility improve athletic performance?
Although you may not consider shoulder mobility as a big factor in your athletic performance, it can seriously help or hurt how you stack up against the competition.
Many sports require throwing, reaching, and a variety of other movements that require pushing your shoulder joint to the maximum (10). In these scenarios, having better control of your motion will translate to a better throw, swing, or stroke. This means that by working on your shoulder mobility, particularly the areas that you notice limitations in, you can expect to see improvements in your athletic performance.
Different sports have different shoulder mobility demands, so understanding the movements of your sport should be the first step in your training program. Once you know what the requirements of your sport are, and where your shoulder mobility deficits are, you can build a stretching and strengthening plan that gets you the best results possible.
5 Exercises You Need to Maximize Your Shoulder Health
Your body is unique, and your exercise needs are no exception. Because of this, it might take years to dial in the perfect exercise routine for maximizing your shoulder health. That said, there are some crowd-pleasing favorites that can improve your overall shoulder health and promote better shoulder mobility:
Assisted Motion with a Stick
A good way to improve your shoulder mobility is with active assisted range of motion (AAROM), and you can use a stick to help! Start by sitting, standing, or lying with the end of a stick in your hand on your limited side. Actively move your shoulder into the end range of the limited motion, then gently apply force with your opposite hand, using the stick to generate more motion at your shoulder. Repeat slowly for 1-2 minutes.
Check out these examples:
Shoulder Rotation with Resistance
We know that strengthening exercise is an effective way to improve your shoulder mobility, so don’t forget your resistance bands! Start by tying your band to a pole or anchor and standing far enough away so that the band has some tension, with your elbow bent 90 degrees. Slowly rotate your arm against the resistance to the end range, pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat until your shoulder is fatigued or your range of motion becomes more limited, performing up to 3 sets.
Check out these examples:
Shoulder Mobilizations with a Power Band
Power bands are technically just very thick resistance bands, and you can use them to improve your shoulder mobility! Start by anchoring one end of the power band to a sturdy anchor, with the other end looped around your shoulder joint (at the highest point of your upper arm). Step far enough away from the anchor that you begin to feel a strong pull from the band. Slowly move your arm through the limited motion, repeating for 1-2 minutes. Each shoulder motion requires a different setup for the power band, so make sure to figure out your target motion before trying this exercise.
Check out these examples:
Sleeper Stretch for Internal Rotation
The sleeper stretch is one of the most popular shoulder mobility exercises of all time, and for good reason! Start by lying on your side with your limited shoulder closest to the ground and your elbow lined up in front of your shoulder bent at 90 degrees. Using your top arm, grab the wrist of your lower arm and slowly crank your arm down so that your palm is moving toward the floor. When you feel a strong stretch in your bottom shoulder, hold for 10-30 seconds, relax, and repeat 3-5 times (depending on the length of your hold).
Check out these examples:
Soft Tissue Mobilization with a Lacrosse Ball
Everyone needs a massage now and then, including your shoulder! Start by placing a lacrosse or tennis ball on the back side of your shoulder, just below the spine of your shoulder blade, and lean against a wall. Slowly apply pressure into the ball, hold, then relax. Move the ball slightly between holds to find the tense spots of your shoulder, rolling the ball around only if you can tolerate the pressure. Aim for 1-2 minutes total and combine with active shoulder motions as you feel able.
Check out these examples:
Frequently Asked Questions About Shoulder Mobility
1) What's the best exercise for shoulder mobility?
Everyone has their own shoulder mobility needs and shortcomings, and the exercises that you will need to improve your own shoulder mobility are unique to your situation. Because of this, there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all exercise that will improve your shoulder mobility. Instead, we recommend figuring out what your needs are and finding exercises that match those needs.
2) What are the most common causes of shoulder dysfunction?
While there are hundreds of potential causes for shoulder dysfunction and mobility loss, a few stand out: inactivity and poor exercise technique. Inactivity, or limited use of your shoulder, causes a decrease in joint circulation and lubrication, and promotes reduced shoulder mobility over time. Poor exercise technique will lead to repetitive stress on your shoulder joint due to compensation patterns, creating inflammation and stiffness that limits your shoulder mobility.
3) What are some signs of a shoulder impingement?
Shoulder impingement, or subacromial impingement, means that the tendons of your rotator cuff or biceps muscle are being compressed by the top of your shoulder (known as your acromion process). Some common signs of shoulder impingement include shoulder pain with raising your arm away from your body (known as a painful arc test) and pain with resisted shoulder abduction (bringing your arm out to your side).
4) Does lifting weights decrease shoulder mobility?
No, lifting weights with correct technique does not decrease your shoulder mobility. However, lifting weights consistently with incorrect technique may cause stiffness and pain in your shoulder, resulting in decreased shoulder mobility.
5) Can you gain shoulder mass without losing shoulder mobility?
In most cases, gaining muscle mass in your shoulders will not cause you to lose shoulder mobility - in fact, you may even find that your shoulder mobility improves with regular exercise because you are strengthening your shoulders into end-range positions. Of course, if you’re a bodybuilder who is fixated on building the largest shoulders possible, you may end up running into problems in certain positions due to muscle tissue pushing against other structures (called soft tissue approximation). For most of us, this will likely never be a concern.
Alex Stone is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is experienced in orthopedics and sports medicine with an emphasis on performance optimization.
Alex creates educational content for apps, websites and social media (@dr.alexstone). He is passionate about health science education, exercise science, and general health/wellness optimization.
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