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Struggling With Shoulder Mobility? Here’s Your Fix



QUICK, STAND UP and reach your arm overhead. Does your back arch as you do this? Does your chest puff out like a cartoon character?

If you answered both questions with a resounding ‘yes,’ then there’s a good chance that your shoulder mobility could use work. And in an era that has us hunch forward over desks and laptops and smartphones, you’re far from the first person to battle this postural flaw. ‘It’s the least sexy topic in fitness,’ says trainer Jack Hanrahan, C.S.C.S. ‘But it’s actually priority number one to get the results you want.’

This is true no matter your fitness goals. Building muscle? Stable, mobile shoulders let you maximise classic exercises like the bench press and pull-up. Want to stay healthy? Improving your shoulders’ stability and range of motion can prevent shoulder and back pain.

To do all that, you need to understand a joint that movement guru Kelly Starrett, DPT, calls a ‘black hole of misunderstanding.’ Few joints are influenced by the muscles around them (think: chest, lats, and even small core muscles) more than your shoulders. But you can start improving your shoulder mobility by zoning in on these five questions.

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How Does My Shoulder Move?

FEW JOINTS ARE as versatile as your shoulder. You should be able to lift it up overhead, as you do when you reach your arm toward the ceiling (an idea called ‘shoulder flexion’). You also use your shoulder to raise your arm out to the side, as you do during lateral raises, and to pull your arm close to your torso.

You make these motions often during workouts – and IRL, too. Stuffing your luggage into the overhead compartment on the plane? Thank shoulder flexion for that. ‘The reason we hammer on people restoring the normative range of their shoulders is it means we can swim faster, we can lift more,’ says Starrett.

Your shoulder also moves in two more subtle ways. Raise your arm out to the side (as if doing a lateral raise), then bend your elbow at 90 degrees, fist facing in front of you. Rotate your arm so your fist points toward the ceiling. This is ‘external’ rotation, and it’s key to shoulder health. So too is ‘internal’ rotation, which occurs when you rotate your arm so your fist points downwards to the floor.

What Are Stealthy Signs I Lack Shoulder Mobility?

WHEN YOUR SHOULDERS’ range of motion is limited, they ‘borrow’ from other joints, says MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. ‘This is what happens when you reach overhead, but need to arch your back when doing so,’ says Samuel. ‘And when you’re constantly borrowing from your torso to make movements with your arms, you may invite injury, especially when you do that under heavy load.’

Try doing a push-up. Did you flare your elbows, even if you were trying to keep them close to your body? That’s because your shoulders lack external rotation, which could lead to a shoulder injury. Did you reach upward and have to arch your back? That’s a lack of shoulder flexion – and a recipe for back pain.

The ultimate shoulder mobility test, says Hanrahan, is this: Stand with your back against a wall, hands overhead, butt, shoulder blades, and wrists against the wall. Can you lower our arms while keeping wrists, elbows, and shoulder blades against the wall? If you can’t, your shoulder mobility needs work.

I Failed the Test! What Do I Do?

THE EASIEST WAY to start repairing your shoulder mobility is to tweak your workout just slightly, says Samuel. ‘Very often, shoulder issues start with larger muscular imbalances,’ he says.

Frequently, your shoulders struggle to move overhead because of mid-back muscles that are far weaker than your chest muscles. Plenty of gym bros love to bench press, for example, and too few spend time training their rhomboids, powerful muscles that sit between your shoulder blades. ‘The people with the worst mobility issues, by far, are people who have lots of lifting experience,’ says Hanrahan.

You can begin correcting this by embracing exercises like the dumbbell row and plank row. Both moves will supercharge your rhomboids, while strengthening your lats and rear delts. Start your weeks by training rows, says Samuel, and make sure to do more sets of rows every week than bench presses and push-ups. ‘If you do eight total sets of push-up or bench press variations each week, you should do 10 total sets of rows,’ he says. ‘Your back should be just as strong as your chest, if not moreso.’

Are There Specific Shoulder Exercise I Should Do?

YES! CHIEF AMONG these are shoulder external rotation movements, says Samuel. Grab a light resistance band and anchor it to something about hip height. Stand with your right shoulder toward the anchor site, and grab the band’s handle with your left hand, elbow at 90 degrees, forearm parallel to the ground. Pin your elbow to your torso and rotate outwards as far as you can. Do two sets of 20 to 30 reps daily, strengthening your shoulders’ external rotation and prepping your body for bench presses, shoulder presses, and other upper-body exercises.

You should also work to strengthen smaller back muscles, too, says Hanrahan. Muscles like your lower traps and lats help hold your shoulder blade in proper position, preventing it from flaring outwards when you reach your arm overhead. Train those with Y raises: Lie with your chest on a bench set to a 45-degree incline, light dumbbells in your hands, arms hanging naturally. Squeeze your shoulder blades and pull them down to your hips, then raise your arms upwards and outwards, aiming to form a ‘Y’. Do two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps.

How Can I Track My Progress?

HARD WORK WITH mobility doesn’t show up in the same way as building your biceps or pecs – but there are some ways to know if your efforts are paying off.

Starrett loves this test: Hold two 50-pound dumbbells overhead, thumbs facing behind you, dumbbells parallel to each other, arms fully straight, back not arched. Your goal is to hold for 30 seconds; as you hone your shoulder mobility more and more, you’ll find this easier.

You should also work towards push-up and bodyweight row benchmarks, says Hanrahan. Aim to do 10 perfect pushups, and 10 TRX rows, hands grasping the TRX with your torso completely straight, back facing the ground.

The ultimate litmus test of your healthy shoulders, though, will always be how they feel. If you’ve been having light shoulder pain, expect that to diminish as you hone your mobility. And expect to feel stronger on all your exercises, too.

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Kristine Thomason is a writer and editor with nearly a decade of experience creating content for print and digital publications. Previously, she was the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen, and the fitness and wellness editor at Women’s Health. Kristine’s work has appeared in Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, Health, and Refinery29, among others. She holds a journalism degree from New York University, and is certified in personal training by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

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