First, the good news: your shoulders are an amazing and complicated feat of anatomical engineering.
They can move in nearly every plane of motion, up and down, side to side, and in circles in lots of different directions.
But because they can move in so many different ways, the number of things that can go wrong with them is pretty overwhelming.
And not only that, if you do end up with a problem it’s often hard for doctors to diagnose exactly what’s going on inside or around your shoulder without a lot of expensive tests.
That’s why you’re much better off working to keep your shoulders healthy than you are trying to fix them.
Modern Lifestyle vs. Your Shoulders
But the truth is, when it comes your shoulders, pretty much everything in our lives works against them.
The way you sit, drive, use technology, and exercise (or don’t exercise) can get into the way.
When you sit with your shoulders rolled forward (as most of us do), we tighten our chest muscles and weaken our upper back muscles. Our necks get involved, and so can our abs and hips (yes, even our hips!).
As a result of so many muscles being involved, this poor posture becomes second nature. It feels normal.
And the older you get, the higher the risk of developing shoulder issues. At least 50 percent of 50 year olds show some rotator cuff damage in MRIs! (1)
I mean, just look at how your shoulder is constructed (and this is just the front view. The rear view is also complicated):
Why Shoulder Mobility Matters
I recently wrote a post about mobility, and how important it is to keep a balance of flexibility, strength, and stability through our joints. If some muscles get too tight and others too loose/weak, we can end up with imbalances that can eventually lead to injury.
And when you have a joint as mobile as the shoulder, that imbalance issue can be critical. Another recent post addressed the slouched-shoulder posture (also called upper crossed syndrome) caused by cellphones and working at a keyboard all day.
If you’ve been pounding the heck out of your shoulders during your workouts hoping to build a sculpted, athletic upper body while not taking care of the joint you’re asking for trouble.
Shoulder pain is no joke: once it strikes, it can be hard to sleep, get dressed, or even walk the dog, much less work out.
Here’s a list of some common shoulder issues:
- Frozen shoulder
- Winged scapula
- Shoulder tendonitis
- Rotator cuff tendonitis
- Subacromial bursitis
- Shoulder impingement syndrome
- Glenoid labrum tear
- Supraspinatus inflammation
- Biceps tendonitis can also be involved
Shoulder Flexibility Exercises
First of all, lemme just say I’m not a doctor or physical therapist. I’m a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist who has trained a boatload of clients with shoulder problems over the years.
If you have active pain in your shoulder, you should get it checked out by a doc as soon as possible to avoid complications or making the situation worse.
If you’re clear to do exercises, the National Academy of Sports Medicine has a basic formula for maintaining or rebuilding mobility.
Here’s the basic formula, in order:
- Self-myofascial release (SMR) using a foam roll, lacrosse or tennis ball, or other device to help improve range of motion (how? check this out.)
- Static stretching, where you hold a position for 20 to 30 seconds to improve flexibility.
- Dynamic/isolated stretching and strengthening exercises that target the weak muscles.
- When the muscle is strong enough, add in integrated strength exercises that make the weak muscles work in concert with the rest of your body.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds – I got you covered.
Exercises for Shoulder Mobility
The key to all of these exercises – and any other mobility work (or I would argue even any other exercises) – is to do them mindfully, with good posture.
That means your core should be “on,” joints/elbows/knees/etc. unlocked unless locking them is required by the exercise, etc. Basically, take these exercises and stretches slowly, in a controlled fashion, and feel every muscle reacting to the movements.
In order to create that long, lean, sculpted posture, you need to work the muscles when they are in their optimal positions, right?
Ready? Let’s go.
Self-Myofascial Techniques for the Shoulder
When you’re foam rolling or using a ball, you want to slowly roll the targeted area until you find a tender spot. Hold the ball/roll on that spot until the discomfort eases, between 30 to 90 seconds.
During that time, you want to maintain your core stability by keeping your navel drawn in toward your spine.
You might also want to play around and see how modifying angles or your position affects your muscles.
Latissimus dorsi (side/upper back)
- Lean forward and/or roll back to find the best angle.
- Note: I’m smiling in the pic but this one can hurt like a [email protected]@rd. No joke.
- Hold for 30 to 90 seconds
Thoracic spine (upper back)
- Abs engaged, move your upper back along the foam roll until you find a tender spot.
- Lift your hips for more pressure, lower them for less
- This one often has fewer tender spots than the lats.
- Avoid directly rolling on the neck or the spine.
- Hold for 30 to 90 seconds.
Pec/Shoulder/Teres major with ball
- Place a tennis or lacrosse ball between the front/side of your shoulder (in toward your chest slightly) and a wall.
- Abs on, shoulders and head in alignment, move until you feel a tender spot.
- This one can take some finessing.
- Hold for 30 to 90 seconds.
Upper Back with ball
- This one is not pictured. Similar to the chest/ball SMR technique, except on your upper back.
- Start with the ball near your shoulder, and roll inward toward your spine until you feel tenderness.
- You might need to move the ball up and/or down to find a spot.
- Avoid rolling directly on your spine or neck.
- Hold for 30 to 90 seconds on tender areas.
Static Stretches for the Shoulders
You do not need a ball for the lat or chest stretch – I sometimes do them on a bench.
It can be helpful to do these twice – do them as a little stretching circuit in a row, two times through.
- Kneel on the floor, abs engaged.
- Put one arm on a stability ball, thumb up, and roll the ball out until you feel gentle tension.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
- As above, except, this time, both arms are on the ball, lean forward and let your upper chest fall between your arms.
- You should feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders and your upper chest.
- Your neck should remain in neutral position (i.e., do not let your head drop down toward the floor).
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds
Abdominal Complex and Shoulder Stretch
- This is one of my current favorites.
- Lie with your back on a stability ball, and drape your body over it.
- Be sure to keep your glutes engaged.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds
Dynamic Movements for Shoulders
“Quadruped” Shoulder Roll
If you have locked-up shoulder blades, this one is going to make you go, “What? How do I even do that?”
How do I know that? Because I’ve felt that way myself.
Basically, all you do is get on all fours, lock out your elbows, and “roll” your shoulders in a circle, up, forward, down, and back.
(PS: quadruped = on all fours)
This is similar to the movement above, but it takes the strength up several notches.
Get into a high plank (from hands), shoulders aligned over wrists. Lock elbows and press shoulder blades apart, and then bring them together.
Sphinx with Front Reach
For this one, lie on your belly on the floor, elbows under shoulders.
Keeping head tall but chin neutral, squeeze your glutes and lift one arm up (hand thumb up) in front of you. Slowly lower and repeat on the other side.
Stability Ball Cobra
Lie with your hips/low abs on a stability ball, feet about hip-width apart, arms reached down in front you, thumbs up.
Squeezing your glutes, lift your upper body as you sweep your arms back, thumbs up.
Note: If you cannot do this movement because your legs keep slipping out from under you, try anchoring your feet under a piece of furniture or weight bench until you can do it without the anchor. You also can experiment with different sized stability balls.
Integrated Strength Exercises
Single-leg deadlift with Arm Reach
- Stand on your right foot with the left foot elevated, dumbbell in left hand.
- Reach down toward your right foot.
- As you come back to standing, lift left hand out to the side.
- Repeat for 6 to 8 reps each side.
Stability Ball Row to Overhead Press
- Drape your body over a stability ball that is directly under your thighs and hips
- Using your abs, lift your upper body so that your body forms a straight line from your heels to your hips.
- Keep your glutes squeezed and abs engaged to hold your body in place.
- Hold a resistance tube, dowel, or light bar in your hands, directly below your chest.
- “Row” upward, toward your chest.
- Next, press the arms so they extend in a straight line above your head.
- Return the arms back to chest level
- And then “row” your arms back down.
- Repeat for 10 to 12 repetitions, keeping your glutes and abs engaged.
Now, obviously you don’t have to do all these exercises every time you work out, but working them into your routine a few times a week wouldn’t hurt.
I like to do all of them up to the integrated strength (the deadlift and stability row) as many days as possible, preferably not during my own workout.
Time allowing, I work them into an evening wind-down mobility routine that I do when – you guessed it – I’m winding down for the day.
I often want to skip doing the routine, but I know that afterward, I always feel better, looser and more relaxed. And I notice that my shoulders feel better the next day too.
Try these and let me know how you make out!
A Strong Core is Key to Mobile Shoulders
You probably noticed how many times I mentioned “abs on” in this post, right? That’s because our abs – or our core – help hold all of our muscles in place.
And having a strong core is pretty important when it comes to holding your shoulders and hips where they are supposed to be.
Doing endless crunches can actually be a bad idea if you have hunched shoulders because they just reinforce that posture.
By making slight adjustments in your workout AND your nutrition, you can start to feel a huge difference in your core, fast! Want to know more? Sign up for the FREE 6-Day Core Challenge! Just click the banner below and you’ll be on your way to flatter, leaner abs.