Top 5 Shoulder Mobility Exercises

Poor shoulder mobility is one of the most common mobility restrictions we see, second to poor hip mobility. While shoulder mobility is definitely of utmost importance for overhead athletes and overhead lifting, it is also extremely important for the everyday person. In fact, a lack of shoulder mobility can lead to issues up and down the kinetic chain, in particularly neck and mid-back pain.

Unfortunately, we see far too many athletes, weekend warriors, and everyday gym-goers waste their precious time foam rolling and performing drills that only result in temporary neurological changes in their shoulder mobility. We do not want temporary changes. We want long-term changes. Changes that translate into our everyday lives and improve our performance and lifting. Thus, the exercises we perform should provide these benefits.

If you want these long-term changes that translate into improved long-term mobility, performance, and pain-relief, the exercises should be active in nature. These 5 shoulder mobility exercises are active mobility exercises that will take you to the next level.

1. Shoulder Internal Rotation Sleeper Stretch

The sleeper stretch has been around for quite some time and is often demonized by some healthcare and rehab professionals for its “safeness” and effectiveness. However, with the proper set-up and execution of the exercise, the sleeper stretch is an extremely safe shoulder mobility exercise to utilize to improve the mobility of your posterior shoulder joint capsule. The sleeper stretch will not only improve your shoulder internal rotation, but will also improve your overhead mobility (shoulder flexion).

If you lack of shoulder flexion, and also lack shoulder internal rotation, this is the place to start. Work on improving your shoulder joint capsule mobility and your overhead positioning often clears up.

PRO TIP: Do not push into any pain or pinching with this stretch. You should feel the stretch in the posterolateral part of your shoulder. You should not feel anything in the front of your shoulder. The isometric contractions within this exercise are the game-changer and provide strength in your newly acquired range of motion. These isometric contractions provide the long-term changes in your shoulder internal rotation mobility.

PROGRAMMING: 2-3 repetitions per side, 3-4 days/week

2. Shoulder External Rotation Americana Stretch

The Americana stretch, like the sleeper stretch, is one that you must execute safely and properly to get the benefits you are looking for. When done properly, it is one of our favorite drills to improve shoulder external rotation by working on the anterior shoulder joint capsule.

Again, if you have a lack of shoulder flexion and external rotation mobility, then this is the place for you to start. Target the shoulder joint capsule and overhead positioning often improves.

PRO TIP: Do not push into any pain or pinching with this stretch. You should feel a stretch in the anterior shoulder. You should not feel any pain or pinching in the back of your shoulder joint. As with the sleeper stretch, the isometric contractions are the game-changer to improve your shoulder mobility for the long-term.

PROGRAMMING: 2-3 repetitions, 3-4 days/week

3. Elevated Prayer Stretch on Bench

The elevated prayer stretch on a weight bench works shoulder flexion mobility while simultaneously improving thoracic extension mobility. Both are pivotal for shoulder mobility and shoulder joint health for the overhead athlete, weightlifter, and everyday person.

PRO TIP: Do not push into any pain or pinching in the back of the shoulder or even in the spine. Really use your thoracic spine paraspinals (the muscles along your upper back) to pull yourself into extension. Do not shove or jut your neck forwards, keep it in line with the rest of your spine.

PROGRAMMING: 12-15 repetitions, holding at the bottom for 2-3 seconds, 3-4 days/week

4. Scapular Joint Circles

Abnormal scapular rhythm, or a lack of scapular control altogether can greatly affect your shoulder mobility. In fact, too many people still adhere to the “keep your shoulder blades down & back” myth that is plaguing the fitness world. Your shoulder blades HAVE TO MOVE and upwardly rotate for you to achieve full shoulder flexion that is pain-free. Working on controlling your scapulae by rotating them around your ribcage in open and closed-chain positions will help you get some movement and motor control back into your scapulae.

PRO TIP: Make sure you are only moving your scapulae around on your ribcage. Do not substitute thoracic spine flexion for shoulder blade protraction. Also, keep your elbows locked out/straight during the entire exercise.

PROGRAMMING: 10-12 joint circles in each direction in both open & closed-chain positions, 5-6 days/week

5. Shoulder Joint Circles

Ever wonder why you have to stretch to regain ranges of motion in the first place? Likely because you “overuse” one part of your range of motion and “underutilize” the opposing ranges of motion. For example, we often take our hands in front of us and overhead (shoulder flexion), but when is the last time you took your heads to your sides and reached straight back and upwards as far as you could (shoulder extension)? If you have not used your shoulder extension range of motion in 6 months, 5 years, or 20+ years, why would you expect to still have that range of motion?

Shoulder joint circles are a great way to not only maintain your shoulder joint ranges of motion, but also work on expanding and strengthening the outer limits of those ranges.

PRO TIP: This is something that should be done daily to remind your brain and body that you have access to all of these ranges of motion. If you do not use them, you lose them. Make sure you are not just haphazardly going through the motions; create tension throughout your entire arm and fight through your ranges of motion.

PROGRAMMING: 10-12 joint circles in each direction, 5-6 days/week

6. BONUS: Supine Kettlebell Pullover

The supine kettlebell pullover is one of our favorite shoulder mobility exercises for a couple reasons: 1) the movement is an eccentric-dominant one that really elongates the tissues while simultaneously building strength & mobility and 2) it incorporates core strength/stability and really hammers the core-shoulder-connection in the overhead position.

PRO TIP: Perform the kettlebell pullover with a properly pressurized and braced core. Slowly pull the bell over your head as far back as you can, stopping before your back starts to arch off of the ground. Each eccentric pullover should be at least 3-5 seconds in duration.

PROGRAMMING: 5-10 repetitions, 3-4 days/week

And there you have it, 6 of our top favorite shoulder mobility exercises.

As always, if you continue to have trouble improving your shoulder mobility after diligently utilizing these exercises, then reach out to a qualified healthcare professional who understands movement, mobility, and strength training. Again, none of these exercises should cause any pain at anytime. If you need help finding a local physical therapist or chiropractor, or you want to schedule an online consultation with us, send us an email. We are happy to help!

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