Last month, we reviewed some of the basics behind shoulder joint anatomy and mobility. And in dissecting all its complex structures and wide range of motion, we established just how versatile the joint is and how much it contributes to our everyday movement.
However, in order to capitalize on the full range of movement, we need to focus on achieving peak mobility. Because the shoulder joint comprises so many different structures and tissues, you have to be more deliberate in maintaining sufficient mobility (and strength!) to prevent biomechanical deficiencies or compensations.
And that’s exactly what we’re here to do.
In this blog, we’re going to dive into a variety of exercises designed to target the various facets of limited shoulder movement. As mentioned in the previous installment, there are two main types of restriction that can affect our shoulders: limited mobility, and limited range of motion.
(We know it doesn’t sound like there’s much of a difference there, but we’ll get into that.)
So, without further ado, let’s get to mobilizing!
Best Exercises for Improving Shoulder Mobility
Alright. We’ve been throwing around the term “mobility” quite a bit in these blogs, so it’s high time we make the distinction between mobility and range of motion (ROM).
For starters, your ROM is as straightforward as the name suggests — it’s the complete range of how far your anatomical structures can move on each plane of movement, usually measured by degrees to assess how much flexion or extension your joint can achieve.
Whereas your mobility specifically refers to how well you can control your muscles as they move through their complete ROM.
In other words, the former defines the parameters of your movement, and the latter suggests how effectively your body can move within said parameters.
This distinction plays an important role in determining what exercises you need for optimal motion. For improved mobility, your exercises are more central to working your tissues (aptly known as “tissue mobilization” in the physical therapy world). These exercises focus on stretching and alleviating tightness or tension in the muscle tissue, ensuring that they’re physically prepared for movement.
We’ll review the purpose of ROM exercises in the next section, but let’s first take a closer look at some of the best exercises to better your shoulder mobility.
#1: Shoulder (Internal Rotators) Stretch
Lie down on your back with a pillow next to your symptomatic arm. (Make sure the pillow is simply supporting the side of your arm; if the pillow is underneath your shoulder, it will end up limiting the stretch!)
Hold a broom stick in both hands, keeping both your elbows bent at 90 degrees. From this starting position, use your unaffected arm to push the stick across your body towards the symptomatic arm. Turn your forearm outwards along with the motion of the stick, but focus on keeping your upper arm next to your body.
When done correctly, you should feel a stretch at the front of your shoulder. Hold this stretch for a few seconds and return to the starting position.
#2: The “Sleeper Stretch”
(Or, more officially known as a side-lying stretch for your shoulder external rotators.)
Lie on your affected side with the arm out in front and your elbow bent at 90 degrees. Place your other hand on the back of your wrist, then push down to rotate the affected forearm.
As you perform this stretch, make sure that your shoulder doesn’t hunch or move upwards. This will create the opposite effect, increasing tension in your shoulder and neck muscles.
Through the rotational motion, you’ll feel a stretch over the back and top of your shoulder. At the maximal point of rotation, hold the stretch for about 60 seconds, then return to the starting position; repeat for a total of 3 times.
#3: Soft Tissue Release (Infraspinatus / Teres Minor Muscles)
For this one, grab 2 tennis balls to help with the tissue mobilization! You’ll need to tape the tennis balls together.
Stand up straight next to a wall (on your affected side) and place the tennis balls on the wall, then lean against them with moderate pressure. Lift your arm up to shoulder height and across the body, using your other arm to hold it in place.
Holding this position, slowly rotate your body away from the wall, then back towards it. The tennis balls should roll across the side and back of your shoulder joint, helping to loosen the muscle tissue and alleviate tightness.
As you get more comfortable with the motion, you can increase or decrease the pressure against the balls based on how it feels for your shoulder.
#4: Kneeling Lat Stretch
Start in a kneeling position and lean forward at the hips. Prop your elbows against an elevated surface, about chair height, and hold a broom stick (or similar household item) between both hands. Keep your palms facing up so your shoulders naturally move into a slight, externally rotated position.
From this starting position, sit back into your hips and bring your head between your arms. Make sure your spine rests in a neutral position so you can avoid excessive lumbar extension (i.e., arching in the lower back). With proper, neutral posture, your back will remain nice and flat and allow for a hearty stretch in your lat muscles.
Simply drop your weight down until you feel the stretch, hold the position for about 60 seconds, then slowly bring your body back up to the starting position.
For a bonus stretch, you can bend your elbows further to bring the broomstick over your head. This will prompt your body to drop further, allowing for an extra stretch in your tricep muscles (which attach indirectly within the shoulder joint).
#5: Pec Minor Stretch
(We provide 2 variations of this stretch: 1 with a ball and 1 with a foam roller. Though they both stretch out your pectoralis minor muscle, each exercise comes with its own slightly distinct results.)
First, we’ll review the stretch using a ball. In the upper front portion of your shoulder (right around the outer end of your collar bone), you should feel a bony prominence — this is where the pec minor muscle starts, in relation to the shoulder joint.
Place the ball against this part of your joint and push it against a wall to apply pressure to that spot. When you bring your arm back a bit, you should feel an initial stretch in the muscle.
You can continue to deepen the stretch by leaning into the ball more and rolling it around just slightly over that area. Apply that pressure and subtle motion for 60 seconds and repeat it 3 times on both shoulders.
Conversely, if you need more of a prolonged stretch for the pec minor, the alternative foam roller stretch will be better suited for your mobility.
Take a foam roller and lay down on it vertically, ensuring that your hips are fully supported, your back is flat, and your head is back. Bend your arms into a “W” shape, tucking your shoulder blades back. From this position, slowly pull your elbows down to prompt that stretch in the pec minor, and hold that stretch for your recommended amount of time. (A common recommendation looks something like a 60-second hold for 3 repetitions.)
#6: Wall Slides
Place you back against a wall and position your arms in a “W” shape (just like the foam roll pec minor stretch from before, but standing upright). Keep your wrists against the wall and focus on making your back as flat as possible — to eliminate all the space between the wall and your lower back, inch your feet forward until you can successfully tilt your hips back and flatten your back completely. Once you’ve achieved this positioning, be sure to keep your hips tilted back, your core muscles engaged, and your rib cage tucked in. (All of this will ensure that you can extend your chest during the exercise without any compensation in your lower back.)
From this position, push your chest out (achieving thoracic extension) and squeeze your shoulder blades back and down. This will activate the mid and lower trapezius muscles in your back, as long as you maintain optimal core activation.
You should already feel a good squeeze between the shoulder blades at this point, which you will continue to deepen as you slowly bring your arms up from that “W” position. Focus on keeping your wrists against the wall and extending your chest outward to achieve that increased squeezing sensation. Then slowly bring your arms back down to that starting “W” position and repeat the exercise 3 times.
Best Exercises for Improving Shoulder Range of Motion
Now you know how to get your muscles nice and mobile. Next, let’s look at how to improve your actual ROM to optimize your shoulder’s movement.
As we mentioned before, your ROM refers to the maximum degree of movement your shoulder joint can manage (i.e., it’s specific to the biomechanical motions of your shoulder). And though improving your ROM is an entirely distinct process from improving mobility, being able to effectively control your shoulders and arms through a full ROM is still dependent on how mobile and flexible the joint tissues are.
This means that ROM training often requires some degree of mobility work beforehand. (Also, practicing regular tissue mobilization can be a helpful best practice for maintaining peak functionality anyway.)
Once you’ve ensured that the tissues surrounding your shoulder joint are mobile and ready to move, you can work through the following exercises to start improving that ROM.
#1: Shoulder Flexion (Supine Position)
Shoulder flexion and extension occurs when you bring your arms directly forward and backward on the sagittal plane. (You can visualize the sagittal plane by picturing a line down the middle of your body. Any movements on this plane run parallel to this midline.)
Lying on your back, hold a stick across your pelvis, using both hands with your palms facing toward you. Keeping your neck long and shoulder blades flat against the floor (or surface you’re lying upon), lift the stick up towards the ceiling while maintaining straight arms.
As you lower your arms back down, focus on controlling the movement; if you simply let your arms fall back to the starting position, you’re effectively just going through the motions. The key is to really channel your mobility and muscle strength, that way you achieve optimal control over flexion and extension at the shoulder.
#2: Shoulder Abduction (Standing Position)
With shoulder abduction, you’re moving in the frontal plane — that is, your motions only move in lateral directions. Abduction is the particular mechanic that allows you to move your arm away from the body, like when you’re lifting your arms up into a rep of jumping jacks.
For this exercise, you can mirror a similar position as the stretch for your internal rotators (exercise #1 from the mobility section). Hold a stick in front of you around hip level, with one hand on each end. Keeping your shoulders and upper back relaxed, use your unaffected arm and push the stick so it moves diagonally across your body.
Without resisting the push, your affected arm will be lifted up and out to the side. Ensure that you don’t hunch at the shoulders or twist at the torso; either deviation will take away from solely practicing abduction at the shoulder joint. (This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but the purpose of these exercises is to isolate particular aspects of shoulder ROM to ensure there is sufficient control on each plane of motion.)
Once you’ve hit the maximum degree of abduction with your shoulder, carefully control the descent of your arm as you bring it back to starting position through the inverse motion known as “adduction.”
#3: Scapular Plane Abduction (Standing Position)
Similar to the previous exercise, you’ll want to practice abduction specific to your shoulder blades (otherwise known as your scapula) as well. Though this movement isn’t quite as visibly apparent as the abduction of your arms, the concept is still the same: your shoulder blades move away from the midline of your body.
Once again, use both hands to hold a stick at hip level, then lift your arms forward and up.
The primary differentiation between this motion versus the shoulder flexion exercise from before is that your shoulder blades aren’t flat against a surface anymore. Now, this combined forward and upward motion (along with the stick) guides your arms to move within the scapular plane.
This is one of the reasons your shoulder joint is so unique — most joints only function on the 3 primary planes of movement, like the sagittal, transverse, or frontal planes. But your shoulder joint allows for an entirely different plane of motion known as the scapular plane, which is essentially like the halfway point between your sagittal and frontal planes:
It’s this particular ability that, with normalized biomechanics, allows you to elevate and rotate your arms during everyday movement. (Per our previous blog detailing the anatomy of the shoulder joint, this becomes especially important in order to avoid impingement or other issues within the various structures within the shoulder.)
And, just as with the other exercises, avoid hunching at the shoulders, and focus on controlling your movement as you lower your arms back down to the starting position.
#4: Shoulder External Rotation (Supine Position)
Alright, lastly, we have 1 more exercise to improve your ROM — and it’s the same as the very first 1 we mentioned at the start.
That’s right! The first mobility exercise we reviewed to stretch out your internal rotators is the same execution for improving your external rotation ROM.
It sounds a little strange at first, but it’s important to take into consideration how different the goals are between mobility and ROM. (When it comes to biomechanics, your intention can make the world of a difference.)
With mobility, your goal is to stretch the muscles and ensure they’re limber enough for motion. (And what better way to achieve a good stretch than to move those muscles in the opposite direction?)
But with ROM, the focus is central to establishing sufficient control and stability throughout your movement. So, while this may technically be a “repeat” exercise, your results will say otherwise. So, be sure to dial in to that muscular control this time around; when you’re moving your arm back to its starting position, focus on that steady pacing, rather than achieving a particular stretch and static hold.
Move Those Shoulders!
And there you have it: some of the best, tried-and-true exercises to hone your shoulder mobility and ROM.
While our shoulder joints are highly capable anatomical structures, it’s important we don’t take them for granted. Learning to care for their capabilities is just as important as being able to execute them, and that kind of maintenance takes more forethought than most people assume.
The next time you catch yourself rolling your shoulder back to loosen it up, take a moment to acknowledge that discomfort, no matter how minor! With advanced biomechanics comes advanced responsibility — and now you have the baseline knowledge to try and hold yourself accountable to that optimal maintenance.