Do you experience shoulder discomfort when you lift? Likewise, do you find it hard to maintain a strong overhead position? Take the following “test” to determine if you need to work on mobility or stability. Then, follow the steps below to build a stronger, healthier shoulder.
A simple test to determine if your shoulder joint is both mobile and stable: Grab a PVC pipe and do some pass throughs. Make sure that you are able to keep your elbows locked from start to finish and maintain good posture through out. How narrow can you go?
If you can maintain locked elbows and complete a pass through with your hands slightly narrower than a snatch grip, your mobility is good and your shoulders are probably pretty stable.
If you are able to do a pass through with your hands around shoulder width apart (narrow), you’re probably hyper mobile and your shoulder joint could benefit from some stability work.
If you are unable to do a pass through at all, have to bend your elbows, or need to move you hands all the way to the ends of the PVC pipe, your shoulders need mobility work and you should cease all stability exercises for now. They are too tight!
Mobility? Stability? What?
Mobility= The combination of muscle flexibility, joint range of motion, and the ability of the body segments to move.
Stability= The ability to maintain posture (static) and to control motion during change (dynamic).
In his book Movement: Functional Movement Systems, Screening, Assessment and Corrective Strategies,Dr. Gray Cook, MSPT explains, “The shoulder joint has a tendency towards stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of mobility and flexibility.” This is true for most people. I notice this issue most especially with men I have coached, though it can certainly be the case for women. Any one who struggles to get into the rack position for a front squat definitely falls under the category of needing to improve shoulder mobility.
On the flip side, I’ve always been plagued with hyper-mobile joints. When I was a kid, I thought popping my shoulder in and out of the joint was a cool trick. It’s not, though I can still do it. My shoulders need stability work and I’m working with Dr. Jordan August of Benedetto Sports Orthopedics to strengthen my shoulder positions.
I’m not the only one with this issue. I had a member who could do a pass through with her hands touching one another. I could literally see her joints dislocate as she performed the pass through. Needless to say, she wasn’t allowed to do them anymore, or even stretch her shoulders much. Instead, she was given accessory work to improve her shoulder stability.
So You Know Your Issue, What Do You About It?
Taking less than 10 minutes a day three days a week to work on these issues can make the difference between a strong, functional shoulder and a weak, tight one.
These three exercises are a great place to start if you want to see improvement in your shoulder mobility or flexibility.
To Increase Mobility:
Sleeper Stretch: Lay on your side with your arm bent 90 degrees (hand is toward the ceiling). Use your other hand to gently push the back of your hand toward the ground. Don’t force the push. This should be a stretch, not a strain. Hold for 2 minutes per side.
Twisted Cross Stretch: Lay face down on the floor with your hands out in a T (like a Cross). Then, roll your body so that you are on your side with one arm still stretched out behind you. Hold for 2 minutes per side.
Archer Stretch: Sit with your butt on your ankles and your shins on the floor with your knees out wide. Take one arm and place it behind your back. With your other arm, reach overhead and behind your back to grab your first hand. If you can not reach this far, use a towel or a band in each hand to get a good stretch. Hold for 2 minutes on each side.
RomWod is also a great tool to help with increasing mobility. You can use the filter feature to find programming specific to shoulders instead of following the daily “workout.” I use this feature all the time to work on my tight hips. (You can read my review of RomWod here and get an extended two-week free trial of RomWod by clicking here).
To Increase Stability:
External Banded Rotation of the Arm at 90 degrees: Attach a light resistance band to the leg of a desk. (Not the kind of band that helps with pull ups. Use a Theraband). Pull back so that the band is tight and your arm is bent 90 degrees extending out from your shoulder with your palm towards the ground. Then, keeping your elbow at that height, quickly rotate your arm so that your hand is now pointing towards the ceiling. Return to start position slowly. Repeat for 3 sets of 10 per arm.
IYTs: Lay flat on a bench with chest off the bench and arms hanging straight down with 1 to 2 lbs in each hand (Less is more here). Focusing on the area between your shoulder blades, quickly pull your arms straight up so that your body forms the letter I. Hold, then slowly return to start position. Then, quickly pull your arms straight up so that your body forms the letter Y, hold, and slowly return to start. Finally, quickly pull your arms out to the side so that your body creates the letter T. Hold position and then slowly return to start. The entire time, you want to focus on squeezing between your shoulder blades. Repeat for 3 sets of 10.
Waiter Walks: Press a kettlebell over head and lock this position in. Then, walk 20 steps, focusing on keeping the kettlebell in place. To make it more challenging, hold the handle of the kettlebell with the bottom of the kettlebell up towards the ceiling. Repeat 3x on each side.
Accessory work like this is important and developing both good mobility and stability will enhance your experience as an athlete. If you want to perform better, you need to take the time to do the little things that make the difference. Showing up to class and lifting is great, but you’ll only get so far before mobility/stability issues prevent you from reaching the next level. Avoid hitting that plateau by working now to make the shoulder more flexible and stronger so that you can excel in your sport.