FOUR STEPS FOR UNLOCKING SHOULDER MOBILITY

FOUR STEPS FOR UNLOCKING SHOULDER MOBILITY

The shoulder joint is one the most mobile areas of our body, allowing for an infinite combination of movements in multiple planes.  Yet, paradoxically, limited range-of-motion, shoulder pain and pathology are extremely common among people who lift weights.

And while we’ve come a long way from the days when working on shoulder mobility meant going light on your first set of military presses, we’re still in the Dark Ages when it comes to creating lasting changes.

Indiscriminant static stretching and isolative rotator cuff strengthening exercises might produce change in the short term, but often fall flat when stretched over a time line.

Here are four strategies that will help improve your shoulder mobility to keep you healthy for the long haul:

Mobilize Positions, Not Muscles

Scar tissue, trigger points, and muscular adhesions limit range of motion, impede force production, and alter length-tension relationships around the shoulder.

Knocking down these nasty bits of gnarled tissue doesn’t have to be an elaborate scavenger hunt.  Simply find a range of motion where you’re limited and mobilize your tissue in that position.

For example, if you’re limited in overhead motion, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to spend all of your time stretching or having soft-tissue work done with your arm below 90-degrees.

With that in mind, here are two drills that will help you increase shoulder flexion.  Note that both drills place the arm at the end range-of-motion in the pattern that you are working to improve.

LAT / POSTERIOR CUFF FOAM ROLL

Make sure to keep your arm in an overhead position as you roll up the lat and back toward the posterior cuff. Roll for 30-45 seconds.  Pause and hold on any particularly sensitive patches of tissue for an extra 5-10 seconds.

LAT MOBILIZATION WITH BAND

Externally rotate your arm before you put tension in the band. Pull into the stretch for 3-5 seconds before releasing. Repeat for 5-10 reps, aiming for a deeper stretch with each rep.

Add Rotation to Thoracic Extension Drills

When the flexion curve of your thoracic spine increases beyond normal limits, the scapulae—which are positioned on top of the rib cage—get tipped to far forward.

This makes it more difficult to raise your arms overhead without creating a compromise elsewhere in the body—especially in the neck and lower back.

To combat excessive forward curvature, it has become popular to introduce thoracic mobilization that push the spine backwards, into extension.

Unfortunately, purely extension-based mobilizations don’t necessarily jibe with what we know about the unique anatomy of this region of the spine.

Using combined extension-rotation drills to leverage the thoracic spine’s large rotational capacity is more effective and safer, especially for those who may also be dealing with degenerative disc disease.

Here are two great drills to simultaneously target extension and rotation:

THORACIC WINDMILL W/TOWEL

Place a rolled-up towel on the floor perpendicular to your body at the thoracic level to add an extension component to this unilateral rotation drill. Perform 8-10 reps on each side.

QUADRIPED THORACIC ROTATION

Mobilize From The Inside Out

If stretching and foam rolling are permanent settlements in the land of do-it-yourself-mobility, then breathing is the next frontier.

From a mobility standpoint, it’s impossible to overstate the influence that 20,000-plus breath cycles a day have on shoulder position.

To oversimplify a bit, static and dynamic structural asymmetries can inhibit diaphragmatic function and alter our ability to move air in and out of our rib cage.

When this happens, the thoracic spine flattens, increasing the resting tension of the muscles that attach to it.

Adding in a few positional breathing techniques can go a long way toward normalizing rib position and improving overhead capacity. Below are a few drills from the Postural Restoration Institute to get you started.

STANDING WALL REACH

Stand with your back against a wall. Take a full breath in through the nose, and then forcefully exhale through the mouth while reaching forward with both arms. Your middle and lower back should stay on the wall throughout.

Repeat for 2-3 sets of 3-4 breaths. Make sure to pause for 3 seconds at the end of each breath.

OVERHEAD BREATHING SQUAT

This exercise builds off of the last exercise, adding both a standing component and taking your arms into an overhead position.

Cement New Ranges of Motion with Strength 

If temporary gains in mobility are going last beyond a single training session, they have to be recognized by the central nervous system, and assimilated into a new movement pattern.

The first step in that process is to pair a mobility drill with a stability exercise, which focuses on postural control, joint centration, and muscular co-contraction, rather than gross strength.

SHOULDER FLEXION/ABDUCTION AT WALL

Then progress to pattern strengthening exercises to further reinforce coordination and timing. For example, to reinforce overhead pressing mechanics I like start with a Bottom-Up Kettlebell Press before progressing to a Kettlebell Push Press.

KB HALF-KNEELING BOTTON-UP PRESS

KB PUSH PRESS

The constantly changing center of gravity makes the Kettlebell a great choice for these types of exercises. Not only does this make the exercise more challenging, but it also produces a huge amount of muscular contraction from rotator cuff and intrinsic stabilizers while sparing the joints with lighter weights.

Conclusion

Soft-tissue mobilization—stretching, foam rolling, etc.—is step one in creating range-of-motion. Perform these at the position of restriction in order to create new pathways for movement.

Thoracic extension drills may be limited in creating lasting changes. Focus instead on exercises that combine extension and rotation.

Mobility problems don’t always live in the superficial muscle and fascia. Diaphragm position, breathing patterns, and rib mobility all influence scapular position and function.

Lock in new ranges of motion with a stability exercise. Then integrate it back into the larger pattern you are trying to improve.

FOUR STEPS FOR UNLOCKING SHOULDER MOBILITY

The shoulder joint is one the most mobile areas of our body, allowing for an infinite combination of movements in multiple planes.  Yet, paradoxically, limited range-of-motion, shoulder pain and pathology are extremely common among people who lift weights.

And while we’ve come a long way from the days when working on shoulder mobility meant going light on your first set of military presses, we’re still in the Dark Ages when it comes to creating lasting changes.

Indiscriminant static stretching and isolative rotator cuff strengthening exercises might produce change in the short term, but often fall flat when stretched over a time line.

Here are four strategies that will help improve your shoulder mobility to keep you healthy for the long haul:

Mobilize Positions, Not Muscles

Scar tissue, trigger points, and muscular adhesions limit range of motion, impede force production, and alter length-tension relationships around the shoulder.

Knocking down these nasty bits of gnarled tissue doesn’t have to be an elaborate scavenger hunt.  Simply find a range of motion where you’re limited and mobilize your tissue in that position.

For example, if you’re limited in overhead motion, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to spend all of your time stretching or having soft-tissue work done with your arm below 90-degrees.

With that in mind, here are two drills that will help you increase shoulder flexion.  Note that both drills place the arm at the end range-of-motion in the pattern that you are working to improve.

LAT / POSTERIOR CUFF FOAM ROLL

Make sure to keep your arm in an overhead position as you roll up the lat and back toward the posterior cuff. Roll for 30-45 seconds.  Pause and hold on any particularly sensitive patches of tissue for an extra 5-10 seconds.

LAT MOBILIZATION WITH BAND

Externally rotate your arm before you put tension in the band. Pull into the stretch for 3-5 seconds before releasing. Repeat for 5-10 reps, aiming for a deeper stretch with each rep.

Add Rotation to Thoracic Extension Drills

When the flexion curve of your thoracic spine increases beyond normal limits, the scapulae—which are positioned on top of the rib cage—get tipped to far forward.

This makes it more difficult to raise your arms overhead without creating a compromise elsewhere in the body—especially in the neck and lower back.

To combat excessive forward curvature, it has become popular to introduce thoracic mobilization that push the spine backwards, into extension.

Unfortunately, purely extension-based mobilizations don’t necessarily jibe with what we know about the unique anatomy of this region of the spine.

Using combined extension-rotation drills to leverage the thoracic spine’s large rotational capacity is more effective and safer, especially for those who may also be dealing with degenerative disc disease.

Here are two great drills to simultaneously target extension and rotation:

THORACIC WINDMILL W/TOWEL

Place a rolled-up towel on the floor perpendicular to your body at the thoracic level to add an extension component to this unilateral rotation drill. Perform 8-10 reps on each side.

QUADRIPED THORACIC ROTATION

Mobilize From The Inside Out

If stretching and foam rolling are permanent settlements in the land of do-it-yourself-mobility, then breathing is the next frontier.

From a mobility standpoint, it’s impossible to overstate the influence that 20,000-plus breath cycles a day have on shoulder position.

To oversimplify a bit, static and dynamic structural asymmetries can inhibit diaphragmatic function and alter our ability to move air in and out of our rib cage.

When this happens, the thoracic spine flattens, increasing the resting tension of the muscles that attach to it.

Adding in a few positional breathing techniques can go a long way toward normalizing rib position and improving overhead capacity. Below are a few drills from the Postural Restoration Institute to get you started.

STANDING WALL REACH

Stand with your back against a wall. Take a full breath in through the nose, and then forcefully exhale through the mouth while reaching forward with both arms. Your middle and lower back should stay on the wall throughout.

Repeat for 2-3 sets of 3-4 breaths. Make sure to pause for 3 seconds at the end of each breath.

OVERHEAD BREATHING SQUAT

This exercise builds off of the last exercise, adding both a standing component and taking your arms into an overhead position.

Cement New Ranges of Motion with Strength 

If temporary gains in mobility are going last beyond a single training session, they have to be recognized by the central nervous system, and assimilated into a new movement pattern.

The first step in that process is to pair a mobility drill with a stability exercise, which focuses on postural control, joint centration, and muscular co-contraction, rather than gross strength.

SHOULDER FLEXION/ABDUCTION AT WALL

Then progress to pattern strengthening exercises to further reinforce coordination and timing. For example, to reinforce overhead pressing mechanics I like start with a Bottom-Up Kettlebell Press before progressing to a Kettlebell Push Press.

KB HALF-KNEELING BOTTON-UP PRESS

KB PUSH PRESS

The constantly changing center of gravity makes the Kettlebell a great choice for these types of exercises. Not only does this make the exercise more challenging, but it also produces a huge amount of muscular contraction from rotator cuff and intrinsic stabilizers while sparing the joints with lighter weights.

Conclusion

Soft-tissue mobilization—stretching, foam rolling, etc.—is step one in creating range-of-motion. Perform these at the position of restriction in order to create new pathways for movement.

Thoracic extension drills may be limited in creating lasting changes. Focus instead on exercises that combine extension and rotation.

Mobility problems don’t always live in the superficial muscle and fascia. Diaphragm position, breathing patterns, and rib mobility all influence scapular position and function.

Lock in new ranges of motion with a stability exercise. Then integrate it back into the larger pattern you are trying to improve.

2017-11-07T11:03:43+00:00

About the Author:

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Adam Vogel is the founder of Pure Performance Training. He is a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) through the International Sports Science Association, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a certified Functional Movement Screening Specialist (FMS), and Level 1 (KBC) Kettlebell Instructor.