I’ve compiled a guide of shoulder openers/mobility drills/techniques/exercises you may have never tried before. If you have – I would love to hear your feedback. If you haven’t – I’d love to hear your feedback after you’ve tried them.
The following drills should help you in your quest to get your arms overhead smoothly.
In one’s quest to improve an overhead position, I don’t suggest simply stretching against a wall or with a band anchored behind you – however these things have their place. They are not the tools to get you where you want to be. I’m not against static stretching, but its an overused, under-effective method to get you where you want to go. That time and place is usually after you’re done training, not before.
LET US BEGIN WITH A LITTLE ANATOMY
I won’t dive too deep into this, but an overview will help everything else make sense. Our ability to bring our arms overhead isn’t exactly dictated simply by ROM at the glenohumeral joint, where people commonly believe their whole shoulder is. This is why I don’t recommend static stretching with arms overhead as the sole or main method to get you there.
Our glenohumeral range is dictated by our scapular motion on the rib cage. So if your scapula (aka shoulder blade) doesn’t move well on the rib cage – guess what? Your “shoulder” (GH joint) isn’t going to move well either. So whats the purpose of aggressively stretching if all of the stress is going to go straight to the GH joint? You’re most likely doing more damage than good by feeding into the fault.
On top of that, our ability to bring the arms overhead is dictated by our thoracic mobility, as well as our ability to maintain stability in the trunk.
Try rounding your back and bringing your arms overhead. Tough right?
This isn’t the full go-to guide for everything overhead. I’ll break things down another time. Working on your thoracic extension as well as building stability in the trunk should be other areas in which to focus your time on if you want to reap major benefits through everything that you do. Rather, this is a list of techniques that you can add to your arsenal… Your Shoulder Assault Arsenal.
Always test and retest. This will provide you with the information if a method is effective or not. Not everything works for everyone, so its important to practice trial and error.
When it DOES work, lock it in with some actual movement and strength. This goes with anything…movement drills, soft tissue work, etc. If you create a change, show your body you can use it. Don’t just walk away and assume its going to stick – that’s not how it works. Do some strength work – barbells/kettlebells/dumbbells, bodyweight or isometrics. That’s how you hit the save button on the movement document.
Also – this isn’t a guide to diagnose ANYTHING. If you have recurring pain in any position, get that checked out. Be proactive about your injuries and training.
1. Quadruped Breathing
First things first, lets get a nice rib position and shape for your shoulder blades to move on. If those scaps aren’t gliding properly on your rib cage, give this one a shot.
– Set up in a four point position, on the knees and hands or elbows.
– Press into the floor and round your upper back like someone is holding a candle underneath your chest and you’re trying to get away from it.
– Maintain that position, and practice full, deep breaths into the back. I generally recommend two rounds of 8-10 breaths.
A couple of things are going on.
-We are restoring the congruency of shapes between the rib cage and the scapula = smoother gliding.
– The pressing-away fires up your serratus anterior, which assists in bringing the shoulder blade upwards and outwards
– Filling the area of the lungs in the posterior mediastinum, thereby allowing the scapulae to stabilize properly
2. Weighted Floor Angels
If you’ve never done floor angels before, try them unweighted first. These will be your guide to whether or not you need to add some weight.
– Set up on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
– Position your arms overhead, with shoulders and elbows both 90 degrees. Feel free to bring the elbows lower if you want too.
– While maintaining a neutral spine, take an inhale into your belly and exhale as you slide your arms overhead. We’re looking to keep contact between the floor and both your elbows and hands. When either an elbow or hand pops up, return to the start position and repeat. That’s your end point.
Make sure those ribs don’t pop up to fake thoracic extension, thus allowing you to move deeper overhead. Everything should generally stay static except the targeted moving parts.
After you’ve had some time to play with these (usually multiple sessions), I suggest trying to add some weight in the hands. Small 5lb. plates are the best. Simply hold the weights with your palms facing the ceiling, and go through the same movement. Can you get a little further overhead?
3. Weighted Dead Bugs
Same rules apply here. If you haven’t done a dead bug before, practice unweighted first. This is a great exercise that ties in proximal stability with distal mobility. Essentially, if we’re able to create stability in our “core”, our body will allow us to get some more movement capacity in the hips and shoulders. If we are unable to create stability in the core, our body will search for it elsewhere.
Here is a link detailing some progressions for the dead bug. Mike Robertson has some other variations as well. I encourage you to play with them all.
For the weighted dead bug, simply keep those 5lb plates in your hands and go through the movement. I’ve worked up to 10lb dumbbells with success. Not only am I able to get a little deeper, but this is challenging for the muscles that control our breathing and bracing.
For those with stellar mobility already, perform these while on a weight bench as the ground will be your limiting factor if you’re doing these on the floor.
4. Down Dog shrugs
I love these for a positional challenge and a convenient way to target the low and mid traps.
– Set up in a down dog position: Hands about shoulder width apart, fingers spread wide, hips high, neutral neck position.
– Slowly and gently press the top of your head in the opposite direction of your hands.
– Just as slowly pull it back to that position. It won’t be long before you’re getting fatigued, so keep the reps low.
5. Supine Knuckle Slides
There are a few variations of this that I’ve played around with. I originally learned these from Brian Reddy.
By laying on your back, you’re taking out the work of the shoulder (humeral) flexors and letting gravity do the work. The humeral extensors ARE contracting as they eccentrically lengthen – so we’re working on getting them to relax as much as possible. Chill, extensors, chill.
– Set up laying flat on your back, knees bent and feet flat.
– Position your fists next to your head, with elbows facing straight up and tucked in.
– Slide your knuckles in a straight line overhead, as far as you can go while keeping the elbows from flaring out.
– Return to the starting position with elbows still facing directly up
Variations for sliding your knuckles on:
bar, towels, furniture sliders
These take a lot of concentration and your body will look for compensation. I personally find these the most difficult on the list.
6. Prone Overhead Press
I would recommend a towel or something soft for your forehead to rest on. By laying face down, we are engaging our upper back musculature in a different way against gravity, but still going through an overhead press position.
– Lay facedown on the floor, with a dowel or stick just beyond the top of your noggin.
– Grab the dowel with a shoulder width or wider grip.
– Take an inhale and create a small brace in your belly while also squeezing the gluteus (to prevent any excessive lumbar extension)
– Lift the dowel at arms length, and slowly pull it behind your head, as if you are doing a press behind the neck.
– Press back up to starting position and rest it down. Repeat.
7. Supine Overhead Flexion
Another great exercise you can do on the floor or on a bench for more range. You might recognize this as a variation of an old school bodybuilding exercise called the pullover.
– Set up in the supine position, maintaining all of the criteria we went through above
– Hold a plate at arms length, 10-25lbs (think bench press position)
– Take an inhale, brace
– Protract (press forward) your shoulders and bring the plate as far overhead as you can with straight arms
– Make sure to avoid letting the ribs pop up and going soft through the core
This is another drill where we get some solid serratus activation which will assist with the upward rotation of the scapulae.
Most of the methods I discussed here involve bringing the arms up overhead. Our shoulders have a great variety of movement capabilities and I would recommend training them to move in all directions. I’ll do a Part II where we discuss shoulder extension and internal rotation.
That’s all for now, Ninjas. Drop a comment down below and let me know about your successes or questions about any of the drills I listed above.
If you missed last week’s article on hips – check it out: Unconventional Hip Mobility.
Stay on the look out for next week where we discuss some foot and ankle mobility drills.