Shoulder Mobility For Strength and Injury Prevention

Shoulder Mobility For Strength and Injury Prevention

Written by
January 29, 2021

Summary

– Mobility is the practice of increasing your capacity to move your body through greater ranges of motion with control and without pain.

– Your potential to build muscle, burn fat, and stay healthy depends immensely on your ability to move properly.

– Use the exercises in Shoulder Complexes A, B, and C to improve range of motion and prevent injury.

– In the accompanying shoulder mobility program, exercises should be done 5 days a week, 3–5 times per day, for 3–5 sets of 3–5 reps.

Shoulder Mobility For Strength and Injury Prevention

When you start on the path to a fitness goal, you’re bound to learn some things about your body along the way. A new workout or activity places new demands on your system, and whether you were previously inactive or extremely active, it can become painfully obvious early on that your body is having trouble keeping up with what you’re asking it to do. For example, you start a new running program and your knees begin to hurt, or you get a set of kettlebells, and now you notice that one arm feels strong while the other can’t even lock out the elbow when pressing overhead. 

Regardless of what your ultimate fitness goal is—be it ripped abs, stronger lifts, running your first marathon, etc.—increasing the amount and quality of movement you’re capable of is one of the most important and yet oft overlooked factors in reaching it. Improving movement skills—mobility training—is a must for being able to perform the type of exercise you love pain-free, and at the highest level possible.

First, I’ll explain why better mobility could be the corrective step that helps you smash plateaus that may have derailed or discouraged you in your training in the past. I’ll also detail how it can help you come back from injuries that may have plagued you for years, and prevent injury that could be just around the corner due to poor training habits. Then I’ll lay out an easy-to-follow plan for improving mobility in your shoulders—a commonly tight and injury-prone area—so that you can make 2021 a year of pain-free workouts and high performance.

What Is Mobility Training?

I define mobility training as the practice of increasing your capacity to move your body through greater ranges of motion WITH control and WITHOUT pain. It’s these two qualifiers that distinguish mobility from the more commonly known term “flexibility.” Most people are flexible enough to move a joint from point A to point B, but that doesn’t mean they can do it while keeping the body in a safe anatomical alignment. Mobility requires mastery of another term you may have heard of—stability—which is the ability to control your body position and avoid unwanted movement.

It’s important to realize that mobility isn’t another word for stretching. Because of its stability component, it’s stretching AND strengthening all at once.

Just what the hell am I talking about? Let me illustrate it with an example.

Picture doing a bodyweight squat. You may be capable of squatting all the way down to where your butt touches your calves (that’s flexibility), but if you have to rise up onto the balls of your feet and bend forward in your lower back to do it, you really aren’t demonstrating that you have the mobility to squat. In other words, you’re moving, but you’re not moving correctly or safely. You don’t have stability/strength in your spine or the range of motion in your hips and ankles to squat soundly.

Now imagine if you could squat deeply while keeping your head, spine, and pelvis stacked vertically, your heels anchored to the floor, and your knees lined up with the first two toes on each foot—and the movement felt natural, comfortable, stable, and smooth. You would be squatting perfectly, and demonstrating optimal mobility in your hips and ankles, and stability throughout your spine. It takes not only flexibility in the muscles and joints to move that way, but also the strength to control that movement and avoid moving in ways that break that good body alignment.

That’s the kind of movement that translates to performance in the real world. To get it, we only need to practice a few drills per day that challenge us to explore new ranges of motion while keeping sound body mechanics. It’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Benefits of Mobility Training

Good mobility unlocks the body, and by extension, its potential. For one thing, if you lack mobility, gaining more will allow you to achieve greater muscle activation, which leads to better muscle and strength gains. It also means that the right muscles will be engaged, so the muscles and joints that aren’t supposed to be so involved in a movement don’t kick in to compensate for a lack of mobility. That can go a long way toward preventing injury. For instance, if you’re doing an overhead press (with a barbell, kettlebell, or anything else), and your thoracic spine (mid back) can’t extend enough—i.e. you can’t stand up straight like your mom told you to growing up—you won’t be able to press the weight in a straight line overhead. You may end up hyperextending at your lower back to compensate, and that places tension on the low back muscles and spinal disks that can lead to injury. If you’ve hit pressing plateaus in the past, this is a likely reason why. It’s not that your shoulders weren’t strong enough to lift heavier weights, the problem was you couldn’t maintain the right body position that makes it possible. Poor mobility causes form to break down!

In addition to letting you perform your exercises as intended, having good mobility creates more energy expenditure, so you can burn more calories. That goes a long way in helping you lose weight, i.e. see your abs. A person who can squat ass to grass is going to get his/her heart rate up higher than someone who can only manage half-squats.

In short, your potential to build muscle, burn fat, and stay healthy depends immensely on your ability to move properly. You simply won’t reach your highest level of performance without it, or be able to avoid the aches and pains that come with years of hard training and threaten to sideline your fitness.

Unfortunately, most of us have serious mobility deficiencies. When we become aware of how to move properly, we often see that getting into the ranges of motion we need for certain exercises while using the correct body mechanics is a big challenge. None of us are born tight and achy, we just lose range of motion and function in certain joints and connective tissues over time. Prolonged sitting is a surefire way to let the hips tighten up, and slouching over a desk in front of a computer will lock up the shoulders and thoracic spine. Previous injuries also play a factor. If you sprained your ankle in high school, or tore a hamstring lifting weights last year, these events can affect the way you move going forward—especially if you didn’t rehab them properly.

Even when the pain of injury goes away, you’re often left with compromised joints and tissues that can’t handle what you ask of them when you undergo a rigorous training regimen, and it’s only then that you recognize the problem and see you have to correct it in order to make progress. But, as you begin to mobilize tight areas, you’ll see your technique and range of motion improve on your exercises, and you’ll feel greater control over your movements. Activating the correct muscles takes burden off ones that were compensating for poor movement patterns, and that often resolves pain issues. It’s also the best prehab work you can do to bulletproof the body.

Where Should I Start With Mobility Training?

When introducing mobility training to anyone that has yet to experience it, my advice is to keep things simple and focus on what is most practical and accessible. Once you gain an understanding of how impactful mobility training can be, it’s easy to take it up a notch with more mobility exercises and more challenging drills. Your entry point into mobility should require no investment in equipment, take up minimal space, and demand very little of your time to see results.

When training clients in-person, I take them through a full-body mobility routine at the onset of EVERY session. That is a non-negotiable, as it allows me to see how the person is progressing day after day. You and I may never train together, but I recommend that you perform some mobility training daily as well. It’s a great way to measure your progress, as well as assess your capacity to move and perform on the given day (if you plan to work out or play some sport/participate in an activity afterward).

With that said, I understand that asking you to spend 15 minutes or more mobilizing the whole body, joint by joint, is too much for most busy people. But fortunately, that isn’t necessary either. In an effort to minimize the time and energy required, I suggest targeting just one area of your body and focusing your efforts on getting a measurable improvement in range of motion there. As this region loosens up, you’ll begin to see the value in what you’re doing, and you’ll be motivated to step it up even more. The area you choose should be whichever one you feel is the tightest and most injury-prone.

For most people, the big three to choose from will be the shoulders, spine, and hips. And for the rest of this article, I’ll discuss the shoulders, as they tend to get a very high return on investment in a short period of time. If you feel good about your shoulders and want to prioritize another area, check out the Morning Mobility Series in our new Onnit In 30 library of digital fitness products.

Shoulder Mobility Exercises

Modern lifestyles wreak havoc on the shoulders. Interfacing with computers and hand-held devices encourages a hunched, round-shouldered position that causes a shortening of the muscles on the front of the shoulder and an overstretching of the ones on the back. If you add a bunch of pressing exercises to the equation, done without an even greater amount of pulling exercises that strengthen the back of the shoulder, you’re really lighting a fuse that burns down to a shoulder injury. 

The following mobility drills will go a long way toward restoring balance to the shoulders and upper back, and expanding their ranges and stability. Perform the exercises slowly, focusing on exploring the ends of your range of motion. That is, move your shoulders as far as you can in each position with maximum control, being aware of how far you can comfortably go. Integrate your breath to help your body relax into greater ranges (more on this below). As you do the exercises, take note of two things:

1. Any discomfort or pain you may feel

2. Any differences in how you’re able to do the drill on one side versus the other

If a movement creates noticeable discomfort or pain, shave off the range of motion that creates that response, and explore what range you can access safely. Realize that any movement that causes irritation when done without load will surely feel worse when loaded, so be sure to adjust any shoulder training you’re doing accordingly. Using your mobility practice to create awareness around your current pain-free movement capacity helps guide sound decisions around what movements we should or should not include in our training, and allows us to problem-solve whatever may be causing the issue. 

As you explore your movement, you’ll probably become more aware of asymmetries—differences in how you move on one side versus the other. So long as these differences do not cause the type of discomfort or pain discussed above, you simply want to take note of them and think about how they might be affecting your training. Are they negatively impacting your ability to develop a skill you’re working on? Is the discrepancy forcing you to compensate by relying more on one side than the other side? You may decide to spend more time doing mobility work for the lagging side, and favor it in your workouts.

It’s important to look at mobility training as an intentional practice that leads to a greater awareness of the body. It’s not something you should do casually, mindlessly checking off the sets and reps until it’s over. Using your mobility training time to check in with the current state of your body and make note of daily changes helps inform you of whether you’re moving in the right direction with your training or not.

Directions

Begin performing the following mobility drills on a daily basis. You can perform them before a workout, at the end of a workout, or any other time of day (I’ll explain more about this in the next section). The exercises are organized as complexes—a pairing of two moves that are done back to back. Complete 3–5 reps for the first exercise, and then do 3–5 reps of the next one right away. That’s one complete complex/one set. Rest a few seconds, and repeat.

Shoulder Complex A: Push-Pull Drill and Flexed Lateral Roll

This complex helps free up the scapula (shoulder blade) to access both retracted and protracted positions, which contributes to greater activation of the stabilizing musculature necessary to build strength around the shoulder girdle. Coordinating the movements with your breath, inhaling and exhaling as directed, will allow you to push the range of motion deeper on each rep, as breath mobilizes the rib cage and helps to relax overly tight muscles.

1. Push-Pull Drill

Reps: 3–5

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Step 1. Stand tall and inhale deeply as you draw your elbows as far back as possible with palms facing up.

Step 2. Exhale fully as you push your palms away from you, and rotate them so your fingers point up. Spread your shoulder blades apart as you do so, rounding your upper back. That’s one rep.

2. Flexed Lateral Roll

Reps: 3–5 each side

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Step 1. Beginning in the end position of the push-pull drill (back rounded, arms extended), tilt your torso to the left, stacking your right shoulder over your left. Inhale through your nose as you direct your breath to the right side of your ribcage. Exhale to deepen the stretch.

Step 2. Inhale as you return your torso to the starting position, and then repeat the tilt on the opposite side. That’s one rep.

Shoulder Complex B: W Neck Tilt and Arm Screw

This simple sequence will help to increase stability in your scapula when it’s locked down—a strong and safe position used for virtually all pressing exercises. As you hold the depressed scapular position, you’ll free up the sides of your neck, which can get very tight after hours of playing on an iPhone.

The arm screw looks (and feels) like you’re twisting a sponge, and it will literally wring out the tension throughout the shoulder girdle, helping you to move the shoulders more freely. This is a great combo drill to use before shoulder pressing workouts! 

1. W Neck Tilt

Reps: 3–5 each side

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Step 1. Stand tall and reach your arms out to your sides. Now bend your elbows slightly and turn your palms up so your arms form a W shape. Pull your shoulders down and back as you tilt your head toward your left shoulder and exhale.

Step 2. Inhale as you bring your head back to center, and repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. Avoid shrugging your shoulders! The goal is to keep your shoulders pulled down and retracted while your neck moves freely.

2. Arm Screw

Reps: 3–5 each side

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Step 1. From the beginning position of the W neck tilt (arms in the W position, shoulders down), inhale as you lift your right shoulder toward your ear. Turn the front of your right shoulder toward your chest and rotate your arm inward. This will cause your torso to twist to the left.

Step 2. Continue rotating your right arm, twisting it like you’re wringing out a sponge until your right palm is facing upward (or as close as you can get it). Exhale. At the same time, reach your left arm out, palm facing up. Allow your torso to bend to the left as you reach.

Step 3. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. That’s one rep.

Shoulder Complex C: Bow Draw to Rear Reach and Backstroke

These two drills are all about being able to rotate your thoracic spine, which is an important part of maintaining optimal shoulder function.

1. Bow Draw to Rear Reach

Reps: 3–5 each side

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Step 1. Stand tall with both arms extended in front of you and palms together. Inhale as you draw your right elbow behind you as far as possible, as if drawing back on the string of a bow, and keep your left arm reaching forward.

Step 2. Allow your torso and head to turn back in the direction your right arm is reaching. Slowly extend your right arm and reach your fingers as far back as possible while your left arm reaches as far forward as possible. Try to create one straight line with your arms, pulling your upper back and shoulders apart. Feel the stretch!

Step 3. Reverse the movement, and repeat on the opposite side. That’s one rep.  

2. Backstroke

Reps: 3–5 each side

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Step 1. From the starting position of the bow draw to rear reach, raise your left hand overhead as high as possible and allow your torso to twist to the left. Simultaneously reach your right arm forward to stretch your back and shoulders again.

Step 2. Maintain the intention of keeping your fingertips as far apart as possible as you raise the right arm up and draw the left one down in a backstroke motion.

Step 3. Continue the arm movement until you have rotated to the opposite side, reaching with both arms. That’s one rep. 

The Shoulder Mobility Program

Improving your mobility comes with practice—the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You wouldn’t expect to learn to play the piano by practicing just once a week, or perfect your golf swing by hitting the range every now and then, and mobility works the same way: you need to make time to do it regularly.

But that doesn’t mean it has to take up a huge chunk of your day. The trick is to do a little here and there, frequently, so that it never feels overwhelming but adds up to a lot of work overall. I learned this concept, called Greasing The Groove (GTG), from strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline. Basically, you maximize the volume of your work by doing a little at a time—fewer repetitions than would create fatigue done many times throughout the day snowballs into a lot of cumulative practice. This way, your shoulders will never feel tired and you’ll never have to set aside 10 or 15 minutes or more in one block to train mobility, but you’ll end up doing a huge amount of mobility training by the end of a week.  

Perform the shoulder complexes I gave you above as follows.

Frequency: 3–5 times per day, 5 days per week

Sets: 3–5 of each complex

Reps: 3–5 for each exercise

For example, on a busy work day, you might perform 3 sets of 3 reps of the exercises in Shoulder Complex A in the morning after you get up. During your lunch break, you could then do 3 sets of 3 for Shoulder Complex B, and then, when you get home after work and have a little more time, you might tackle 4 sets of 5 reps for Shoulder Complex C. None of the complexes should ever take more than 10 minutes to complete, and most of the time, they’ll take closer to five.

This framework provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to how you tackle the five-day assignment, while at the same time making sure you still get enough volume to see noticeable results.

Make sure to comment on social media (@onnit) and let me know how this program works for you. I am looking forward to hearing from you!

P.S.: If you are interested in a more comprehensive mobility practice that you can do daily to get your whole body moving better, make sure to check out the Morning Mobility Series from our new Onnit In 30 workouts. You get 10 follow-along mobility workouts, led by me, for under $10.

You can also try one of the workouts before you buy!

John Wolf
John Wolf is Onnit's Chief Fitness Officer, and an expert in unconventional training methods such as kettlebell, steel club, and suspension training. With 15-plus years of experience in the fitness industry, he has worked with rehab clients and athletes of all levels. He moves like Spider Man and can deadlift more than 500 pounds any day of the week.

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