Enhancing Shoulder Mobility

By Kevin Bretting

Many people struggle with shoulder mobility which can impact their quality of life and performance. From being able to reach high overhead to retrieve bowls from a cupboard to doing handstands, the ability to have shoulders that can move through their full range of motion is important. Here I present some ideas about what impacts shoulder mobility and some ways to improve it.

The shoulder joint itself is more specifically called the glenohumeral joint. The “ball” of the humerus (upper arm bone) articulates with the glenoid cavity, the shallow depression of the scapula (shoulder blade) that forms the “socket.” Surrounding that main joint interface are the clavicle (collar bone) and the acromion process and the coracoid process of the scapula, two bony projections of the shoulder blade that serve as attachment points for tendons and ligaments. There is a network of these ligaments that serve to provide some stability while the 4 rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) work together to keep the head of the humerus “in” its socket.

I put “in” in parenthesis because the shoulder permits the widest range of motion of any joint in the body. In order to achieve such range of motion, there is quite a bit of glide and roll that happens at that joint. Picture a golf ball resting on a tee, and you get an idea of the capacity for movement there. But the success of the shoulder to move well through all of its potential range of motion depends upon more than the flexibility of the rotator cuff muscles by themselves.

A far-away joint that has an influence on shoulder mobility is our hips. Hip flexion (bent forward) and hip extension (standing upright) places our spine in a position relative to gravity that allows for more or less range of motion at the shoulder. I’ll explain more in a second.

The second predictor of shoulder mobility is the shape of the spine. Being able to achieve extension of the thoracic spine, to be able to stand tall, creates a posture where the shoulder blades can move more effectively. Where the shoulder blades go, the arm will follow. To test these ideas, sit in a chair and assume a poor, hunched-forward posture and try and raise your arms as high as you can. Now adjust your posture so that you are sitting tall and raise your arms again. Finally, stand up and raise your arms. Notice the change in your capacity to reach when you move from one posture to the next.

So, drills to enhance shoulder mobility are drills that should also enhance hip and thoracic spine mobility. A simple one is a forward fold to backward bend. Alternate between bending forward and reaching toward the floor with standing up and pushing your chest up to the ceiling so that your back arches a little. As you perform that stand up, squeeze your shoulder blades together while turning your palms out. Another version on the stand-up is to reach high to the sky. This cycle moves your hips, spine, and shoulders through flexion and extension in a rhythm that helps coordinate the contract-relax cycle of the muscles responsible for those movements.

Another drill is to enhance the ability of the thoracic spine to rotate. Simply stand tall and reach one hand behind you as far as possible, keeping your belly button facing forward. Picture your shoulder blades moving with your spine as you rotate.

Finally, encouraging your spine to laterally flex from side-to-side is also of value. Stand tall and slide one hand down your leg while the other reaches up to the ceiling. Think of pushing the floor away from the ceiling. This not only flexes your spine from side-to-side but moves one shoulder blade in the opposite direction to the other which enhances arthrokinematics.

To combine a few planes of motion, stand tall and rotate to your right and reach your left hand across the midline of your body so that your left hand is positioned directly above your right hand, with both palms facing forward. This asks your thoracic spine to flex laterally to the right, while also rotating to the right. Repeat on the other side.

I hope you enjoy contemplating these ideas and encourage you to try some of these drills and see how they feel. As always, intention and consistency with movement is the key to healthy performance. Move well!


Institute of Motion, 2016

McKinley, M., O’Loughlin, V. D., Human Anatomy-1st Ed., McGraw Hill © 2006