Shoulder mobility is a key component for us to be able to live life with high function and little pain. Reduced shoulder motion is a prominent cause of neck, mid-back, and even low-back pain. Common shoulder stretches, however, fail to address the major causes of reduced shoulder mobility. The simple exercises below focus on the thoracic and scapular mobility and look to lengthen typically shortened muscles. I highly advise patients to stop stretching only the shoulder and neck muscles you find to be painful. Commonly stretched shoulder muscles that should often not be stretched include the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. These overloaded muscles are not the problem but are more symptoms of shoulder dysfunction.
Check out my video to see these exercises performed, and read below for detailed descriptions, photos, and additional tips on improving shoulder mobility and decreasing pain.
Foam Rolling the T-Spine
Foam rolling your T-spine is a must for improving shoulder muscle function. Think of the T-spine region serving as the foundation to the shoulder along with the scapula. When there is a lack of extension and too much stiffness in the T-spine, the rotator cuff and the labrum of the shoulder will suffer.
- Place the foam roller perpendicular to your spine onto a segment you want to work on, then work your way up from bottom to top.
- Elevate your arms as far back as you can in an attempt to touch the floor. You can hold a broom handle if you prefer.
- Spend a few repetitions on each segment, then move up toward the next.
Don’t allow your buttocks to come off the floor or your ribs from flaring out. This is typically due to compensation from your low back!
A more aggressive way to perform this exercise is by using an external load of weight as shown here. This will make the stretch more passive and less active, this is reserved for those with stable shoulders but find their T-spine very stiff. Spend 30-60 seconds max performing this mobility drill.
Latissimus Dorsi & Teres Minor
Addressing the lats and posterior/inferior shoulder musculature is very important to improve shoulder mobility. Be careful not to overdo this one, as there is a large nerve in this area that can create some tingling and local numbness if you get too aggressive.
- Place the foam roller perpendicular to your body while laying on your side. Get the foam roller set up under your shoulder, just on the edge of your shoulder blade.
- Start by rolling your body forward and backward along the muscles followed by pinning down a sore/tight area and lifting your arm off the ground with your thumb pointing towards the ceiling.
- Spend a few repetitions in a certain area, then move above/below. Spend 30-60 seconds max performing this mobility drill.
Opening up the pecs after working the T-spine and lats is the next step. This often overlooked area can frequently be the key to unlocking a stiff and painful shoulder. Do not overpower this stretch, use the activation of the muscle and the subsequent relaxation of the muscle to lengthen the pec. Straining to stretch the pec often backfires and creates more tension as tightness here is often more neurological over activation than simple muscle fiber shortening.
Pectoralis major stretch:
Abduct and externally rotate your shoulder onto a stable surface. Rotate until you feel a good stretch in the chest and hold, then contract the chest (by pushing against wall) for a couple seconds followed by rotating your body further away from the doorway to hold again. Then repeat. You should not feel the stretch going down into your forearm/hand. If this occurs, you are getting neural tension and should modify the stretch.
Pectoralis minor stretch:
You can use the same contract/relax technique here as well. Same rules apply: Do not feel a stretch or pulling sensation into your hand/fingers.
Perform 3-5 repetitions of each stretch, and be sure to make it dynamic, spending <30 seconds.
Active Shoulder Wall Stretch
Shoulders respond very well to active stretching, particularly prior to exercise or strenuous work activity. This wall stretch combines shoulder muscle lengthening with T-spine and scapular mobilization.
- Stand with one palm on a flat surface (a shower wall or a smooth door work great) and in a fencer stance position with opposite foot behind you.
- Step into the wall with the foot behind you while sliding the hand up the wall. Return back to the starting position by stepping back and sliding the hand back down the wall.
- Repeat several times in different positions across the wall. Perform for a maximum of 60-90 seconds.
I absolutely LOVE this exercise in my shoulder warm-up. It’s an absolute rotator cuff killer that hits the infraspinatus and teres minor both isometrically, concentrically, and eccentrically.
- Keep your elbows and hands against the wall. Maintain tension in the theraband the ENTIRE TIME. Rotate outward from the shoulder producing external rotation at the shoulder. As you move one arm up (right hand for example), ensure that your left hand is anchored and doesn’t move, this will isometrically challenge your left rotator cuff.
- As you move your right hand up, make sure to move in a curved “C” pattern. This allows you to eccentrically, and then concentrically, challenge the right rotator cuff.
I like to shoot for 3 “in and outs” per side on the way up, then 3 more on the way down. Thats 1 rep. Shoot for 1 set of 5 reps.
The sideplank is one of Stewart McGill’s Big 3 exercises, along with the modified curl up and the bird dog. The sideplank roll to plank to opposite sideplank is one of the McGill’s most advanced progressions of the sideplank.
The goal of the roll is to maintain a completely stable and neutral spine through the entire roll.
The rolling motion should occur from the hips and shoulders only, and there should be absolutely NO spinal twisting. Perform 1 set of 5 reps, 1 rep being a roll side-to-side.
These exercises are not the only way to improve shoulder mobility and to decrease pain but they can be a very important tool. Try performing them prior to your workout and/or before you start your day. If you still are struggling with your shoulder mobility, seek out advice from a competent practitioner for some help. Many physical medicine techniques can help to improve shoulder function. In our Roanoke chiropractic office, we love to use Active Release Technique and Acupuncture/Dry Needling as adjuncts to exercise to help get our patients back to doing what they love. It is our goal that every patient be healthier than they have ever been!
Daryl C. Rich, D.C., C.S.C.S.