5 Exercises to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Loss of overhead shoulder mobility can be subtle.  Often, this subtle loss of motion occurs slowly over time from our daily routines and habits.  Sitting at a desk for most of the day can result in postural changes and loss of shoulder mobility.  Over time, the small changes in shoulder mobility begin to accumulate.  Before you know it, the shoulder begins to feel a little tight and painful when reaching overhead.   Things can snowball from there.

Many people do not realize they have lost shoulder mobility until they begin or resume an exercise program.  Exercises which require overhead shoulder mobility include the shoulder press, push press, snatch, and pull-up.  There are many others.  These types of exercises are performed at or near end ranges of motion.  The shoulder can begin to break down weight, repetitions, and speed are added to the equation.

Overhead Mobility

The ability to function overhead requires mobility of the shoulder joint, the scapula, and thoracic spine.  The scapula must freely rotate and tilt in order to reach fully overhead.  Exercises which target the serratus anterior and lower trapezius are often helpful.  Also, the thoracic spine must be able to fully extend in order to achieve end range overhead positions.   Thoracic mobility drills are helpful here.

Shoulder Mobility Exercise

Full range of motion of the glenohumeral, or shoulder, joint is needed to function overhead.  Restrictions can be due to the joint capsule or the soft tissue (muscles and tendons) structures surrounding the joint.   Joint restrictions are treated best with manual therapy.  Soft tissue mobility restrictions are treated by combining soft tissue manual therapy techniques with mobility drills.  The remainder of this article describes 5 shoulder mobility drills.

Supine Flexion

By lying on the back and flexing the arms overhead, shoulder flexion is assisted by gravity.  To increase the stretch to the lats, position the palms up.  As you gain mobility move the hands closer together.  You can also perform the exercise lying on a bench to allow for greater range of motion overhead.  Be sure to keep the abs engaged and low back flat to avoid compensations.

Bench T-Spine Extension

This exercise improves thoracic spine extension.   It also provides a stretch to lats and triceps.  Both of these muscles can restrict overhead mobility.  By moving the hips back to heels lumbar spine flexion is created.  This adds to the stretch in the upper back and lats.

Floor Slides

Perform the floor slide with the hips and knees flexed.  This position facilitates a neutral low back position.  This is a great way to stretch tight pectoral muscles which contribute to rounded shoulders and limited overhead mobility.

Shoulder Flexion over Foam Roll

Lying over the foam roll helps maintain proper spine position when flexing the shoulder overhead.   It also facilitates stretching to the pectoralis major and minor muscles.  Adding a resistance band to the wrists engages the rotator cuff muscles.  Be sure to keep the abs engaged and low back flat to avoid compensations.

Prone Lifts

This is a challenging exercise but it can be very effective for restoring the last bit of shoulder mobility.  The prone position also facilitates posterior tilting of the scapula.  Tilting of the scapula is an important part of function overhead.  Be sure to keep the abs engaged to avoid compensations in the low back.   As you gain mobility move the hands closer together.

Final Thoughts

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body.  However, mobility problems are very common and can lead to pain and decreased function.  Performing any of these 5 mobility drills can combat and reverse loss of overhead shoulder mobility.  Don’t expect huge improvements after a few sessions.  Results can be expedited by combining these exercises with manual therapy performed by a physical therapist.   However, it takes consistent and disciplined performance to achieve the best long-term results.