10 Aug How to Assess and Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility
Looking to improve shoulder overhead mobility but not sure where to start? Maybe you’ve been told by a clinician or a coach that you need to improve this specific motion, or perhaps you’re looking for a guide to help someone else improve their overhead mobility! Shoulder overhead mobility requires multiple moving body parts working together in synchrony. Without adequate motion in the right places, you run the risk of exposing other body regions to excessive strain due to compensatory strategies with attempted shoulder overhead movements. With that being said, addressing limited shoulder overhead mobility requires a multi-dimensional approach. In this article, we will teach you how to assess and improve shoulder overhead mobility with our guidelines.
A Comprehensive Approach To Assess & Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility
Prefer watching and listening versus reading? Check out this video where we break down how to assess & improve shoulder overhead mobility from start to finish! If you enjoy reading and want to learn more about this topic including some bonus stretches and exercises to improve your overhead mobility, then follow along!
What Is Shoulder Overhead Mobility?
No need to overcomplicate things, optimal shoulder overhead mobility can be defined as having adequate motion in the right places to allow the arms to be positioned overhead without compensation! We say the right places because it is so much more than just your shoulder, trust us we wish it were that simple! To reach your arms up fully overhead without any compensation, you need cooperation from the following body regions and joints…
- Glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint)
- Scapulothoracic joint (shoulder blade on the rib cage)
- Sternoclavicular joint (SC joint) & acromioclavicular joint (AC joint)
- Cervical & thoracic spine & nerve mobility
- Lumbopelvic control & soft tissue flexibility (we will dive into this!)
Why Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility? Why Is It Important?
Ask yourself, do you reach overhead on a daily basis? Do you comb your hair? Do you play sports? Do you like to high-five people? All of these things require shoulder overhead mobility to some extent. We didn’t want to complicate things earlier, but basically any amount of arm lifting above ear level, whether it be shoulder flexion (reaching your arm up in front of you) or shoulder abduction (reaching your arm up and out to the side) can be considered overhead mobility – it’s over your head right?! Shoulder overhead mobility is an essential human movement that you should strive to always possess! Its a very valuable asset, especially for overhead athletes considering a reduced total range of motion at the shoulder joint has been identified as a risk factor for shoulder injury (1). Not only does it make things easier like reaching into the top kitchen cupboard or replacing a light bulb, but it also protects your shoulder and other body regions from potential unnecessary strain.
We have helped countless patients and clients rehab from various issues that stemmed from overhead mobility problems. Shoulders, necks, backs, knees, you name it, their limited overhead mobility was actually the real culprit. Instead of having to calm things down and work on multiple problems at the same time, what if we could apply the same principles in a preventative and proactive manner to improve overhead mobility before there were any consequences elsewhere in the body? That is true [P]Rehab!
What Can Limit Overhead Mobility?
Like we mentioned earlier, there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to shoulder overhead mobility. For the average person, soft tissue flexibility is going to be a common limiting factor. Overhead mobility is primarily achieved with shoulder flexion or abduction, scapular abduction/upward rotation/elevation, and thoracic extension. The muscles that will limit shoulder overhead mobility are going to be the ones that promote shoulder extension, scapular adduction/downward rotation/depression. Below you will find a few of the common culprits.
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres Major
- Tight Shoulder Capsule
How To Assess Shoulder Overhead Mobility
Again, the premise of this article is to not complicate things! Don’t overthink it, in order to improve shoulder overhead mobility, you need to assess shoulder overhead mobility. In the YouTube video at the beginning of this article, we break down two different variations of the shoulder overhead mobility assessment that you can perform on your own as we will teach you what to be mindful of and what to look out for as you perform these assessments. It is very important you watch the full breakdown of the assessments because assumptions and compensations are typically what get people into trouble.
How To Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility
Here is an extended breakdown of the approach outlined in the video at the beginning of the article. To continue the trend of keeping things simple, to improve shoulder overhead mobility you want to mobilize any tissue that could be limiting overhead mobility with specific soft tissue work and stretches, you want to perform activation and mobility exercises working motion in the desired direction (in this case, overhead directed motion), and to cap it off you want to perform stability exercises to enhance make your mobility gains. Below you will find exercises featured in our Overhead Mobility Overhaul [P]Rehab Program.
Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility – Soft Tissue Mobilization
Post Cuff STM
It is important to address any post cuff mobility deficits because this can negatively affect the shoulder arthrokinematics (how the humeral head moves in the ball & socket joint) based on the capsular constraint mechanism.
The Latissimus Dorsi (lats) is a common culprit that can contribute to lumbar extension (low back arching) with overhead motion. This lumbar extension is typically coupled with a rib flare, which you can appreciate from the front or side angle. However, this compensation could also be due to lumbopelvic control deficits (we discuss this later in the article).
Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility – Soft Tissue Flexibility
Pec Minor Stretch With Head Turns
The pec minor muscle connects from the upper ribs to the front of your shoulder blade. Pec minor flexibility deficits can limit posterior tilting of the scapula, which is an essential piece to end-range shoulder overhead mobility! I like the head turns with the pec minor stretch to also address neurodynamics (nerve mobility) by mobilizing the nerves at the most proximal segment, in this case, the neck! Don’t forget about the nerves as they can limit overhead mobility as well!
Wall Lat Stretch
The lats have so many different anchor points including the shoulder, scapula, spine, and pelvis. With so many anchor points the lats contribute to a lot of different moves. In order to properly stretch the lats, you have to get into unique positions! This side-bend stretch is one of my go-tos to address lat length!
Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility – Active Mobilization
Assessment positions can easily turn into exercise positions! Wall angels are a must in any overhead mobility program.
Overhead Mobilization – Foam Roller
The foam roller can be a great overhead mobility tool to help guide the arms into the overhead position. I like the position because it promotes lumbar flexion, which can help to put the lats on stretch!
Improve Shoulder Overhead Mobility – Active Stabilization
Passive interventions yield passive results. Even though what we have shown you so far isn’t all that passive, you have to follow up soft tissue and flexibility work with activation and stabilization exercises to really make gains.
- HOW: Lay on your stomach on a bench or table with an arm hanging down at your side. Keep your elbow straight and use your shoulder blade muscles to bring your arm up and out at a 130-degree angle from your shoulder with your thumb facing up (think of making half of a Y with your arm). Once your arm is at shoulder height, return to the starting position and repeat for the prescribed amount of reps.
- FEEL: You should feel your shoulder muscles working.
- COMPENSATION: Keep your upper trap relaxed, only use your shoulder blade muscles.
What About Lumbopelvic Control?
Lumbopelvic control refers to the ability to control the positioning of your lower torso, specifically the lumbar spine in relation to the pelvis and the ribs – think your low back and your abdominal region. Far too often we see lumbopelvic control issues as a compensation for stability deficits, which can fool the average person to believe they have a true mobility deficit! A comprehensive approach including mobility, stability, and lumbopelvic control exercises is the ultimate strategy for improving shoulder overhead mobility! Below are a couple of exercises to get started with!
Kneeling Ab Roll Out
Lat Pull Over
We tried to keep shoulder overhead mobility as simple as possible for you to understand, but it can be complex to address sometimes! As we said, there are a lot of moving parts to consider and our goal was to shed light on some of these components. Ultimately, it comes down to identifying what is limiting your shoulder overhead mobility and then putting together an action plan to improve it!
Looking For More Overhead Mobility Content?
Overhead shoulder mobility is not only a necessity for simple day to day tasks, but it is a prerequisite for many exercises, lifts, and functional activities. Without it, your body can and will compensate from many other body regions when doing things overhead, which can expose these areas to potential unnecessary strain. If your mobility is limited due to an injury/surgery in the past, or you’re just dealing with a stiff upper body that is limiting your workouts and athletic performance, this program is appropriate for you as long as you have general workout experience! Click HERE to learn more
- Cools AM, Johansson FR, Borms D, Maenhout A. Prevention of shoulder injuries in overhead athletes: a science-based approach. Braz J Phys Ther. 2015 Sept-Oct; 19(5):331-339. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/bjpt-rbf.2014.0109