In weightlifting, many movements demand a great deal of shoulder mobility. We spend hours stretching or smashing tight areas with mobility tools only to see little gains in range of motion, and while stretching and using mobility tools are great there are probably a few things you are missing. You could be missing key areas that deal with shoulder range of motion (ROM) and you could be missing the huge benefits of being under tension in a range of motion.
When it comes to stretching and activation, there is more to the shoulder than you may think. And while flexibility is a great tool you need to be able to control your range of motion and if you never work on correct muscle activation or being under tension in your full ROM then you won’t be able to support load overhead in the position you need.
The Whole Shoulder
Before we dive into anything else it’s important we understand exactly what the whole shoulder is. The shoulder is not just the ball in socket joint (where the head of the humerus fits into the glenoid socket), but rather a combination of that and the shoulder girdle which is the collarbone and scapula. We cannot underestimate the importance of the shoulder girdle because without it there is no way you could raise your arms any higher than shoulder height. The collarbone and scapula (shoulder blade) meet at the acromioclavicular joint (ACJ) and opposite that end is the sternoclavicular joint (SCJ) where the clavicle and the top of the sternum (manubrium) meet. All of these work together (ACJ,SCJ, and glenohumeral joint) to give your arm the huge ROM it is capable of. It’s important that all the drills we do improve how all these pieces function together. Using a lacrosse ball or other mobility tool to dig in around these areas may release some of the tissue and help free up the shoulder. Do not forget the areas around the collar bone, if the tissue is restricted it can affect your overhead ROM.
Flexibility vs Mobility
Flexibility and mobility go hand in hand but are not the same thing. Flexibility is a passive ROM which does not require coordination, core strength, or stability. Mobility, on the other hand, is a person’s ability to actively move a joint through its ROM, for example, the ability to control the shoulder through its full ROM in a functional movement like an overhead press. This is why solely stretching without drills to control the joint in the ROM could potentially hold back your overhead gains.
Activation & Stability Drills
There are a number of drills that can reinforce correct shoulder movement patterns and improve a person’s mobility. Here are a few of my favorite drills.
I, T, & Y Drill
The goal of this drill is to improve how the shoulder blade moves. In proper movement, the low trap will help the scapula rotate upwardly, freeing up area for the humerus to move overhead and avoid pinching the supraspinatus (rotator cuff muscle)under the acromion (part of the scapula). If you feel a pinching in your shoulder when you lift overhead this could be the cause.
This drill should be done with no weight and as you progress light weights may be added. Start by lying face down on a box or bench; you will complete the following drills with the thumb pointed to the sky and arms locked out. For the “I” the arm will be straight overhead, for the “Y” the arm will be slightly out to the side, and for the “T” the arm will be to the side. To perform each drill simple lower the arm to the floor and raise it in the directions just mentioned above. You can perform 2-3 sets of 10 per arm.
The left picture is the correct position for the T drill / The right picture is incorrect due to the trap being overactive and the shoulder is elevated.
It is important you do not feel the upper trap during this exercise because this means the upper trap may be overactive and is creating a faulty movement pattern for the shoulder blade. Instead, the athlete should feel the middle and lower fibers of the trap working. Think of it like this, the fibers are attached to the upper and side portions of the scapula so they can pull it down, upwardly rotating the scapula. The upper trap can help with upward rotation but is mainly used for elevation of the scapula.
Scapular Rotation (Mike Roberson, T-nation. “Push-ups, Face pulls and Shrugs”.T-nation.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016)
The biceps and triceps originate from different parts of the scapula, so if your biceps and triceps are not flexible they may not be active in a full ROM, affecting the overhead position. The bicep and triceps opener drills are a fantastic way to increase your strength and stability through bigger ROM and comes from the great mind of Julien Pineau. In the triceps opener video, Pineau also talks about the importance of the latissimus dorsi (lat) in overhead ROM.
Julien Pineau describes both exercises in the videos below:
In the videos, Pineau describes the importance of being able to be active in the full ROM Things worth noting in the bicep opener video is the importance of the short head of the bicep and its role with shoulder mobility. Pineau gives the example of an elite level gymnast performing an iron cross and how the humerus is slightly internally rotated, allowing the short head of the bicep to aid in overall strength and stability in the shoulder joint. He states the principle is that a weak muscle is a short muscle and that if the short head of the bicep is weak, and therefore short, it will impede overhead ROM. In the triceps opener video, Pineau talks about the hindrance that a tight lat can have on the overhead ROM and how the triceps opener drill will open the lat, allowing the athlete to reach full ROM under tension.
Bottoms up KB walk with a protracted scapula
This drill will help the shoulder blade stay hugged to the ribcage preventing a winged scapula when you move overhead. To perform the drill take a light kettlebell and hold it with elbow at shoulder height and the bottom of the KB facing the ceiling. Next, push the shoulder forward (protracted) and begin your walk. You may feel the outside of the shoulder working which is good to strengthen your external rotators and you may also feel more under the armpit towards where the serratus anterior (commonly known as the boxer muscle) is located.The serratus anterior muscle is what helps hold the scapula close to the rib cage. It’s important that when you lift overhead your scapula does not lift from the rib cage because this can lead to injury. I would recommend 3x50ft per arm in your warmup.
The left photo is good position / The right photo is a winged scapula.
The left picture is the correct position / The right picture is the incorrect position because the shoulder is retracted
Get After It!
These were just a few of my favorite drills to improve shoulder mobility. Even though many other things contribute to shoulder health such as core stability, hip flexor tightness, and spinal erector tightness, these drills are a smart place to start. If there is speculation of a serious injury, seek health care professional. I hope you all find as much success with these drills as I have!