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How to Improve Shoulder Flexibility and Mobility

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How to Improve Shoulder Flexibility and Mobility

Shoulder pain and problems are very common among weightlifters. Banish them by improving shoulder flexibility and mobility.

 

Inflexible shoulders get in the way of quite a few of your major lifts: namely the squat, military press, and bench press.

Shoulder pain, problems, and injuries are also pretty prevalent among weightlifters, primarily to improper form on the bench press and shoulder presses, and an imbalance between chest and back training. (Many guys focus too much on their chest training and neglect their backs, which results in the pectorals pulling the shoulders down and inward.)

Fortunately, you can overcome shoulder pain and inflexibility fairly easily if you address it properly.

Whether you’re new to lifting or experienced, and whether you’re currently experiencing shoulder problems or not, I recommend that you start doing stretching exercises every week. If you’re currently dealing with shoulder impairments, they will improve symptoms; if you’re not, they will help you maintain optimal shoulder health and function, as well as help prevent future injury.

Before we get to the flexibility and mobility routine, though, let’s assess your current level of shoulder flexibility.

A Simple Shoulder Flexibility Test

Here’s an easy way to test your current shoulder flexibility:

If you get into the arms-up position and someone at your side can’t see your eyes (if your arm is in the way and you can’t move it back enough to reveal your ear), your training will benefit greatly from improving your shoulder flexibility.

The Best Shoulder Flexibility Exercises

If you’re lacking shoulder flexibility, you should focus on two things to improve it:

  • Ensure you’re not neglecting your back muscles in your training, as an imbalance between the chest and back development is the most common cause of shoulder problems.
  • Do shoulder flexibility exercises several times per week.

If you do both of these things, you can get rid of nagging shoulder issues you might be dealing with, and prevent them if you’re not currently having any problems.

Now, regarding the exercises, there are a few points that you must keep in mind:

  • Don’t stretch before your weightlifting as this can increase the risk of shoulder injuryStretch after your weightlifting, or at another time altogether.
  • Don’t try to push through tightness. Don’t approach flexibility exercises like weightlifting–don’t try to blast through sticking points, as this can cause injury.

Stop at tightness, hold for 5 seconds, and release. You have to be patient when you’re working on increasing mobility.

  • Take it slow at first, especially if you’re nursing an injury. Again, building up flexibility takes time and patience, especially if you’re recovering from an injury. Even minor strains can take several weeks to fully heal when cared for properly, and much longer if continually aggravated.

A good place to start is to pick three exercises below for your routine, and perform 2 sets of 10 reps, with 60 seconds of rest in between each set. Do this twice per week. As your flexibility improves, you can add in more exercises and/or sets as desired.

Shoulder Dislocations

Don’t worry–this doesn’t result in dislocated shoulders.

It’s actually a great all-around shoulder mobility exercise, and very simple to do.

The tightness of your shoulders will dictate how wide your grip needs to be. The tighter they are the wider you’ll need to make your grip. As flexibility improves, however, you will be able to gradually narrow your grip.

People that are very flexible will be able to perform the exercise with their hands at less than two shoulder-widths apart.

Wall Extensions

Wall Extensions are a very simple way to improve shoulder flexibility. Here’s how they’re done:

Here’s what he’s doing, just in case it’s not totally clear:

  • Stand with your back and heels against a flat wall.
  • Extend your arms straight out to your sides, with your palms facing out (the backs of your hands against the wall).
  • Bend your arms to move your forearms into an upright position (move your arms to a 90-degree angle).
  • Carefully raise your arms above your head, keeping them flat against the wall.

Good flexibility allows you to fully extend your arms and touch your hands together while keeping your arms, elbows, and wrists touching the wall at all times.

Around the World

This is a great exercise for not only improving shoulder flexibility, but for strengthening the rotator cuffs as well.

 

Start with a 25 lb plate if necessary and work your way up to a 45 lb plate.

Doorway Stretch

The Doorway Stretch is an effective way to stretch your shoulders, and your anterior deltoids in particular.

Here’s a one-arm variation:

 My Shoulder Flexibility Routine

Here’s what I do twice per week:

  • 2 sets of Shoulder Dislocations
  • 2 sets of Around the Worlds
  • 2 sets of Door Stretches

This keeps my shoulders flexible and the joint tight and in alignment. I rarely ever experience shoulder pain or problems, and have been strain-free for years now (knock on wood).

 

What do you do to avoid shoulder pain and problems? Have anything else you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.

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66 Comments
  • Dave Bean

    Good article…Definitely a problem of mine.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Hope it helps!

  • Cesar Salazar

    Hey Mike,
    When is the best time to do this stretches? as you mention that it is not advisable to do them before your lifting session. Would it be good to do them after a workout? or some other time?

    • Michael Matthews

      I like to do them after lifting, or just during the day at a random time. Just don’t do them before your lifting.

  • Eric Robison

    Having a shoulder problem right now so this really helps! Love all of your articles, man! Keep up the good work.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Eric! Glad you like my work! Hope this helps your shoulder.

  • Shanna Reinhardt

    Any suggestions for knee discomfort?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes, I’ll cover this in the next article in the “flexibility and mobility” series. :)

  • http://www.liftlaughlive.com/ David

    I LOVE using the shoulder dislocations, those are the greatest. ;]

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah they rock!

  • Engin Burak Anil

    Hey Mike, in response to another person below you suggested not to do it before lifting. is there a reason to that? thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah. You don’t want your muscles and ligaments loose before you lift–you want them tight and full of blood.

  • Keith Elders

    Another great exercise for shoulder ROM is the pendulum and hanging weighted circles. I dislocated both of my shoulders on a jump into AAFB in 1989. I have never had surgery due to some great advice from an Army physical therapist.
    1) Pendulums- lie in a prone position on a bench, so that your head and shoulders are hanging over the end of the bench. Hold a dumbbell that you can comfortably control. Not too heavy, but not too light , either. In a left to right rhythmic motion, swing the DB back and forth. Do about 20 reps.
    Weighted Arm Circles- great for strengthening and stabilizing the rotator cuff. Stand in a bent-over stance holding a DB in one hand. Place your opposite hand on your knee for stability. In a circular movement, swing the DB first clockwise, ten counterclockwise. Repeat for theother side. Perform 20-25 circle in each direction.
    * The pendulums can also be done from front to back immediately following the left to right swings.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the tips Keith!

  • Ashkan

    I love your articles! You keep it real.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Glad you like my work.

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  • dan84

    Hi Mike,

    On the wall extensions exercise I can’t get my left forearm and back of the hand on the wall. Should I just continue doing the exercise despite this with the aim of getting them to eventually touch over time?

    Cheers!

    • Michael Matthews

      Yup! Just keep working on it as best you can until you can do it properly…

      • Dan

        Cheers Michael appreciate the reply. I’ve also been starting at the top of the movement and moving down just before my forearm starts to come away and then back to the top.

        I’ll let you know how I get on.

        Kee up the great work!

        • Michael Matthews

          Okay cool, that’s good.

          Another point worth mentioning is the fact that sitting motionless in a chair all day is just horrible for the body.

          I recommend setting a 20-minute timer and just getting up, shaking your legs out, doing a couple stretches, etc.

  • Jane O

    Hi, I have such bad shoulder flexibility that I can’t get the shoulder relocation exercise to go all the way, no matter how wide I hold the bar. Any tips? Thank you for the article!

    • Michael Matthews

      Just gotta keep working on it. You can foam roll your shoulders as well:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com /how-to-improve-shoulder-flexibility-and-mobility/

  • Dan Strohschein

    These are great – can you do one on lower body flexibility as well? Hamstring, glute, etc that prevent me from touching my toes?

  • Joe

    Mike, as usual, your advice is sound.

    I would like to offer a counter-point if I may given my
    current situation:

    I am in physical therapy 3 times per week and seeing a
    shoulder specialist periodically due to a somewhat significant injury that
    developed while lifting weights.

    Everyone’s body is different and I am a strong believer in
    doing what’s right for your
    body. The readings / studies that I can
    recall refer to avoiding static stretching before lifting, but that dynamic
    stretching can be beneficial.

    I personally do both (focusing more on dynamic), right after
    I warm-up for a few minutes (on an elliptical or treadmill). After the warm-up, I perform a few static
    stretches, and then focus the rest of the routine on dynamic stretches. Without static and dynamic stretching, my
    shoulders are not ready to follow the complete and correct range of motion
    required for some weightlifting exercises.
    As a result, I believe I will be in a position to more likely injure
    myself if I do not perform these stretches.

    I used to always stretch before hand and stopped once I read
    a number of studies suggesting that I shouldn’t. It was not long after that my injury
    developed.

    I am 44 years old and have had prior wear on my shoulders
    from being active for a long time. Stretching
    before working out helps me, in fact I would say for me it is critically
    important, but as I said everyone’s different.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Joe!

      You’re absolutely right that you need to know your body in matters like this, not blindly follow research. Sure, the stretching might be sapping some of your strength, but it allows you to perform the exercises safely, so it’s important to do.

      Keep up the good work.

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  • António

    Hey Mike,
    I’ve recently being feeling a bone in my elbow and in my shoulder pop when I bench with a barbell and do shoulder exercises respectively. It doesn’t hurt, but of course to feel something in your elbow(left only) kind of pop in every rep you do with a barbell makes you concerned especially when you’re lifting heavy.The same happens with my left shoulder, which always makes me think that my form is incorrect, but I’ve reached the conclusion that it isn’t.The answers I found on the internet essentially say, if it doesn’t hurt, it’s ok. However I would like your own feedback since after all those years lifting it might have happened to you.
    Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Hmm it sounds like a form issue, or is this the result of an injury?

      I’ve honestly never had anything like that happen but wouldn’t try to just push through it…

  • AnthonyDiCesaro

    Great information Mike! I’d like to add one bit of advice I’ve found has helped many patients who came in for shoulder injuries. There’s two things actually, and both involve tips for stretching in general. The first is to stretch like a baby. If you observe how an infant stretches when they wake up, they do so without any conscious thought about what they’re doing. It’s completely natural. Allow your body to stretch in ways that it wants, especially when waking up, to get the blood flowing. As far as working out and stretching…couldn’t agree more about not stretching before working out. That only makes muscles weaker…like a rubber band. One of the best things you can do for your body and your mind is to spend 10 minutes stretching immediately after getting into bed. The mental focus and blood flow combined are sure to set your day off in a positive and relaxed mood.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Great tips!

  • Julien

    Mike,
    Can you do ‘shoulder dislocations’ with a large rolled up towel instead? Or do you need the rigidity of the stick for the exercise to be effective?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yup that works too.

  • Van

    Hi Mike! I read your article and I really liked it. I think you have a good point regarding imbalance between the chest and back training. I focused too much on my chest, and now with CrossFit, I realized my shoulder mobility sucks big time! At the moment I am focusing a lot on mobility exercises especially shoulder, but I still have a long way to go. Do you think focusing on back exercises while working on shoulder mobility can makes things go a bit faster than only focusing on mobility exercises? Also, do you have some advices regarding back exercises for bringing back the balance? Thanks in advance! :)

  • Carlos Arteaga

    I recently got diagnosed for Bursitis, can these exercises help me? I’m under anti inflammatory treatment

    • Michael Matthews

      Arg I’m sorry to hear that. It could help yes, but I wound check with your doc.

      • Carlos Arteaga

        Sucks. Haven’t lifted since Monday but pain is almost gone so that a pro. I think by a couple week I can start again. I talked to him and he said to start doing them when I’m fully healed. Seems that the Seated tricep press was the danger factor con my left shoulder

        • Michael Matthews

          That’s good. Just stay away from exercises that might aggravate it again.

  • Peter Skarheim

    Can and should these flexibility exercises be done if I’m already experiencing shoulder and rotator cuff pain?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes, definitely.

      • Peter Skarheim

        Even though at some point I can feel I’m irritating the problem? For example at the very end of the wall extention exercise I can feel a hint of pain on top of my shoulders. Is that okay, or should I keep the range of motions from feeling pain?

        • Michael Matthews

          If it’s only a little that’s okay. Just don’t try to push through and cause a strain, you know?

          • Peter Skarheim

            Yeah I guess, but thanks anyway! Love this article, helps me a lot!

          • Michael Matthews

            YW! Glad to hear it.

  • Richard Thompson

    I’ve had a number of problems with my shoulders over the years, especially my right shoulder. My range of motion is OK for the most part but when I stretch my arms over and behind my head, I can get a sharp pain feeling like it’s coming from within the joint. I think it may be a rotator cuff injury but I’m uncertain. It doesn’t seem to affect my lifting but I’m just concerned that it might get worse, so will try out these exercises for a while to see if they help as it might just be a flexibility thing.

    Cheers Mike, keep up the good work!

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes it could be a mobility issue or it could be another muscle that’s tight and pulling, or a bone that’s out of place and causing muscular issues.

  • Nick

    Hey Mike,

    Two weeks ago while doing bench press with dumbbells, I had some sharp pains in my right shoulder and it became very inflamed. After I went to the doctor he told me I developed a very common problem called “weightlifter’s shoulder.” That was 8 weeks ago. I’ve kept up on my lower body exercises but when I attempt any upper body, push or pull, I have pain. I have full mobility of my shoulders it just hurts when I lift. I was curious if you have any suggestions so I can keep my progress going.

    Nick

  • Jim Anderson

    Hi would like your opinion on 2 products I have seen advertised,
    One is MMA muscle pro,the other is Tetinate 250,they look too good to be true,are they?

    • Michael Matthews

      Haven’t heard of them, sorry. They sound like shit though. ;)

  • Geoffrey Lorenzo Brent

    Hi Mike, just been watching some videos on youtube and i came across rotator cuff exercises using elastics. If my shoulder is completely healthy, never having any unusual pain or discomfort in them, would you still recommend incorporating RC work into my work out/s and how often would you say is necessary/ideal? Thanks

    Note – i train my chest and back equally.

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question. I never do because like you, I’ve never had RC issues. It wouldn’t hurt though.

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  • Harry

    Hi Mike. I have rotator cuff tendinitis after training heavy during my shoulder workout. It’s the second time I have developed this only slightly more severe this time. I have avoided any exercise involving the shoulder (i.e almost everything) for the last 3 weeks and undergoing physical therapy but only seen marginal improvement. Do you have any experience with this type of injury and any tips on how to get a speedy recovery. I feel I am loosing hard earned muscle mass!

  • J.T.

    Hey Mike, Ive tried the shoulder flexibility test with my hands over my head, and it seems I lack flexibility in my shoulders because I arch my back to get their. Ive been doing these exercises, and I was wondering how long would it be till I see results? Plus, I lift heavy weights regularly and Im dumping chest to help get my back balanced out. Are military presses bad if I cannot do the test properly? Seems I have a lot of shoulder/pec tightness which hinders my shoulder flexibility….Im 21 and a D1 athlete by the way.

    • Michael Matthews

      You should be able to see results within a few weeks. Check out this article for even more:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/mobility-exercises/

      You can still do MPs and even chest work unless the area is so tight that it’s painful.

  • Paige

    You really need to get a golf ball muscle roller, it did wonders for my muscles, seriously check it out! http://www.zzathletics.com

  • Alex

    I’ve dislocated my shoulder 8 times playing rugby and had surgery to fix this (essentially the ligaments were over stretched and loose). Flexibility exercises using Therabands of varying resistance have been invaluable to a full recovery – they are also fairly cheap as fitness equipment goes too!!

    • Michael Matthews

      That’s great! Thanks for sharing!

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  • Sadiq

    Hi Mike. Great articles, love reading them.
    I think I may have a problem with my shoulders. I find it extremely difficult to raise my arms straight up in line with my ears. At best I can get them to 30 degrees away from a wall if I try and do it with my back against a wall. I’m wondering if I have a really tight chest or shoulder problem. It’s stopping me performing OH press with good form. Any advice you can offer.
    Thanks, Sadiq.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Yep if you do the mobility exercises listed here it will really help!

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