Beginner’s Guide to Shoulder Mobility

by | Jun 1, 2024 | Blog

When your shoulder mobility is limited, it can be challenging to do the things you love. It can make things like reaching overhead into a tall cabinet, reaching back to the backseat of your car, or doing your hair difficult or nearly impossible.

It can also make exercises like bench press, overhead press, pull-ups, snatches, handstands etc. more challenging or make you skip them altogether.

Not to mention, limited shoulder mobility can contribute to injuries and pain, in your shoulders and also in your neck or back.

The good news, however, is that our bodies never stop adapting, and a lot of mobility gains can be made no matter how long you’ve been struggling with these limitations.

In this blog, you’ll learn an overview of the shoulder joints, the two main things I have clients work on when it comes to getting started on their mobility (assuming they’ve begun a daily CARs routine, learn more about that here), and some examples of the types of exercises I give to clients when beginning to work on shoulder mobility.

While the best option would be to get assessed by a movement provider or knowledgeable coach to come up with a plan that meets you where you’re at and can help you meet your unique goals, a lot of progress can be made with simply addressing the foundation of how your shoulder functions, which is the purpose of this blog

Shoulder Overview

Your shoulder is made up of 2 main joints (there are others, but these are the 2 that tend to need the most attention and have the most mobility opportunity). Those joints are the glenohumeral joint (where your arm bone meets your shoulder blade & what most people think of when they think about the shoulder) and your scapulothoracic joint (where your shoulder blade sits on your rib cage).

To begin improving your shoulder mobility, we aim to address the fundamental movements of these 2 joints.

Fundamental Movements For The Glenohumeral Joint

Your glenohumeral joint is a ball-and-socket joint. It rolls and rotates around when we move it- no matter the direction we move it. When we improve rotation of this joint, we are improving how our shoulder functions from the inside→ out, specifically targeting some of the deep joint tissues like your ligaments and the capsule surrounding the actual joint.

This happens because your rotator cuff muscles- the muscles performing the rotational movements, attach to your joint capsule. A healthier joint capsule = a happier shoulder.

To work on improving your shoulder rotation you want to focus on both flexibility AND strength. Some people are flexible enough, so they benefit from focusing more on strength throughout all their ranges of motion. Others need to improve their flexibility through stretches while also working on their rotational strength. In general, working on both is usually a good option.

These are my favorite ways to simultaneously improve flexibility & strength of shoulder internal and external rotation, typically performed 3x/wk:

Sleeper Stretch w/PAILs & RAILs for Shoulder Internal Rotation

Door Stretch w/PAILs & RAILs for Shoulder External Rotation

And these are my favorite ways to build rotational strength through mid & end ranges of motion perform 1-2x/wk:

Shoulder External Rotation Lift-Offs

Shoulder Internal Rotation Lift-Offs
Elbow-Supported Loaded Shoulder External Rotation
Fundamental Movements For The Scapulothoracic Joint

The scapula (or shoulder blade) is an important component of the shoulder. If your shoulder blade was not able to move, your shoulder wouldn’t have near the mobility it does (you wouldn’t be able to lift your arm above shoulder height!).

Many people I work with have been told to keep their shoulder blades pinned down & back so much that they have lost their ability to move them in other directions. And ALL directions have a purpose for a healthy, happy shoulder. Plus when you reach overhead, your shoulder blades actually need to rotate and elevate up towards your ears.

Instead of avoiding certain movements, it’s important to train ALL of them. This is why I start people with scapular CARs of many different variations to re-train that ability and build even more strength and awareness of those movements.

Your shoulder blades should have the ability to:

  • Protract (move forward or away from each other & your spine)
  • Retract (move backways or towards each other & your spine)
  • Elevate (up to your ears)
  • Depress (down towards your hips)

My favorite ways for people to begin working on better scapular control & mobility are variations of loaded CARs added into warm-ups or workouts 2-3x/wk:

Closed Chain Scapular CARs (variations with different levels)

Hanging Scapular CARs

Bent Over Loaded Scapular CARs

Standing Loaded Scapular CARs

Once you’ve spent some time on these things and gained some progress in those areas, you will be ready to move on to additional shoulder movements like flexion or extension, or getting more specific about the scapular movements you struggle with and working on one or more of them more specifically and isolated. But most people I work with keep some of this work in their training because these are truly the foundation of a healthy, happy shoulder.

If you need help with your shoulder mobility, check out my coaching options or join my Mobility Membership & go through the 12-Week Shoulder Basics Program.

To learn more about setting a mobility-focused goal, check out my free masterclass called Kickstart Your Mobility Training!

While you’re here, join my email list for all the updates on new blogs and podcasts, and be the first to know about any and all discounts, announcements, and sales.

A photo of Dr. Jen Hosler standing with a barbell instructing the deadlift.

Hi, I'm Dr. Jen Hosler.

I’m a bookworm, science nerd, and coach of all things movement (physical therapist and strength & mobility coach). You can catch me sleeping in & having a slow morning, doing CARs & lifting heavy things, or sipping a glass of wine on my time off.

Through a blend of strength & mobility training, I’ll help you master your movement & build a more resilient body that won’t hold you back from all the activities you love doing.

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Have a nagging ache, pain, or injury that just hasn’t gone away? Maybe you’ve tried bouts of physical therapy or chiropractic care without much success. Or maybe you’ve done your own research and rehab with the help of social media, but you still aren’t feeling 100%. That’s where I come in – with my personalized asssessment and 1-on-1 programming, I will tailor a plan specific to your individual needs so you can feel better and tackle your goals.

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Develop maximum body control, flexibility, and usable ranges of motion (mobility). Our online Mobility Membership provides you with all the resources you need to address your weak links, maximize your joint health, and overcome longstanding injuries & pains that are holding you back from enjoying the active life you love. Learn about your body while you’re training so you can become a movement expert! This is the next best option to working with me directly.