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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 03, 2023
Are you dealing with stiff, creaky shoulder joints on a day to day basis? You’re not alone. Shoulder pain and stiffness are a common occurrence, and there are simple solutions to relieve recurring stiffness and limited mobility within the shoulders. Let’s jump into the shoulder’s anatomy and function, why shoulder mobility is an absolute crucial element to your body’s health, and solutions to improve your shoulders current state.
Mobility is the ability to move your body without limitations or pain. This means that the body’s joints are healthy and have optimal range of motion. An articulation (where two or more bones meet) of the joint can move to a specific degree before being restricted by surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments.
In addition, joint mobility is directly correlated to posture and can influence desired activities and especially activities that require load. Proper mobility is needed so the joint and its surrounding tissues can carry out the demands of movements. When joints move well, efficient muscles are built.
Lastly, let’s clear the air between the terms mobility and stretching. These two are commonly mistaken as the same concept yet they both serve a specific purpose in training. Stretching is the ability to passively achieve a range of motion (ex: child's pose for shoulder relief) while mobility is the ability to actively achieve extended ranges of motion (ex: prone shoulder lift offs for shoulder activation). A combination of the two, stretching and mobility work, can help improve the shoulders passive and active range of motion.
Having the ability to move in ways that you want to without limitations or pain can be achieved through training your joints with mobility drills. When shoulder mobility is limited, it can greatly affect your quality of life and increase the risk of injury in the shoulder joint. Loading any joint that does not have the capacity to withstand the load in a given position can lead to recurring problems. Ensuring the health of your shoulders through mobility within the full range of motion is a key factor for maintaining functional shoulders.
The most well known joints of the shoulder, acromioclavicular and glenohumeral, are located at the primary joint that connects the arm to the torso. However, there are two other joints, sternoclavicular and scapulothoracic, that encompass the entire shoulder. These joints play a major role in shoulder movements that are patterned with everyday motions.
The musculature of the shoulder joint has intricate connections between points of these bony landmarks. The rotator cuff, for instance, are 4 muscles that connect your scapula to the humerus. These muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) help stabilize the humerus within the glenohumeral joint.
In addition, there are a lot of scapular muscles correlated with the back of the shoulder, most are categorized as the lower and middle trapezius and serratus anterior. These muscles are responsible for stabilization of the shoulder joint as a whole. Proper stability within these muscle groups prevents injury within all the tissues involved.
The shoulder joint is responsible for basic movements like flexion, extension, horizontal abduction, horizontal adduction and internal and external rotation. The shoulder is not limited to movements outside of these basic movements, there are a complex range of combined movements available to the shoulder. A majority of functional movements combine linear movement and rotation. For example, to reach your arm across the body, the shoulder adducts and rotates.
This is why shoulder mobility is so important. The glenohumeral joint (connects the glenoid of the scapula and the head of the humerus) is a shallow joint. Its anatomy limits the coverage between the ball and the socket of the joint. This means there’s instability within the joint if the surrounding muscles aren’t stabilizing movement. The shoulder has a lot of components of planes of motion and biomechanics. Maintaining proper mobility within the glenohumeral joint as well as the surrounding tissue can help you move freely without compensations or pain.
1) Overhead Shoulder Mobility Test:
Overhead mobility is achieved through shoulder flexion, abduction, upward rotation, elevation and thoracic extension. This test looks for adequate overhead mobility and any discrepancies of mobility between right and left sides. Limitations of overhead mobility may occur due to muscle tightness or injury. Again, this isn't just shoulder tightness, it is tightness in several muscles surrounding the shoulders.
2) Apley’s Scratch Test:
This test is used to assess and measure shoulder range of motion of the glenohumeral joint along with any pain points of the rotator cuff. This test measures shoulder internal rotation, adduction, abduction and external rotation. It's a great way to see if you have tight shoulders and where you need to be focusing on for improving shoulder mobility.
If you want to improve shoulder mobility, which you obviously should, the following exercises are the best ones you can do.
The scapula move in a three dimensional pattern. Scapula protraction and retraction are crucial movements that engage the surrounding musculature in positions that strengthen the upper back and shoulder complex. When the scapula moves in shoulder protraction, they move laterally or away from the rib cage. The serratus anterior, pectoralis major and minor are the muscles that assist in protraction. When the shoulder blades retract, the surrounding musculature pulls the scapulae together towards the spine. The muscles that assist in retraction are the upper, middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi.
Moving through the three dimensional pattern of the scapulae, scapulae circles target the movements of shoulder elevation, protraction, depression and retraction. Working towards a smooth pattern with scapula circles will help bring neuromuscular awareness and control through this region. This awareness can directly be linked to movements like push ups, pull ups, presses and rows where the scapula position plays an important role for proper muscle recruitment.
The shoulders and thoracic spine move in synchronization through upper body rotational movements. Synching both the scapulae and thoracic spine in this rotational movement is a great way to stretch and pattern this connection.
Shoulder CARs or controlled articular rotations utilize active rotations that take the individual joint to its outer limits of motion. It stimulates articular adaptations and indicates neurological control of the outer limits for improved joint stability and proprioception.
Working active shoulder range of motion within the lift off strengthens the end range of motion of the shoulders. This movement also targets the upper and mid back muscles to stabilize the shoulder blades.
This exercise targets the infraspinatus muscle which is one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff that provide stability in the shoulder joint. The infraspinatus specifically rotates the humerus away from the body, an important component for adequate external rotation. Isolating external rotation helps strengthen the infraspinatus muscle.
Book openers can improve the mobility of the thoracic spine (mid back). A mobility t-spine allows proper range of motion of the shoulder joints and unlocks restrictions to breathing.
As you can see, none of the above are static shoulder stretches, they are dynamic stretches and movements that focus on moving in a full range of motion. These are what you need to be doing to avoid shoulder injury and improve your exercise performance. These dynamic stretching exercises will also help alleviate any shoulder discomfort and increase shoulder flexibility in a similar manner to static stretches.
If you to get in a good static shoulder stretch, check out these best deltoid stretches.
The simple answer to this question is every day. Similar to most exercises, small doses are better than not doing anything at all. Mobility exercises are low-intensity and usually do not require equipment. Ideally, these movements can be done on your rest days to relieve stress on the muscles and joints but emphasizing regular movement to keep them strong.
Mobility in many ways is the foundation to all movements. Prioritizing this in your routine can ensure a strong foundation to the rest of your movement goals. This way, when you are adding stressors to your body, if you have a strong foundation, you’ll be able to bounce back for the next workout.
It is important to remember that mobility work is progressive. Going in all at once can impact the body and leave it feeling achy and sore. Slowly introducing a few movement patterns and increasing the intensity over time will allow the body to adapt and benefit from each mobility drill.
Any type of mobility work is beneficial when done multiple times during the week. Establishing a consistent routine of a few shoulder exercises that work the entire mobility of the shoulder joint will help increase the shoulder’s capacity over time. Shoulder mobility work can be programmed pre/post workout or as a recovery day.
On average, the minimum mobility sessions you can aim for are 2-3 times per week. If you workout more than 2-3 days per week, try to increase your mobility sessions to match the amount of days you’re working out and try to consider your rest days as mobility days.
Shoulder pain and stiffness do not have to dictate your quality of life. There are simple solutions to relieve recurring stiffness and limited mobility within your shoulders. With a commitment to mobility training and shoulder mobility exercises, your shoulders will start to feel less creaky and more buttery as well as function a lot more efficiently through your day to day routine. Let's keep those shoulders healthy!
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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