If you’ve been here for a while, you probably know the importance we place on mobility.
Being able to rotate and move each joint and muscle through its full range of motion is crucial not only for avoiding injuries, but also building solid strength and efficient flows.
Today I want to talk about shoulder mobility specifically since it’s an area we tend to overlook when we think about increasing flexibility and strength. Unfortunately, our shoulders are also arguably the most prone to injury due to having so many “parts,” which is why shoulder injuries are so common.
Your shoulder consists of your clavicle (collar bone), scapula (shoulder blades), and humerus (upper arm bone), along with two joints – the acromioclavicular, or AC joint; and the glenohumeral joint (looks like a ball and socket).
Each of these joints is supported by the surrounding muscles and tendons in your back and chest (thinks delts and traps), which is why true shoulder strength relies on both muscle strength AND flexibility. You can’t really have one without the other without setting yourself up for an injury and sub-par lifts.
Shoulder Strength and Flexibility: Why You Need Both
Our shoulders factor into every upper body exercise, in and out of the gym. Pull-ups, pushups, swings, putting luggage in an overhead bin, lifting anything over your head: any of these movements could result in an injury if your shoulders have a hard time rotating and stabilizing.
If the ligaments and muscles connecting your shoulder aren’t mobile or flexible enough, you may struggle with full extensions or overhead swings, or even worse, compensate with bad form.
As an example: You need ample shoulder mobility to move through full kettlebell swings, combined with enough strength in the stabilizing muscles in your upper back and scapula to decelerate the swing at its peak. If you haven’t developed the muscles within and surrounding your shoulder, it’s likely you could strain a ligament or tendon. This is especially true after several sets when the already weak muscles become fatigued.
The same goes for moves like pullups. The strength to pull up to the bar isn’t coming from your arms alone, but your shoulders, upper back, and shoulder blades. If you lack strength here and try to use your arms to compensate, you could easily strain or pull a ligament. We can even consider movements outside of the gym like chopping wood.
Maybe you never chop wood, but if you ever need to, say, hammer or toss something, the movement is similar.
The shoulder muscles need to be highly stabilized to handle the weight and resistance of an ax, hammer, or anything else you’re moving, as well as have flexible enough ligaments to fully rotate in their sockets.
A key to consider when thinking about mobility is that we want to be bendable, yet strong. Like the old adage about bamboo being extremely hard to break because it’s so sturdy, yet still bends under pressure? If we work toward building that within our bodies, we’ll have unbreakable strength.
Shoulder Mobility Enhancers
Shoulder mobility workouts are going to not only help develop strength in your shoulder and supporting muscles but also add flexibility to allow your shoulder joint to freely move through its full range of motion.
Hello, good form and improved lifts, and bye-bye shoulder injuries. Check these moves and flows below and do a few three times a week to start mobilizing and strengthening those shoulders.
The Kettlebell Halo creates a beautiful blend of improved strength and mobility throughout the shoulders. It also strengthens your upper back, which acts like added support to your shoulder structure (hello stability).
Use a light to moderate weight here, focusing more on smoothly executing the halo. The goal is to also avoid hitting your own head by going slow!
- Grab your kettlebell and lower it to one knee. Hold your bell with two hands, bottom facing up.
- Pull your shoulder blades down and move the kettlebell up and around your head. Avoid the urge to move or duck your head.
- The bell should stay close to your head at all times during the halo.
- Once you circle around back to your face, reverse and circle the other way, alternating which knee is forward.
2. Alternating Shoulder Drop
The Alternating Drop is an awesome mobility move, and deeply challenges the flexibility of your shoulder and the surrounding muscles. As a bonus, the shoulder that isn’t “dropped” is holding your weight, encouraging strength in the joint.
- Start on your knees, hip-width apart. Spread your arms wide.
- Slowly drop one shoulder toward the floor, keeping your arm outstretched, until you feel a deep stretch through your shoulder (push all the way to the floor if you can but don’t overextend if you can’t yet).
- Come back to your knees and repeat with your other shoulder.
- Repeat for 5-8 reps on each side.
3. Standing Spine Wave
This move will loosen up your entire upper back and spine, which helps encourage more movement and range through your shoulder joints.
- Start standing tall, shoulders back.
- Now, roll your shoulders and head forward, rounding your spine as you roll down toward your toes, knees slightly bent.
- Let your head and arms hang loosely, releasing any tension.
- Begin to roll back up, bending your knees. “Wave” your spine at the top of the movement by slightly pushing your pelvis forward and arching your back, letting your head fall back.
- Repeat for 5-8 reps.
Steel Mace Moves
Working with a steel mace is a killer (in the best way!) for shoulder mobility. The off-center weight distribution helps build strength and stability through the joint, all while stretching them with rotational movements.
Not only that, but I’ve also built entire flows using Onnit’s steel mace. Aside from a kettlebell, it’s a workout gold mine, and the unique moves you can do keep you from boredom. Even simple upper body moves using the mace engages your core and adds just the right amount of resistance to lower and upper body flows.
If you want to give it a try, this is the one I use: Onnit Steel Mace
1.Steel Mace Flow
This Mace Flow pretty much leaves nothing untouched on your upper body, and also gets your core and entire back in on the action. The weighted rotation of the mace strengthens and encourages flexibility through the shoulder while lowering into a pushup combined with a light shoulder drop adds an even deeper strength challenge.
- Start standing, holding the mace with two hands near the bottom. Lift and swing the ball in a halo around your torso, keeping your shoulder blades down.
- As the mace comes back to the front of your body, catch the ball with one of your hands, lower it to the floor, then leap your feet back. You’ll be stabilizing your weight on the arm holding the ball to the ground.
- Lower into a pushup, keeping your opposite arm extended to the top of the mace. You’ll feel a stretch through this shoulder as you drop into the pushup.
- Push up, then leap your feet in, bringing the mace up with you to go straight into the halo.
- Lead with your other hand this time to repeat on your other arm.
- Repeat for 4 to 6 sets.
2. Steel Mace Halo-Lunge Flow
This mace flow brings your shoulders through their full range of motion while increasing tendon flexibility and stabilizer strength by working your entire upper back.
- Start standing, holding your mace with both hands at the top.
- Swing the ball around in a halo around your body, feeling the stretch through your shoulder blades and socket.
- When the ball comes back to your front, grasp it with one hand and simultaneously lower into a side lunge, directing the ball to the floor.
- Bring the ball back up as you rise from your lunge and repeat your halo, leading with the opposite hand and repeating on your other side.
- Try 4 to 8 sets.
3. Steel Mace Upper Cut Lunge Switch
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Trying to be like the Viking ninja @erikmelland! -30 seconds work each side -30 seconds rest in between sets #onnit #steelmace #workout #austin • Sign up for our upcoming kettlebell and steel mace workshop September 1st in Austin Texas! Link in my bio! • ⚡️EricLeija.com⚡️
This is a full-body move, but trust me: you’re going to feel both shoulders working and stretching hard with this movement.
- Begin by coming into a lunge, holding the mace with the ball facing down, one hand just above it and the other near the top.
- Leap into a jump-lunge (you can also do an alternating lunge here, just do the mace movement to match your speed), moving the mace up and across your body, then down and across with every switch.
- Do 30 seconds work on each side, followed by 30 seconds rest. Repeat for 4-5 sets.
As you can see, building shoulder mobility requires pretty simple movements, but with a big payoff. Doing these regularly will help improve your pull-ups, pushups, and range of motion, increasing both strength and flexibility simultaneously.
Here’s that link to the Onnit steel mace again, which I highly recommend for shoulder-strengthening moves. And because, well, they’re pretty fun (aka, make you feel like a Viking)!