How To Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility


Lacking overhead shoulder mobility is one of the most common causes of shoulder pain we see in our fitness athletes. Without it, you’ll be unable to achieve proper form with overhead squats, presses, the snatch, and even pull-ups.

When they come to our performance physical therapy clinic in Green Bay, we ask our patients what they are doing for the pain or movement restrictions. We hear a lot of foam rolling and general stretching that provide minor, quick improvements, but never results that stick. This is not to say we aren’t fans of foam rolling and stretching, because we feel they have a place, but there is more to be done to help those results “stick.” This is why, if we do dry needling, cupping therapy, or joint mobilizations as part of your rehab, we will always follow it up with strength training or movement patterns.

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Improve Your Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Lacrosse Smash Lats

Your lat muscle is the big back muscle, originating from your lower back and inserting into the front part of your shoulder. This muscle plays a huge role in the ability of your shoulder to move overhead. It’s important to address the soft tissue restrictions and then follow it up with specific movements and strengthening. This lacrosse ball smash is one of our favorites to give as a home exercise.

First Rib Mobilization

The first rib, for a multitude of reasons, can become “raised.” One of the biggest causes we have seen is overhead athletes over-firing the muscles of their neck with heavy lifts, usually because of missed mobility of different areas. The scalenes are the big neck muscles that attach directly to the first rib and can be the culprit. This self-mobilization is likely to be uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the better it gets.

Bench Lat Stretch with Thoracic Extension

This PVC lat stretch is great because it works on three things:
1. It puts you in a position that places the lats on a stretch.
2. It allows us to work on improving thoracic extension through proper mechanics.
3. We can also work on proper diaphragmatic breathing which is ignored way too much and needs to be addressed.

Squat with Overhead Reach

Pairing positions is more advanced but something we incorporate towards the end of our rehab. In the squat position, this is great for improving thoracic and scapular mobility in a overhead position that can be problematic for some. Be sure to brace, breathe, and then mobilize, squeezing the shoulder blades together while rotating.

PVC Prone Lift-Offs

This exercise is great because it not only works on improving shoulder mobility, but also works to strengthen the upper back. Start with your hands wide and as you improve, work to move them more narrow. Always keep glutes and core engaged to isolate shoulder motion and eliminate any cheating by extending your mid/low-back.

Reverse Bear Crawl

If the shoulder blades aren’t moving the way they should, there is an issue and it needs to be addressed. While it may look odd (who cares), the reverse bear crawl works on the upward rotation of your shoulder blade, fires your serratus (finger-looking muscles along the ribs), overhead movement strength, the core, and we love it for rehabilitative purposes…but it’s just a great exercise. It gets things moving without you mentally having to think about it (this is HUGE).

Ideally, we’d like to see 55-60 degrees of upward scapular rotation. If an athlete can achieve this range, we know they have proper stability of the shoulder blade to move overhead effectively.

Looking For More Help?

*This is helpful information, but it is general information. This is NOT medical advice. If you already have any injury, pain, tightness, etc., please seek help from a licensed and qualified healthcare provider like us, performance physical therapy in Green Bay. A complete solution for what you’re dealing with needs to be customized to all the different factors driving your pain, and those factors will be at least slightly different for each person. These strategies may help, but they’re not likely to be a complete solution for each individual reading this now or in the future.