It is possible to stretch your shoulders without pain, pinching, or compromising the strength and integrity of the shoulder joint. This range of motions is necessary for a whole host of activities that require you to bring your arms overhead including weight lifting, handstands, aerial arts, yoga, and contortion… and just getting a plate off a high shelf!
Pinching or pain in the shoulder joint is often caused by sub-optimal shoulder alignment. When the bones aren’t in the right place you can create compression in the shoulder socket which can, over time, lead to injuries like impingement and tears.
Plus you wont make good progress on building your mobility and strength.
Coordinate Your Shoulder Movements
Remember that with all shoulder movement we are managing two different areas of mobility: the glenohumeral joint and the scapula. For more about shoulder anatomy please check out last month’s blog post, 3 Things You Should Know about Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain. Understanding shoulder mechanics is essential to mastering shoulder positioning for optimal movement.
The glenohumeral joint and the scapula each have an important job to do. And just like a choreographed duet between two dancers, if either one of them isn’t in the right place the whole thing falls apart.
I’ve broken the process of finding the correct position into three steps—and for you visual learners there is also a video below.
Step 1: External rotation of the Glenohumeral Joint
The glenohumeral joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket, should be externally rotated when stretching. External rotation creates spaciousness in the shoulder socket and puts the arm in a more supported position.
It is much easier to achieve this position if you start with rotation before you’re in the stretch.
There are some overhead movements that call for internal rotation like the clean and jerk, but you never want to do anything at your end range of motion in internal rotation. This can lead to the dreaded pinching feeling.
If you’re having a hard time finding your external rotators, check out How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff.
Step 2: Pull the Scapulae Apart
The scapulae are capable of tremendous mobility since nothing is holding them onto your rib cage except muscles. Restriction in scapular movement comes from neglecting upper back mobility, and poor posture can make it worse. However time spent on scapular mobility has big pay-offs. In this case you want to pull your scapulae straight out to the side, away from your spine. It is easiest to do this with your arms in a T position. Don’t forget to keep that external rotation!
Note: If this is a new range for you, you may feel a deep, nervy stretch down your biceps, elbows, forearms or fingers. If this is you, GO SLOW. Don’t push into that stretch, just gradually work on it little by little over time and don’t stay in the stretch for more than a few seconds. Nerves are easily pissed off and hard to calm down. Don’t upset them!
Step 3: Upwardly Rotate the Scapulae Keeping Them Wide
The last step is to bring the arms overhead. This phase of the movement is highly dependent on the scapulae rotating out and up; imagine the upward rotation of a bird’s wing joint as it gets ready to fly. If the scapulae do not rotate upward sufficiently, pointing the shoulder socket towards the sky, then the shoulder muscles will have difficulty functioning properly and the glenohumeral joint will be overworked, resulting in the previously mentioned pain and pinching.
It is vitally important when upwardly rotating the scapulae to maintain steps 1 and 2 so that you don’t lose your external rotation or the width between the scapulae. Once you have all of these pieces in place, you’re ready to rock your shoulder stretch.
When you have all of the bones aligned properly, you should feel the stretch through the back of the arm, the armpit, and possibly down the side of the body. There may also be stretching through the chest (see Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching Your Pecs!). But keep in mind there is a lot of variety in anatomy and different people will experience this stretch in different places.
If you are feeling pinching, stabbing, blocking pain in the shoulder socket itself, keep working on improving your ability to do the three steps above before going deeper into the stretch. If the pain persists, I recommend seeing a doctor or PT as there may be an injury in the shoulder that needs to be addressed before stretching.
For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.