You know the feeling all too well: You hunch over your desk for eight hours a day, feeling your shoulders slowly creep up toward your ears. No matter how many times you try to adjust your posture, you always return to a slouching state.
Listen, I will be the first person to raise my hand and admit I'm guilty of poor posture. Daily life makes it all too easy: When I'm not slumped over my laptop, I'm hunched over checking my phone or carrying groceries.
To make matters worse, you might not realize you suffer from poor posture until you feel pain. Slouching and sitting all day leads to tight shoulders, which leads to painful neck and back muscles. (If you find yourself cracking your neck while typing, this could be a sign of tight shoulders.)
Luckily, doing various shoulder mobility exercises can help loosen your shoulders, improve your posture, and decrease pain in your neck and back. And many of them can be done right from your desk.
Please note: This post is for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. If you suffer from chronic neck, back, or shoulder pain, I recommend seeing a licensed physical therapist for an evaluation.
What Is Mobility and Why Does It Matter?
Before I dive into various shoulder mobility exercises, it's important to understand what mobility is — and why it matters.
In simplest terms, mobility is the range of motion in your joints. While mobility is often confused with flexibility, they are two very different things. Flexibility refers to your muscles' and tendons’ ability to lengthen, while mobility is your joints' ability to reach its end range of motion.
You need both mobility and flexibility to be a well-functioning athlete (you will never have more mobility than flexibility). And while this post is intended to discuss shoulder mobility specifically, never forget that your body is a closed system. Meaning, that if one part of your body isn't functioning properly, another body part will be forced to pick up the slack. When one body part has to overcompensate for another, that's when you get injured.
For example, think back to the cracking-your-neck-at-your-desk example. If your shoulder joint is not functioning properly, your neck and back muscles could suffer, causing you grief throughout the day. To fix your neck and back pain, you won't be targeting those areas — you'll target your shoulder blades.
In other words, the site where you feel the most pain (your neck) might not be the real problem (your shoulders). Below, I'll show you how to improve your shoulder mobility — the true culprit.
Before You Start: Target Your Shoulder Blades
Before you begin your shoulder mobility exercises, you need to ensure you can isolate your shoulder blade (in other words, your shoulders should do the work — nothing else).
If this is your first time doing mobility exercises, it's all too easy to allow other muscles and joints to do the work. To remedy this, I recommend standing in front of a mirror. That way, you can physically see if other muscles tighten as you move through each exercise. If you see or feel your back muscles overcompensating, don't get frustrated. Simply pause, reset, then try again.
Before you begin your mobility exercises, try this: Sitting in a chair, bring your shoulders up toward your ears (without arching your back). Now, with your shoulders still raised, push your shoulder blades back toward the back wall. From there, pull your shoulder blades down toward the floor. You should strive to maintain this position when you type at your computer or go through your daily workouts (and yes, it will absolutely feel strange and difficult at first).
5 Shoulder Mobility Exercises to Do at Home
These mobility drills help increase the range of motion in your shoulders and your overall athletic performance. By having shoulders that move freely and easily, you are more equipped to perform advanced upper body exercises (like pull-ups and push-ups) without getting injured.
1. Neck Half-Rolls
This is a simple exercise that works well as a warm-up. Simply rotate your neck to the right side, forward, and to your left side in a continuous half circle. When you reach your starting position, switch directions. Try to keep your chin tucked as you rotate.
When doing this exercise, try hard not to use your neck or back muscles. Remind yourself to focus on what you're targeting: Your shoulders. If you feel your neck or back muscles engage (for this, or any exercise), return to proper alignment by repeating the steps listed in the above section. Pull your shoulders up, back, and down, then continue on with the exercise.
2. Doorway Stretch
For this stretch, stand inside a doorway with your left hand on the left door frame, and your right hand on the right door frame. Slowly push your pectoral (chest) muscles through the doorway. You should feel a stretch through your chest and through your shoulder blades. Pause for a moment, then return to your starting position.
3. Wall Slide (or Floor Slide)
For this exercise, I recommend using a wall. If you feel your lower back constantly lose contact with the wall, try it on the floor with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle (dead bug position) instead.
Stand with your back connected with the wall, with your knees slightly bent. Make sure your abs are fully engaged and your pelvis tilted in. Make the letter "U" with your arms, keeping your arms and back connected with the wall. Now, move your arms up the wall, attempting to straighten them into the letter "I."
Unless you have excellent overhead mobility, you will not be able to move very far without your arms losing contact with the wall. When this happens, you've reached your end range, and can return to your starting position.
4. Shoulder CAR (Controlled Articular Rotation)
With your core engaged and your shoulders rolled back and down, raise your right arm up straight above your head. With your palm faced away from you, rotate your arm back and behind you. When you reach your end range, pause, then rotate your palm to face you.
At this point, rotate your arm back toward its starting position above your head. When you reach your end range, externally rotate your palm so it faces away from you once more. Repeat with your left arm. Check out a video demonstration here.
5. PVC Pipe Rotation
If you do not have a PVC pipe or a broomstick, you can try this move with a resistance band. I do not recommend doing this move with a barbell, as the weight of the bar can force you to sacrifice your form.
Take a wide grip on your PVC pipe. If you are holding the PVC pipe in front of you, with the pipe resting on your thighs, there might be roughly 20 centimeters (half a foot) between your thighs and your fists. Keeping your arms straight, rotate the PVC pipe up above your head, then behind your back. Return to your starting position.
Shoulder Mobility Exercises Are Just One Part of the Equation
Shoulder immobility can cause shoulder, neck, and back pain. If you don’t have the ability to move your shoulders properly, you might compensate with your back or neck muscles, which can manifest in injuries later on.
Luckily, shoulder mobility exercises can help improve posture, increase mobility, and decrease pain in your upper body. Most shoulder exercises shown above can be done from the comfort of your living room, or even while sitting at your desk.
Remember, shoulder exercises are just one part of the equation in injury prevention. As you work to increase your shoulder mobility, use a foam roller or lacrosse ball to loosen your tight shoulder and back muscles. In addition, as you perform your daily workouts, remember to keep your shoulders in proper alignment, rotating them back and down before each exercise (as described in the second section section of this post). And lastly, stay hydrated and keep up with proper nutrition as a regular part of your recovery process.