Good shoulder mobility is crucial for good posture and ease in daily life, but a surprisingly high number of us suffer from a lack of shoulder mobility. Many people aren’t aware of a shoulder problem until they test it - either through a shoulder mobility test like the one we’ll guide you through in this article, or through trying to do something in their daily life that they find is (literally) out of reach.
A lack of shoulder mobility can cause muscular balance issues and damage your quality of life. Today, we’ll guide you through what normal shoulder mobility looks like, how to test it, what causes a lack of mobility, and finally, how to improve it.
What is normal shoulder mobility?
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons defines normal shoulder mobility as: 180° for flexion, 180° for abduction, and 90° for external rotation.
What this means is:
- 180° flexion: you can raise your arms from your sides up in front of you to reach over your head.
- 180° abduction: abduction is any movement away from the center line of your body. This is essentially the same movement as the first, but you’re raising your arms up laterally as if your arms are wings.
- 90° external rotation: with your arm resting naturally at your side, with the front of your biceps pointing forward, you should be able to rotate from the shoulder so your biceps faces away from you. If your hand is held straight, it should move from being flat against your thigh, to a position where your little finger is resting against your thigh when rotating from the shoulder, not the wrist.
What causes poor shoulder mobility?
Some of the most common causes of poor shoulder mobility are:
- Prolonged inactivity leading to tight tendons and muscles (this can be caused by illness or injury, or lifestyle factors such as having a desk job and doing no other activity)
- Overuse injuries such as tendonitis and bursitis
- Sprains and strains
- Old injuries that led to inflexibility (such as a fracture of the upper arm or elbow that required 6+ weeks of restricted movement and load-bearing)
Shoulder mobility can be restored fully in almost all cases, but it does take time and effort to regain the lost flexibility.
How do I do a shoulder mobility test?
A shoulder mobility test (also known as a shoulder reach test, back scratch test, or the Apley scratch test) is straightforward and you can do it anywhere easily. The test gives you a clear self-assessment of the range of motion and mobility of your shoulder(s).
All you need to do is reach over one shoulder, with the same arm, down toward the bottom of your shoulderblade. You then reach up with your other hand behind your back to meet it. If your shoulder mobility is very good, you’ll be able to hold hands without discomfort.
How close (or not) you are to being able to do so determines your shoulder mobility. Make sure you do the test in both directions (with both arms going in each direction) as it is common for one shoulder to have more mobility than the other.
Make sure you don’t use any external force to help you get your hands to meet, as this can do much more bad than good.
How do I improve my shoulder mobility?
You’ll need to include shoulder mobility exercises into your daily routine (try to do them 3-5 times a week) to slowly loosen tight muscles and tendons, gain flexibility, and build strength. Here are a few ways to improve your shoulder mobility at home:
- Towel Shoulder Stretch 1: Take a towel and hold it in one hand, throwing it over your shoulder, as if you’re carrying a bag on your back. Then use your other hand to hold the towel, as if you’re doing the shoulder mobility test. Gentle pull the towel up with the hand going over your shoulder until you feel a stretch. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then release. Swap to the other side, repeat, and continue to repeat for 10-15 repetitions.
- Towel Shoulder Stretch 2: hold a rolled up towel in between your hands in front of you, a little wider than shoulder width apart. Slowly, raise your hands up and over your head. When you feel resistance, hold for a few seconds, release, and then move your hands a little wider. When you find the distance you can pass right up over your head and down behind you, repeat slowly for 10-15 repetitions. Make sure you move with control.
- Thread the Needle: Get down on all fours on a yoga mat or carpet, making sure your knees are squarely under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Take one arm, lift it up into the air above you, following the movement with your eyes, and then bring the hand back down and thread it through the gap created by your other arm and knee. Drop your shoulder to the floor, and rest for 20 seconds or so, before returning to all fours. Repeat on both sides three times.
These are just 3 easy-to-do shoulder mobility exercises you can do at home to help improve your shoulder flexibility, but they certainly aren’t the only options available to you. Whether you’re looking to recover from a shoulder injury or want to improve your overall joint health, you’ll find all the advice you need in our eBook, Joint Health 101.Joint Health 101 includes everything you need to know to keep all your joints healthy and strong, from strengthening exercises to flexibility and nutrition. If you want to make sure you experience good joint health for the rest of your life, make sure you’ve got Joint Health 101 to hand - get it here.