The shoulders tend to be an injury prone area of the body for three main reasons:
- Poor thoracic (mid-back) extension.
- Tight internal rotators of the shoulder (the pecs and lats).
- Weak external rotators of the shoulder (rotator cuff musculature).
The good news: This is an easy fix that can take less than 10 minutes a day to fit into your routine.
To be clear, there are countless different exercises and mobility drills to address these problems. But we don’t need countless exercises — we only need three: Something to improve thoracic extension, something to loosen up the internal rotators, and something to strengthen the external rotators.
Below, I’ll highlight three easy-to-do exercises that you can either incorporate into your warm up before training — or simply do them on their own if you’re taking a day off. They’re quick, efficient, and you don’t need access to a gym to perform them.
#1. Kneeling Prayer Stretch on a Bench
To mobilize the thoracic spine and the lats.
The thoracic spine can become “locked up” over time, due to inactivity from long periods of constantly sitting at a desk or driving, which puts us in a state of chronic spinal flexion.
The kneeling prayer stretch is a 1–2 punch because it’s a great way to reverse that pattern by introducing thoracic extension, and it puts a great stretch on the lats. You’ll even notice a nice stretch in the triceps as an added bonus.
- Start in a kneeling position in front of the bench, couch, or whatever else you choose to use.
- Place the elbow on top of it.
- Sit your hips back towards your heels while dropping your chest towards the ground.
- Hold this position for 3–5 deep breaths in and out.
- Return to the starting position; repeat for 3 to 5 rounds.
#2. The Doorway Stretch
To mobilize the pecs.
The reason the pecs and lats both could contribute to shoulder issues is two fold.
If you’re doing a ton of pull ups and pressing movements but aren’t taking any time to mobilize those muscle groups between workouts…
- You could develop an imbalance by having overdeveloped internal rotators and underdeveloped external rotators (which we’ll address next).
- Your pecs and lats could become chronically tight.
Both of these issues will encourage a poor, “hunched over” posture, which will disrupt proper shoulder mechanics and increase your potential for injury.
We’ve already addressed lat mobility with the prayer stretch, so now let’s look at a great way to mobilize the pecs that can be performed anywhere you have access to a door frame.
- Stand in an open doorway and raise your arms to the side, bent at roughly a 90-degree angle with your palms facing forward.
- Rest the palms on your door frame.
- Slowly step forward with one foot and gradually increase the stretch you’re feeling on the chest and shoulders.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat for 3–5 rounds.
- Can also be performed one side at a time for a greater range of motion (which is my preference).
#3. Y-W-T Holds
To strengthen the external rotators
The external rotators of the rotator cuff — the teres minor and infraspinatus— are chronically neglected because almost everything we do in our modern lives involves internal rotation — such as texting, driving, typing, bench pressing for an hour — but very little that we do, on average, involves external rotation.
You can target activate and strengthen these muscles directly by performing an isometric exercise called a “Y-W-T” hold.
- Lay face down on the floor.
- Point your thumbs up towards the sky.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together and raise your arms at a 45-degree angle above your head to make a “Y” with your body.
- Attempt to raise your arms as high as possible while keeping the shoulder blades together.
- Hold for 10–20 seconds, then pull your arms down to a bent-elbow position, making a “W” with your body.
- Hold for 10–20 seconds, then hold your arms straight arm out in a “T” position. Hold for 10–20 seconds.
These are only a few of many different exercises that you could incorporate into your daily routine to get the job done. There are plenty of other variations out there that you can experiment with, but just keep this in mind: While the specific exercises can change as little or as often as you’d like, the goal of those exercises remains the same: improve thoracic extension, mobilize the internal rotators, and strengthen the external rotators.
I would recommend performing these exercises (or a variation of them) at least three times a week, and you could certainly benefit from performing them every day. I like to perform them before every training session, and I’ll make it a point to incorporate them on at least one off-day during the week — especially if I’m feeling a little more tight than usual between training sessions.
Regardless of how you choose to implement them; addressing thoracic extension, internal rotator mobility, and external rotator strength on a consistent basis will give you the best possible chance of optimizing your shoulder health — both for pain-free progress in the gym and for living a pain-free life.
Thanks for reading! Want a topic covered in a future article? Let me know in the comments!
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