8 Shoulder Mobility Exercises That Will Help You Move with Ease

Learn how shoulder mobility exercises can make everyday movements easier — and discover the best moves to add to your routine.

Shoulder Mobility Exercises
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They may sound like simple movements, but scratching an itch in the middle of your back, reaching for a cereal box on the top shelf of the pantry, or pulling your dress' zipper closed isn't always easy — or pain-free.

One potential solution to your everyday woes? Performing shoulder mobility exercises can improve your daily functioning and keep your joints in tip-top shape. Here, learn more about the benefits of shoulder mobility exercises, how to add them to your routine, and specific moves to test out.

The Benefits of Shoulder Mobility Exercises

In case you’re unfamiliar, mobility is your ability to actively move through and control a joint’s range of motion. While all joints need to be mobile, certain joints within your body — including the hips, thoracic spine, ankles, wrists, and glenohumeral joints (which connect your arm and shoulder) — require more mobility than others, according to the American Council on Exercise

Mobility in general is essential for allowing you to carry out everyday movements — and performing shoulder mobility exercises in particular can help make many overhead actions less challenging. Just think about brushing your hair, says Rena Eleázar, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports physical therapy and the co-founder of Match Fit Performance in New York City. “[This task involves] a combination of a bunch of different movements at the shoulder — you have flexion overhead, abduction out to the side, and then external rotation to reach the back of the head,” she explains. “If any of those specific directions of movement are limited, there's going to be a challenge to reaching the back of your head. So shoulder mobility exercises can absolutely influence how well you're able to get into those positions.”

Not to mention, mobility exercises can help improve joint health and resiliency. "Joints don't have any blood supply going to them — the way they get their nourishment is actually through movement,” Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of Be Free MIAMI, previously told Shape. “Movement almost flushes your joint, so what happens is you're getting rid of inflammation and then the new fluid that's coming to the joint [known as synovial fluid] is what's gonna bring the nutrients to nourish it.” 

What Causes Limited Shoulder Mobility?

As you age, you tend to lose flexibility in your muscles, which can in turn diminish your mobility, says Eleázar. ICYDK, flexibility refers to the ability of your soft tissues (think: muscles, ligaments, tendons) to passively stretch. These tissues need to be flexible in order to enable your joints to move through their full range of motion, according to the International Sports Sciences Association. So if you're lacking flexibility, your mobility may suffer, too.

But growing older is just one piece of the mobility puzzle. Folks who have experienced shoulder injuries, particularly if they haven’t fully resolved, may be more likely to have limited shoulder mobility, says Eleázar. And living a more sedentary lifestyle can also negatively impact your shoulder mobility. “If all you do is sit, you're on a computer, or you don't really move around very much, the number of times that you are actually using your shoulders and reaching becomes significantly less,” says Eleázar. Translation: When it comes to mobility, you either use it or lose it.

If those risk factors don’t seem to apply to you, shoulder mobility exercises could still do you some good if you’re consistently feeling pain throughout the joint, particularly when you try reaching or lifting overhead, says Eleázar. “It could be a strength issue, but you could also potentially benefit from different mobility exercises to help find that good position that allows you to reach overhead safely,” she adds.

The Best Shoulder Mobility Exercises

Ready to start moving more efficiently and painlessly in your daily life? Consider adding these shoulder mobility exercises, which improve strength, stability, and flexibility throughout the joint and surrounding muscles, to your wellness routine. While these moves, recommended and demonstrated by Eleázar, can help you get started, don’t be afraid to chat with your health-care provider or a physical therapist for personalized exercises if you’re experiencing pain or physical limitations within your shoulder, she suggests.

How to mix these shoulder mobility exercises into your movement practice all depends on your current activity level. If you don’t exercise consistently, you might perform these movements as a stand-alone “workout,” says Eleázar. But if you’re relatively active, you might benefit from adding these exercises to your warm-up routine or nighttime wind-down practice, she adds. The recommended frequency for performing these moves varies from person to person (depending on age, activity level, injury history, and other factors), but two to three times a week is usually a safe bet, says Eleázar.

As you try out these movements, don’t force yourself to push through any sharp pain. “Some pain and discomfort are expected, especially if you're starting to explore positions that you've never tried before or you haven't had a lot of exposure to,” says Eleázar. “But everything should always feel safe. You should feel confident in what you're doing — you should never feel anxious.”

Thoracic Extension On a Foam Roller

While this move doesn’t directly target your shoulders, it can help improve thoracic spine movement (specifically extension and flexion), which can influence shoulder position and mobility, says Eleázar.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and middle of back, just beneath shoulder blades, resting on a foam roll that's perpendicular to body. Place both hands behind head, elbows pointing out to sides.  

B. Slowly extend upper back over foam roller toward the floor as far as is comfortable. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.

Supine Pull-Over

This exercise helps improve overhead shoulder flexibility, which can be limited by tightness in the lats, says Eleázar. “Make [your] grip narrower or wider to work within your existing range of motion, and flip [your] hands over to increase the stretch,” she says.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and arms extended toward the ceiling directly in line with shoulders, holding a PVC pipe in both hands with an overhand grip.

B. Keeping core engaged and back flat on the floor, slowly lower both arms to the floor above head as far as is comfortable. Pause, slowly return to the starting position.

Prone YTW

This shoulder mobility exercise targets your upper back and challenges your shoulder blades' (aka scapulae) ability to retract (think: pulling the shoulder blades together) and rotate. In turn, it “ improves control of your scapulae, which influences shoulder position and ability to reach in different directions,” says Eleázar. 

A. Lie facedown on the floor with legs extended behind you, toes touching the ground, and arms extended above head, palms facing one another and forming a "Y" with upper body.

B. Keeping core engaged, slowly lift both arms off the floor as high as comfortable, pause, then return them back to the ground. Do 5 reps.

C. Lower both arms down to sides, forming a "T" with your body, palms facing forward. Slowly lift both arms off the floor as high as comfortable, pause, then return them back to the ground. Do 5 reps.

D. Keeping arms at sides, bend both elbows so arms are bent at 90-degree angles. Upper body should form a "W." Slowly lift both arms off the floor as high as comfortable, pause, then return them back to the ground. Do 5 reps.

Prone Swimmers

In this shoulder mobility exercise, you’ll target your scapular and rotator cuff muscles. “[It] focuses movement at shoulders and shoulder blades through most of the ranges of the shoulder,” says Eleázar. 

A. Lie facedown on the floor with legs extended behind you, toes touching the ground, and arms extended above head, palms facing the ground. Bend elbows until fully flexed and place both palms on upper back, directly below head. Biceps should be next to ears.

B. Slowly lift both elbows off the floor, then extend both arms straight above head. Then, sweep arms out and down as if swimming to meet at lower back, rotating shoulders so palms are face up at the end of the movement.

C. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Supine Wall Angel

Targeting the rotator cuffs, traps, and lats, this gravity-assisted shoulder mobility exercise helps stretch the chest and front of the shoulders, which often feel tight, says Eleázar. To make the move stretching and strengthening, add a light weight, she suggests. 

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and arms extended toward the ceiling directly in line with shoulders, palms facing away from body.

B. Bend elbows to 90-degree angles while lowering both arms to the floor. Triceps should be resting on the ground at sides in line with shoulders and forearms should be extended toward the ceiling. This is the starting position.

C. Pause, then lower forearms to the floor above shoulders, palms facing toward the ceiling.

D. Pause, then straighten arms above head until fully extended.

E. Slowly reverse each step of the movement to return to the starting position. Then, lower forearms to the floor below shoulders, palms facing the floor.

Standing Wall Angel

This shoulder mobility exercise is a leveled-up version of the supine wall angle, as you’ll target the same muscle groups but you’ll need to resist gravity, helping to build strength, says Eleázar. Just like the supine variation, you can hold a light weight throughout the move to amp up the strength-building benefits. 

A. Stand with back flat against a wall with knees bent, feet flat on the ground a few inches away from wall, and arms resting against the wall extended toward the floor.

B. Bend elbows to 90-degree angles while raising both arms to shoulder height. Triceps should be resting against the wall at sides in line with shoulders and forearms should be extended toward the floor. This is the starting position.

C. Pause, then raise forearms to the wall above shoulders, palms facing forward.

D. Pause, then straighten arms above head until fully extended.

E. Slowly reverse each step of the movement to return to the starting position. Then, lower forearms to the wall below shoulders, palms facing the wall.

Quadruped Serratus Push-Up

It may not seem like much, but this shoulder mobility exercise targets the serratus anterior — a fan-like muscle on the side of your ribcage that plays a key role in shoulder movement and assists in protraction (think: pulling shoulder blades away from the spine) and upward rotation of the scapulae, says Eleázar. The key benefit: “Strengthening the protraction motion, which often gets missed when people focus on working on postural exercises,” she says.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips, toes resting on the floor. Gaze toward the floor.

B. Keeping back flat, core engaged, and arms locked straight, slightly to bring shoulder blades together, allowing neck to lower slightly to the floor.

C. Drive through palms to and spread shoulder blades apart and return to the starting position.

Serratus Push-Up Into Downward Dog

Once you’ve mastered the quadruped serratus push-up, progress to this plank variation, which strengthens the serratus anterior, stretches the lats, and improves thoracic extension, says Eleázar. “[It’s] a closed-chain shoulder exercise (weight bearing on upper body) that can help with proprioception (aka sense of position) of overhead movement,” she adds. 

A. Start in a high plank position on the floor with hands directly under shoulders, legs fully extended and toes resting on the floor, body forming a straight line from head to heels. Gaze toward the floor.

B. Keeping back flat, core engaged, and arms locked straight, slightly to bring shoulder blades together, allowing neck to lower slightly to the floor.

C. Drive through palms to and spread shoulder blades apart and return to the starting position.

D. Press through palms and send hips back to go into a downward dog position. Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

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