Check your Shoulders, Are They Cleared for Take-Off

This month’s post is about checking in with your shoulder placement for your overhead activities. Whether you are in an aerial class or a handstand class or maybe you have a workout regimen that has overhead lifting components or pull-ups in it. If this is you, you’ll want to read the Check-in below to see if your shoulders can pass and if not, try the mobility exercises here to help get your shoulders to where they need to be to keep potential injury at bay.

The Check-in

Let’s begin by lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale and engage your abdominals by drawing your rib cage together. (For a more detailed description see last lying-supine-engaged-upper-absmonth’s post about finding your hollow body)

Once you have engaged your abs and drawn your ribs together, take a moment to make sure you are not pushing into your heels or posteriorly tilting your pelvis and pressing your low back into the floor. By engaging your abs over your ribs this will not only pull your ribs down into that hollow position, but it should also draw your low back a little closer to the floor, but you don’t want your low back becoming closer to the floor because of a posterior tilt. Relax your abs and try the engagement process again and feel if you are pressing into your feet or tilting your pelvis.

Raising arms overhead with proper abdominal engagement.
Raising arms overhead with proper abdominal engagement.

If you are, try again and work on relaxing those muscles and then also notice that the space between your low back and the floor becomes a bit smaller just by engaging your abs over your ribs.

After you have you ribs engaged and have made a mental note of the tucked-in feeling of your rib engagement and the distance between your low back and the floor, slowly (very slowly) raise your arms up towards the ceiling and then towards the floor above your head. As you do this make sure you do not lose your ab engagement; if you do your ribs will flair and your low back will arch off the floor. We don’t want this to occur. So move the arms slowly and then stop when you feel that you can no longer move the arms without compromising your form.

(a note on triple photo to the right: 1) arms not quite in alignment. 2) Arms very close to alignment. 3) Arms in line with ears.)


Losing abdominal engagement as arms come up
Losing abdominal engagement when trying to bring hands to floor







Now see where your arms have stopped. Are they still in line with the front of your face?Are they almost, but not quite in line with your ears? Are they in line with your ears? Or are they touching the floor?

If your arms are in line with your ears, as in the bottom of the triple photo from above, yay! Congrats, you have the mobility under core stability that is needed to support your body either while hanging, in a handstand or pressing overhead. Although don’t run away too quickly, there are other shoulder pointers you’ll want to read later in this post. I also have to ask that you preform this Check-in movement 2-3 times to check that you were strict with your form and engagement. Being strict means you’re  less likely to sustain a shoulder or back injury later down the line.

If you didn’t get your arms in line with your ears, that’s ok, most people can’t get their arms all the way in line with their ears and many of those people are climbing and taking aerial and handstand lessons already.

To be clear, I am not saying you should stop your classes or training right now or risk catastrophe or even that your instructor/trainer was negligent in some kind of way. What I am saying is be aware of your current limiting factor and how to address making changes in your mobility is something that you should take seriously and dedicate some time to on a weekly, if not daily basis, to help eliminate a large reason for potential shoulder injuries. This could mean in addition to using these mobility techniques below talking with your trainer or instructor about how they can help you with this process. And as always, I am here for questions as well.

I can’t promise that if you increase your range of motion, all while holding a hollow body that you wont ever injure your shoulder, accidents can happen, but this techniques can greatly reduce a large risk factor for injuries while participating in overhead activities. This ‘risk factor’ being that the shoulders simply do not move into full overhead range without compensating somewhere else in the body to get the arms overhead. Usually this is done by arching their low back and flaring their ribs, which also means they have lost their engagement/hollow body form.


At this point you may be thinking, ‘but why is this potentially injurious?’ And/or ‘why are my shoulders limited?’

Let me first start with why your shoulders may be limited. There is no one answer. There could be many reasons: the makeup of your bone structures (humerus bone and scapula), poor scapulohumeral rhythm,  or muscular imbalances. Most often, muscular imbalances are front vs. back of the body and are due to any number of reasons such as sitting behind a desk all day, staring down at your phone all the time,  or having a job picking up heavy things. Usually, poor posture causes the muscular imbalances that then can screw up your scapulohumeral rhythm. Below you will find some tips to help address these issues. Although bone structures are not normally the reason for limited overhead range of motion, you would need an x-ray to know this and for most people this is not the case.

Why is this potentially injurious? Well, when a person can’t get their arms overhead while maintaining core engagement, it forces the acromion (bony part of your shoulder blade that you can feel on the top of the shoulder) to put a lot of pressure on the muscles and tendons in the upper part of the front of the shoulder, mostly the supraspinatus and th biceps. This is called impingement. The same thing happens if you have rounded shoulders from poor posture: your shoulder blades no longer sit in the correct spot on your back and will probably not move correctly when you raise your arms overhead (meaning you have lost proper scapulohumeral rhythm). On top of the shoulders not faring well, your low back is probably now overly arched and the load–from hanging, overhead pressing either in a handstand or lifting dumbbells overhead–goes straight to your vulnerable low back.

As you can see in the photos below when the arms line up with the ear the force of gravity (when hanging) or the force from a load overhead goes straight through the body (photo on the left). When the arms don’t come into alignment with the ears-middle photo-and a person has to compensate with an arch (right photo) then can you see how this can really change where the forces produce strain in the shoulders and low back.

Arms overhear differences
Arms over head: good form left. Compensations middle & right.


The Mobility Exercise

So you might be thinking, ‘What Now?’

Now that you’ve discovered your range of motion in your shoulders from an engaged position and if you are one of those people who discovered they have limited range of motion, how do you increase your mobility?

As stated above, muscles imbalances are probably happening. If you see that you have rounded shoulders, forward head posture or just an overall slouch, here are a few basic exercises you can do to help get back to optimal posture and thus to good overhead movement mechanics.

Soft Tissue Work

(If this is your first time performing soft tissue work, please check out the Do’s and Don’t on my previous post about it.)

  • Pectoral Muscles. You can use the foam roller or a tennis ball. With a tennis ball youRolling out Pec can roll against the wall or on the floor. I find it easier using the wall. Place the ball just below the collar bone at the outer edge of your chest (nearest to your shoulder). Roll in a back/forth and a diagonally motion from near your shoulder towards your sternum (breast bone). You can also do a bit of rolling in front of your armpit. Be careful not to go into the armpit. It has a big nerve bundle (your brachial plexus) close by and you don’t want to roll over it with the ball or the foam roller. If you do you’ll know it, it’ll feel nerve-y or zing-y. If you do accidentally roll over the nerve bundle, that’s ok, but you rolling-the-pec-with-frdon’t want to continually roll over it.  Using the foam roller for this area is done by lying on the floor with the roller the long way. I like to place the end of the roller in my Pec a few inches below my collar bone-in the meaty part-and roll in a back and forth pattern.
  • Triceps & Biceps. Using a foam roller, lie on your stomach and place the foam roller Tricep/Bicep Rollingnear the front of your elbow and then slowly roll towards the front of your shoulder. Rotate the arm a little to roll different parts of your bicep. For your tricep, lie on your side, placing the foam roller just above your elbow and slowly roll towards your armpit. Also rotate the arm here too, this helps target the 3 muscles of the triceps. Rolling in this area also targets the Lat attachment.
  • Lats. Lie with your side on the foam roller as shown. When using foam rolling on this area make sure to roll only to just above your floating ribs or the spot that corresponds with the base of your shoulder blades. This ensure you don’t roll over any bones and has you staying with the meaty part of your Lat. You can roll up and down, but I also like to start with the roller just below my armpit an tilt from my side body towards my spine and go in and out like that to focus on my Lat and some of my rotator cuff muscles-so you can also give that a try too.
    • More options for lats: This area can also be rolled with a tennis ball. It can be done standing against a wall or lying on the ground. Lying would be more intense, so if you are new to soft tissue techniques your may want to start standing against a wall. Using the tennis ball can also help get into some of the rotator cuff muscles and really pinpoint some of the small areas of tightness.
  • Back. Place the foam roller as shown, at the base of your shoulder blades. Hug your arms across your chest, this spreads your shoulders blades way from your spine androlling back it will be a easier to roll the muscles between the shoulder blades and the spine. Next, tilt your body at a very small angle so that the foam roller is over the musculature next to the spine and not directly over the spine. Begin rolling towards your head, making sure to stop just below your neck. Repeat the rolling from the base of your shoulder to just below your neck for several passes. Then switch which arm is crossed on top and do the musculature on the other side of your spine. Repeat the rolling up and down this side of your spine.
    • More mobility options for your back with a Foam Roller: Begin by lying with your
      Copyright: ammentorp / 123RF Stock Photo

      back arching (or hyper-extending) over the foam roller as shown below, supporting the weight of your head in your hands. Keeping your hips low to the floor, start the arching with the roller placed a few inches below your neck. Take a few breaths here and then roll about in inch lower and repeat. Make your way slowly down your spine to having the roller at the base of your shoulder blades and you arched over it, all the while trying to keep the hips and head low towards the floor. When I do this I imagine I am trying to make my body like a rainbow around the roller. AND Don’t forget to keep the abs engaged-NO FLARING YOUR RIBS! It will feel like a much, much smaller arch (because your thoracic spine can’t arch as much as your lumbar spine). This is promoting more mobility in the upper spine.  Mobility we tend to lose with all the sitting and flexing forward we do in our daily lives.

These last few soft tissue techniques–rolling of your lats, back and the mobility work with the foam roller help loosen up the muscles that influence how the shoulder is placed and can help us stand up taller, reposition the shoulders in a more optimal position and help us improve our scapulohumeral rhythm and thus help us gain more motion to bring our arms overhead. (and if you are looking for a foam roller, I like the EVA rollers. Get yours with this link. If you need a lacrosse ball or tennis balls click the links.)


The stretches below are to help stretch out the tight muscles around the shoulder due to poor posture. Stretching can help ease the tightness in these muscles.

  • Tricep Stretch. Check to make sure you have the correct set-up, check one one of my previous posts. Many people do this stretch wrong.
  • Chest Stretch. Clasps hands behind your back and using your middle traps (muscles between your shoulders blades) pull your shoulders closer together. Make sure not to flare your ribs and arch your low back.
  • Lat Stretch. Standing tall with your ribs slightly tucked in. Raise one arm up like you’re about to do a tricep stretch. Make sure the elbow remains in line with your shoulders and your ribs stay in. Keeping your abs engaged, slowly side bend over to feel the stretch in the lat and obliques of the arm that is raised. Return to upright and repeat on the other side.


The exercises below are to help to help strengthen the muscles around the shoulder that may be weak due to poor posture. Gaining strength in these muscles will naturally help the tight muscles relax and help improve your posture.

  • Wall Slides. I’m going to link to Eric Cressey’s video here, because he has a great explanation of it. Start with the slides do 2-3 sets of 10. After the motion becomes familiar and you can maintain good form, you can add a lift off. This is where you would, when arms are fully extended overhead with palms facing in (SUPER IMPORTANT to always maintain this hand position through the whole movement), lift your hands off the wall with the muscles around your shoulder blade. This helps develop the muscles to regain that scapulohumeral rhythm.
  • 1 Arm Bent Over Row. I am also going to include another Cressey video. Really important that when the arm is full extended you allow the shoulder to protract and that you initiate the lifting phase via the shoulder moving in toward the spine or retracting. You want to try to match the movement at your shoulder with the movement at your elbow so that you do not crank the elbow higher than your spine. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 with a weight you can lift. Making sure that the shoulder blade moves through this movement pattern it doesn’t scrunch up into your ear.
  • Scapular Push-ups. These are great for working your serratus muscles and further developing good shoulder blade stability. Either in high plank or low plank, engage your abs over your ribs and squeeze your thut (your thigh/butt area). Keeping the head pulled in, so you don’t pull your head out of neutral alignment, actively pull your shoulder blades towards one another and then press them away. Make sure your head doesn’t start pecking like a chicken or is looking at your feet, that your ribs aren’t flaring as you move your shoulders and lastly that you don’t look like you’re humping the floor at your hips. All of these mean you have lost your neutral posture and your core contraction. Perform 2-3 sets of 10.
  • And well, any of these wonderful shoulder exercises by Dave Tilley of Shift Movement Science and Gymnastics Education. Try any of these movements with 0-3lb weights. Using weights that are too heavy will result in bigger muscles compensating (AKA doing the work) and that’s not the point of these exercises.

I hope this has given you some insight and some helpful techniques to help you on your path towards good range of motion and movement mechanics. As always, if you have any questions or need some more guidance please leave a comment or email. If you know someone who would enjoy this post, please share.

In a world where we are all super busy and with a plethora of info out there, I thank you for your interest and time.

Be Well,



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