Are your shoulders tight?
Written by Dave Lipson

Shoulder mobility is an essential component of good human movement and effective training programs. If we are training the upper body to pull and push in multiple planes through a full range of motion, shoulder mobility is a necessity. Too many times I have walked into CrossFit gyms and watched tight shoulders muscle through compromised range of motion. There are lots of unstable spinal positions and open rib cages working in an effort to steal movement for tight shoulders, lots of pressing in front of the head, and grinding kipping pull-ups. For many people it is not a matter of if, but rather when they will injure a shoulder. Before we start adding load and intensity to those overhead exercises, let’s look at the ability to stabilize the spine while opening the shoulder in an overhead support known as the active shoulder position.

What is Active Shoulder Support?
Active shoulder refers to a position of the body at which the bones of the upper extremities stack up evenly over each other to provide a structural support overhead, while the midline (spine) of the body stays braced and locked down by the rib cage. It is indicated by the following:

  • Elbows locked out and shoulders shrugged up
  • Actively and continually applying upward pressure
  • Braced belly with a closed rib cage
  • Shoulder angle open with arms directly above the mid foot, bi-secting the hip and knee in the frontal plane

Self Shoulder Assessment #1

Preparation: Raise one arm, bend elbow, and reach down across back, with palm facing upper back. Position opposite arm down behind back and reach up across back with back of hand against back.  (As shown in photos above.)

Execution: With fingers extended, try to cross fingers, upper hand over lower hand. Repeat with arms in opposite position.

Measurement: Measure distance from finger tip to finger tip. If fingers overlap, score as a plus. If fingers fail to meet, score as a minus.

Self Shoulder Assessment #2

Preparation: Lay on the ground in a supine position (belly up) with a dowel in an overhead position, hands slightly outside of shoulders.

Execution: Go into a hollow position (feet and shoulder blades off the ground 1-2″) belly tight and rib cage closed, lumber spine pressed into the ground. With arms locked out, keep the hollow and try to pull the bar back towards the ground.

Measurement: Measure the distance from the ground to the dowel in inches.

Bar on ground = excellent
1-2″ = good
3-4″ = fair
5″ or more = poor

Where to go from here?
So the point here isn’t to make anyone feel bad or inadequate. Tight shoulders don’t make you a bad person, a bad crossfitter, or un-fit. We just want you to have a long, fruitful, and injury free experience with CrossFit and in life, as well as allow you to reach your highest athletic potential. Here are some methods, taught to us by Kelly Starrett – performance guru and founder of MobilityWOD, to work on and maintain good shoulder mobility:

  • Banded Shoulder Distraction – place superband on rack 2” above head, face into rack and hold band supported on the back of the wrist, go into lunge and allow band to pull arm up and forward, palm up to the sky, drive chest towards knee.
  • Lacrosse Ball Posterior Capsule Release – lay supine on your back, lacrosse ball on the back of shoulder, roll over onto ball and work into the back of the shoulder
  • Lacrosse Ball Subscap Release – Lay supine with ball along the edge of the shoulder blade proximal to the spine, take straight arm thumb down to the opposite hip, move diagonal across body to an overhead position thumb into ground, perform 5 reps slowly, adjust ball up edge of scapula, rinse and repeat in 3 different positions.
  • Partner Posterior Cuff Stretch – lay supine, bent knees, soles of feet on the ground, go into a hip bridge, hips high, femur congruent with torso angle, place the back of the hands on the lower back, have partner hold down shoulders as you slowly lower hip to the ground, rinse and repeat.
  • Kneeling Shoulder Stretch – on knees facing 24’’ plyobox, approximately 3 feet away, place palms on box and drive chest down, brace abdomen and relax with straight arms.
  • Reach, Roll, Lift – lay in a prone position face down, make a fist and place thumb on forehead, with opposite arm reach and pull arm overhead out of retraction crawling with fingertips, when you can’t go any farther turn thumb up and lift arm for 1 sec., rinse and repeat on both arms.

Test and Re-Test
Test and assess your shoulder mobility. These stretches and exercises are great preparation for overhead or upper-body intensive workouts. They are also great ways to cool down and make substantial gains post workout, when the tissues and tendons are hot and malleable. I would encourage you to test your mobility, go through some mobility work, and then test again to assess which protocols work best for you.

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Helga S Pereira
Helga S Pereira
January 5, 2015 2:51 pm

Awesome!!! I need to work more on shoulder mobilty, but I need to do that on my own. Will be doing those a couple times a week!

Edcardo Odom
Edcardo Odom
March 7, 2014 6:41 pm

I’ve had trouble with should mobility for some time now. I will be using these new techniques to open my shoulders. Its time to take my workouts to the next level.

October 19, 2013 7:01 pm


June 7, 2012 2:33 pm

Thanks for all the info. I always have tight shoulders and haven’t been to good at shoulder mobility. Case in point I am now nursing a shoulder injury. I had a Type II AC separation a few years ago and its back to haunt me. I have stayed off of it for the last few days and been taking motrin and icing it. Was wondering any advice on shoulder rehab and things to do in order to avoid this now recurring joy in my shoulder?

June 5, 2012 3:26 pm

Happy to have new shoulder opening techniques to add to my routine!

June 5, 2012 12:17 am

Oh lord I’m stiff in the wrong areas.

June 5, 2012 8:10 am
Reply to  mrjling

Oh MRJLING….your comment makes me happy. 🙂

Mark Riebel
Mark Riebel
June 5, 2012 1:29 pm
Reply to  Cynthia

I expected nothing less of you Sinthia.