Mobility is critical to increasing strength and preventing injuries.
Novices normally focus primarily on how many push-ups and pull-ups they can do. Their plan for increasing strength centers around the number of reps they perform. Advanced fitness enthusiasts, on the other hand, understand that improving mobility is the key to developing strength and balance, AND preventing injuries.
Mobility is not the same as flexibility. Flexibility is a component of mobility, but it is not the only part of it.
There are two aspects of mobility:
- Degree of flexibility of the muscles, tendons and ligaments under low stress (passive flexibility)
- Degree of flexibility of the muscles, tendons and ligaments under medium to high stress (dynamic flexibility)
Most people know the first aspect of mobility. If you have ever seen someone do the splits on the ground, this is passive flexibility. Dynamic flexibility, however, is a different type of mobility that I’d like to focus on in this post.
Take a look at this image of a young man holding the manna position (image courtesy of GymnasticBodies.com).
Check out the extreme shoulder mobility demonstrated. Many people could passively position their shoulders in this way, but by developing the flexibility under tension, a whole new level of fitness ability can be reached.
The degree of strength needed to hold the manna position is extremely high, but it takes more than just muscular strength. Tendon and ligament strength play a pivotal role as well. This is why if you are only training your muscles, you may not be improving as quickly as you could be.
Your ligaments and tendons are what structure your muscles. Have you ever heard of someone injuring themselves by reaching into the car to pick up a bag of groceries? They might have super strong muscle from doing squats and bench presses, but they crumble when their body isn’t in its typical position. They have very poor mobility.
One of the reasons that I love bodyweight training so much is that you develop strength throughout your entire body. You aren’t isolating muscles, but developing strength as a complete unit. After my training sessions I feel a oneness throughout my whole body that I could never achieve through gym-based training.
Many bodyweight exercises also inherently improve mobility. For example, both the Gracie Drill and the Dive Bomber Push-up bring your shoulders through a full range of motion.
How Do You Improve Mobility?
The first method is passive stretching. The second is to bring your joint through a full range of motion under varying degrees of tension. There doesn’t need to be a lot of tension, but there must be some.
Below, I’m going to share with you four mobility exercises for your shoulders. The reason I’m focusing on shoulders is that we have many people working on their handstands in the 12 Week Calisthenics Trick Challenge. If you aren’t improving mobility while working on your handstand, there is a much higher likelihood of injury.
For example, this is a Facebook post on our private calisthenics club page. Maggi injured herself performing overhead presses. Mobility work will help with her recovery and help prevent future injuries.
4 Shoulder Mobility Exercises For Strength & Injury Prevention
1. Shoulder Dislocates
If you could only perform one mobility exercise, this would be the one to choose. It’s absolutely incredible.
Grab a dowel rod or a light bar with a wide grip. Raise your arms in front of you with your elbows extended. Keeping you elbows locked, raise the bar above you head and behind as far as possible.
- Use a rod that weighs between 5-10lbs. The bar shouldn’t be so light that this becomes a passive flexibility exercise; the muscle must be at least slightly engaged.
- As a beginner, start with a very wide grip. As your mobility improves, you’ll be able to bring your hands closer together. Once you can complete the movement with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, increase the weight and return to a wide grip. Slowly work your hands back towards shoulder-width as mobility increases with the new weight.
- A key component to this exercise is achieving full range of motion of the scapula (shoulder blade). When you arms are in front of you, force your scapula to protract; you should feel the stretch in between your shoulder blades. As your arms move behind you, retract your shoulder blades.
- Perform each rep slowly. This is not a speed exercise.
2. Skin the Cats
You’ll need a pull-up bar for this exercise.
Hang from the bar and slowly raise your body up in front of you. Continue the movement until you can’t go any further, then slowly return to the starting position. If you have poor grip strength and can only do a of couple reps, that’s fine. You will improve as you do the exercise.
- Before you begin the movement, when you are hanging from the bar, retract your shoulder blades slightly. This will elevate your body, and will help you actually begin the movement when you are just starting out.
3. Shoulder Tornados
I learned this exercise in Tai Chi. It develops great mobility in the shoulders. It’s super hard to describe, so I created a video for you.
Check it out:
4. Shoulder Distractions
This mobility exercise doesn’t bring the shoulder through a full range of motion, but it stretches the ligament by distracting the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) from the joint capsule. It feel really good, especially if you’re injured.
Grab a 5-10lb weight and bend over, with your non-swinging hand resting on a bench or chair. Relax your swinging arm (except the hand of course, which needs to grip the weight), and swing your arm in a circular motion. First go clockwise, then counter-clockwise. This exercise will help the synovial fluid lubricate the joint.
Don’t perform this exercise quickly or with a full range of motion. The main point of this exercise is to distract the humerus from the joint. This will improve the mobility of the ligaments in the shoulder.
How Often Should I Do Mobility Work?
It’s best to do mobility work every day. You can’t overdo mobility work. It is super healthy for you, so feel free to do it as often as you want.
I usually focus on mobility for fifteen minutes every day before I begin my handstand work. I set an interval timer for two minutes, then perform one of the above exercises until the timer goes off, before moving on to the next exercise.
1. GymnasticBodies.com Forum – Coach Sommer has a very active forum and they focus on everything gymnastics-related. This includes mobility. There are tons of resources here.
2. Ido Portal – I am a huge follower of Ido. In fact, I’m signed up for a seminar he is leading in Miami in September. Super stoked about this. Here is a page created by one of Ido’s followers that has some amazing resources.
3. r/Flexibility – This subreddit has some great resources on the right-hand side of the page, as well as a load of useful discussions in the community-driven forum.
I have hasd a mastectomy on my left breast with lymph nodes removed. Can you recommend some exercises to help with releasing fluid retention in the shoulder.
Came here via Ryan Hurst on his Facebook page.
Can’t thank you enough for this.
Have had a niggling pain/weakness in my right shoulder on and off for a while. Seems to also affect my elbow and general function of my arm slightly.
Consequently, any work involving push-up style exercises and handstand prep/work is troublesome.
Hoping also that these exercises will help my drumming. I’ve just picked up the sticks again after 25 plus years and I find my right hand/arm doesn’t want to work so well. Thought maybe a trapped nerve somewhere. Feels like my arm hasn’t got the motor coordination.
Anyway, going to give all this a go.
Like you said, it’s good for all walks of life.
Many thanks again.
Regards from Japan.
You are just the best! The recommendation for the shoulder work on this site is simply amazing! I have had a frozen shoulder for years, tried everything (but you), had zero results, except for now! My shoulder feels better than it has felt in like forever! Already after just one small, short session, I feel like a whole new person! Thank you so much for immediately answering my email, and providing me with this awesome site!
Crazy good article. I have arthritis in both shoulders and doing pushups, burpees and pullups/chinups are very painful after a few reps. Obviously, mobility is improved but will it help with the pain? Thanks, Gary
When I watched the Skin the Cat, I realized I’ve been doing an ‘easier’ version these last few years since I’ve taken my workouts to the parks! I have to kick off the ground and the bar has to be lower for me to get my legs up there. But I like to swing my legs back with control, and now seeing this video, shows me I can take it farther to stretch my shoulders! thank you!! And I would like to see the hip mobility too, been suffering that for years
Hi Carrie. Glad I could help! I have the hip mobility stuff on my list. 🙂
This is great stuff, thanks a lot Todd! And as Christine said, would love to see some for hip mobility 🙂
Great David. I’ll add it to the list. I’m glad you are enjoying the content. 🙂
Loved these videos — tried a few and was amazed at how loose my shoulders felt (I hadn’t realized the tension/decreased ROM I’d been experiencing). Would love to see you do something similar for Hip mobility!
Great idea Christine! I do some hip stuff but should put it on video. Glad you liked it! 🙂
Really good post. This is a topic rarely discussed. Really good stuff for any sport. Thanks.
Thanks Dave! Yep, people don’t realize how important it is.