People often ask me “what is the best shoulder range of motion exercise.” My answer? All of them. There’s no “best exercise” because that would imply that some shoulder positions are better than others, and that’s simply not true. A healthy shoulder is one that can move through the whole movement arc without restriction or pain.
With that said, do I see the most common problem with shoulder mobility? Absolutely, and that would be internal rotation. In the past, I’ve focused so much on improving internal shoulder rotation that for a while it became a drinking game: “Every time Kelly talks about the hang archetype, take a shot.”
But it’s just that common. If you have problems with the internal rotation range of motion, you’ll compensate by translating the shoulder forward. This puts the load on your traps and neck, shortens your pec, and flares your scapula. If you don’t have good shoulder rotation, your body will rely on these secondary systems and eventually, you’ll run face-first into pain. This raises injury risks and sneaks up on you.
If there is one shoulder position that can really affect us in the day-to-day, it’s this position. This is why we’re obsessed with internal rotation, and why you should be too.
The Hang Archetype
Here at The Ready State, we test shoulder internal rotation using The Hang Archetype. The Hang Archetype resembles the hang position of a clean or snatch when you hold a PVC pipe or barbell at your waist. To test this archetype, raise your arms parallel to your body in what the kids call “T-posing.” Then bend your elbows to right angles, and internally rotate your shoulders as if you were holding a PVC or a barbell right in front of your belly.
You should be able to rotate your shoulders to 70 degrees without having to compensate by translating your shoulder forward.
Why is compensation bad? It places a huge mechanical force on the shoulder joint. If the head of your humerus translates forward to compensate, you massively ramp up your risk of pain and injury. In fact, this is a huge reason we see behind bicep tears.
So, how can we address it?
Bergener Warm-up and Muscle Snatch
One of my favorite methods for optimizing shoulder position was developed by our friend Mike Bergener.
The Bergener warmup was likely invented while Mike was teaching high school powerlifters. Mike has kids and relatives who are Olympians, and he probably came up with his famous PVC pipe warm-up while working with athletes.
If you’ve ever done the Bergener warmup (and you probably have if you’ve ever done any CrossFit or coached barbell work) then you’ve seen the hang archetype more than a few times.
And what you’ll notice is that the snatch is a great way to expose the shoulder to good movement positions. I’m a huge fan of using the kettlebell or dumbbell muscle snatch to work on the hang position, as well as simple high-pulls.
Remember, we want to practice in the positions we are trying to improve. Muscle snatches are a wonderful way to expose us to these positions and counteract poor shoulder positions. I personally have muscle snatches with a dumbbell or fat bell every week. That’s how important it is.
In addition to weekly muscle snatching, I get on the ground and address the hang position from the floor. If you have access to a barbell, you’ve got an incredible tool for opening up the front of your shoulder.
Lay down on your back and rotate your arms into the hang position, as far as you can without the shoulder moving off the ground. Then, apply a barbell collar to the top of your shoulder. With the barbell wait mashed into the shoulder or bicep, rotate your arm at the shoulder trying to get some more range of motion without the shoulder leaving the ground.
The second tool I like to use is to toss a lacrosse ball under your scapula in this position. Pin your hand to your back and try to get it as high up your back as you can (your shoulder will come off the ground for this one.) Breathe into it and roll slowly on the scapula. Remember, multiple systems affect your range of motion, and addressing the scapula can help open up that shoulder internal rotation.
Finally, I love using banded distractions for internal rotation. Loop a band around your elbow and press your hand into your back as high as you can. Spend a few minutes using the band to improve your shoulder range of motion and see what happens. Often it’s not that you’re weak but you are inhibited by position.
So often we see improvements in not only pain but performance after a few minutes of banded distractions. Simply getting the shoulder back into better positions can resolve tons of weakness and improve strength.
Shoulder Pain Protocol
If weekly muscle snatch and the mobs from this article and video aren’t enough, you may want to consider a deeper dive using our Shoulder Pain Protocol. Here we deep dive into a treatment model for fast relief from shoulder pain, over the course of 2 and a half hours of coursework. You can also put together your own protocols using videos from The Ready State Daily Maintenance and other resources, but we specially designed this program for shoulder pain and I must say, I’m proud of it.
So, if you pin me down and ask me “what’s the most important shoulder position” I’m gonna say all of them. However, we’re also gonna have a side conversation about the hang archetype. Limits in this area are promoted by all the sitting and rounding forward we do. It affects your neck and increases your chance of pain and injury in the arm and bicep, and you can open up so much function by addressing this archetype actively. This is why we’re obsessed with internal rotation, and think you should be too.
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