Have a niggly shoulder? Or just stiff through the shoulders and lacking mobility for overhead work?
With the techniques described in this post, you can increase shoulder mobility, control, stability, and injury-proof your shoulders. We’re going to be using a combination of hanging and a technique called CARS. Which stands for Controlled Articular RotationS.
Who is this for?
This is for anyone who wants to get stronger, improve their movement patterns, become more mobile, avoid injuries, or rehab an existing shoulder injury.
It should be noted that this is only for the rehab process, and you shouldn’t be doing it in the acute phase after an injury. Go and see your doctor, physio, etc. if you have pain and inflammation.
Save this for when you are regaining strength and movement through the joint.
What is mobility?
Mobility is your active range of motion. That means how much movement you have around a joint in which you can control and exert force.
Differing from flexibility which is passive, and doesn’t have the control element.
Most people think of mobility as a form of stretching, but really it’s predominantly training the nervous system to be able to achieve, control, and strengthen a greater range of motion.
The purpose of these exercises is to build your control.
As you will see in the video, control is key.
Pre-requisite – thoracic spine mobility
The shoulder is a pretty complex joint. You cannot consider the shoulder without considering the scapula and thoracic (upper-mid) spine at the same time.
The shoulder is attached to the scapula, and most shoulder movements are driven from scapula movement. Meanwhile, the scapula sits on your thoracic spine, and a lack of movement in the thoracic spine will inhibit movement and function of the scapula.
This is to say that you need good range of movement in the thoracic spine before you are every going to have properly functioning shoulders. Check out my post Mobility for Men to discover how to mobilize the thoracic spine.
Once you’ve done that, we can get into the meat of it…
There’s two ways you can hang, and you should do both. You can hang completely passively, with your body relaxed and letting gravity do it’s thing.
Then you can hang in an active posture. Here you engage your shoulders, slightly depress them, flex your abs, squeeze your legs together and point the toes. This will be much harder, and if you’re properly able to create tension throughout the body, you will start to shake almost immediately.
You can also focus on taking deep breaths in and out. This adds an additional stimulus through the shoulders, and is a good way to feel how your breathing impacts the tension you hold in your body.
Basic Shoulder CARS
The most basic variation of shoulder CARS is moving the shoulder proximally. That means, from the shoulder, as opposed to from the hands.
Move around a full range of motion, creating a box shape with your shoulders. Ensure you are always moving slowly and under control.
If you’re moving quickly, losing tension, letting gravity do the work, or jumping past certain spots, you need to work on your control and muscle activation.
This is a great way to learn how to develop a mind muscle connection, and flex your different muscles on demand.
When you first do this, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get cramp. That’s a good thing. It’s because you have never used the muscles with this much control, in these ranges of motion. Your body will adapt and cramp will go away after a couple of sessions.
Weighted Shoulder CARS
The next variation is simply to add weight. This is to further challenge your control, and it often makes it easier. Flexing against a weight us generally easier than flexing against nothing, because you receive more feedback from the weight.
Don’t get carried away going heavy. The entire purpose is to gain control. Move slowly, don’t let gravity pull you around, and always be in control.
Hanging Shoulder CARS
This is a more advanced version that combines hanging and CARS.
This will challenge the opposite range of motion to the weighted shoulder CARS, with the gravity pulling the shoulders up this time, instead of down.
Make sure you’re in full control, and keep the rest of your body in good posture. Flex your abs and glutes, and don’t move from the lower back. Use straps if your grip is a problem. The aim is to isolate the shoulders.
This is my favourite variation. Most people have plenty of strength in a shrugging motion, even if they don’t have full control. Building the strength to match in the shoulders down motion will do wonders for shoulder health, pull up strength, and general posture.
This is a mobility exercise that is becoming more popular, mostly due to Crossfit, but I’ve basically never seen anybody do it properly.
The idea is to move your shoulders through a full range of motion, under control.
Not to wing around as fast as you can, use any combination of momentum, gravity, and body contortion to get the thing over your head.
Think of doing shoulder CARS, while holding the bar. Flex your abs and glutes so you don’t break at the lower back, and keep the wrists locked straight too.
Single-side Shoulder CARS
You can see on the videos I have some left-right imbalance going on, because my right trap is playing up. Doing single side variations is a great way to correct imbalances, and really challenge yourself.
It’s much harder to not cheat, and you can see even though I’m trying my best, I still contort my body a bit to make it easier. Use a foam roller, yoga block, or something similar pushing into your chest to keep you honest and make sure you’re not twisting the body.
You want to create the largest arc you can, driving from the hand. Externally rotate on the way up (thumb out), then internally rotate (thumb toward body) at the top and throughout the downward phase. Reversing the movement is just as much part of the exercise as the first half, so make sure you keep the form strict in both directions.
Pain is always the limiter
If something hurts, stop. Reduce the range of motion, or regress to an easier movement. Build back up slowly once it feels ok. You should never be working through pain doing these exercises. Cramp is ok, but you should know the difference between cramp and actual pain.
This is especially important if you’re rehabbing an injury, and it is not for immediately after your injury, while it is still inflamed. It;s for later in the process, when you are rebuilding the movement pattern and strength.
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