Some people seem to have all of the luck.
From the beginning they’ve had flexible, limber shoulders and mastered their handstand early on.
And it sucks, right?
You’ve put in the same amount of work, probably even more, and haven’t seen a whole lot of improvement. You’re still far from that elusive handstand line; the one that you’ve heard about more times than you could possibly count.
So what’s the difference? Why are their shoulders so much more open? Do they have superior genetics? Did God send an angel down to bless their shoulders? Are they enlightened?
I’ve worked on my shoulder mobility for years and like anything difficult it takes an enormous amount of hard work to rectify. It truly is a grind.
Even worse, there’s so much information out there as to how to solve this problem that it would make anyone’s head spin. Hanging, bridges, shoulder dislocates, german hangs, fascial tissue release, partner stretching, the list goes on… A lot of it is unnecessary, and in this article I reveal the best of all of that information.
Not to discredit any of those methods, in fact I do recommend some of them to those looking for more shoulder ROM, but the key lies in the little details. You could do some of these exercises for years and still not see much improvement if not done with some important things in mind.
This is a very hard topic. Opening your shoulders is no easy task. It’s important to remember that everyone is different and the solution may not be the same for everyone. The good news is that this is totally possible. Here’s what you need: the right info, a firm dedication, patience, and finally the ability to put in the work. If you don’t have even one of these qualities you might as well give up and stop reading now.
I know those attributes to be true for me. I worked on my handstand for about two years before finding what I considered success. A big part of that process was figuring out how to open my shoulders. If you’re ready to save yourself a couple years of futile effort then please read on.
Here’s what you need to know about it:
- it’s listed first because it is a great warm up tool for the shoulders
- very convenient and easy to access
- many people already have hanging as part of their daily training
- the passive hang alone will not help stretch your shoulders very much
- performing the passive hang with the following modifications will reveal which parts of the shoulder are most limiting you thus providing an idea of what needs to be stretched the most
There are a few modifications that can be made that will immediately increase the effectiveness of hanging, the first being the hollow body, ribs in position. This is crucial to increase the effectiveness of hanging to warm up and open your shoulders. Now the reason we hang like this is to mimic the handstand shape right side up (upside down?). This will allow you to feel what part of your shoulders are limiting you, in addition it doubles as a great bodyline drill for the handstand itself.
The modified hanging will not only warm up and help open the shoulders, it will provide a greater understanding of the physical limitations in your shoulders. From this point on I want you to make a habit of keeping the ribs in position when hanging.
Keep the hollow body/ribs in position for the following modifications:
- Turn your passive hang into the hollow body hang
- Bring the hands close together, thumbs touching
- Supinated, hang at shoulder width (chin up style)
- Supinated, hang with hands close together (chin up style)
After trying the supinated versions of the passive hang you will probably notice how it feels much different than with hands pronated. This is more than likely due to your lats… this is a big one. Read on.
2) The Lats
The latissimus dorsi is one of THE biggest limiting factors in many adult’s overhead range of motion. It’s one of the bigger muscles involved in the movement of the shoulder, and bigger muscles tend to be harder to stretch.
What exercise is the lat normally associated with? Pull ups! In other words, pulling strength is a BIG contributor to lack of shoulder ROM. I don’t need to prove this, just look at any serious rock climber. They have phenomenal pulling strength but tend to have rounded backs i.e. kyphosis.
So lat tightness is a very common issue, what stretches do we use to tackle it? I’ll give you three different stretches that accomplish the same goal, the last one being a more advanced and intense stretch.
Lat stretch #1
- You can use any sort of railing, a weightlifting bar, swedish ladder bars, etc
- Grip the rail tight with palm facing up
- Keep the elbow locked
- Tilt the hips away to create a nice curve on the side of the body
Lat stretch #2
Another very easy access stretch, demonstrated by Emmet Louis
- You can use swedish ladder bars, a doorframe, pole, etc
- Keep the elbow locked
- Elevate the shoulder
- Tilt the hips away to create that same curve throughout the side being stretched
- Play with the rotation of your torso to stretch the lat in multiple planes
Lat Stretch #3
This one is more advanced and requires decent pancake, hamstring, and torso flexibility.
Note: If you are already quite flexible in this position then you must focus on the actual lat stretch and not getting deeper in this position.
- Grab the outside of your foot with opposite hand (right foot, grab with left hand)
- Aim to get your other shoulder to the floor
There are other lat stretches that exist out there, however these three are a great place to start to open yourself up. Give these a try and you many immediately notice how much easier it is to raise your arms above your head.
3) The Bridge
Instead of thoroughly explaining the bridge and how to use it increase your shoulder flexibility (that’s a huge topic of its own) I will give you a quick tip as to how to improve your bridge right now in the hopes of making it a bit easier to execute.
If your bridge looks like this or this, then chances are your lats are holding you back.
A temporary solution is to take the lats out of the equation a little. This can be accomplished by turning your hands inward a bit (internally rotate).
With this tip you can try working on your bridges with a bit more success (and even more later on when your lats open up). This works fine with elevated bridges as well.
4) The Couch Stretch
This is the final stretch of the article and it is very handstand specific, it completely isolates shoulder flexion. It uses the same concept as that of a weightlifting pullover, however with my own evil twist. Use caution with this one as it can get very intense.
Here are the key points:
- You want to find an immovable object that you can place your hands under, I recommend a couch.
- Place the foam roller under your shoulder blades
- You must be in a hollow body position
- Lock your elbows!
- Hold for time or until you cannot bear it anymore
If the stretch is too intense or difficult you may scale it down by removing the foam roller, or by using weights instead. Cody Sunkel with Freestyle Connection has a great example of this:
[Loaded Shoulder Flexion] As I mentioned in my last post, my first loaded element in my back bridge sequence is to strengthen/mobilize the end range of the triceps and lats with the Butchers Block stretch, and the second is to isolate shoulder flexion. This exercise is great for mobilizing the scaps. The key here is to maintain a hollow body shape throughout the range of motion. I usually hold for 5-20 seconds and do 2-6 reps per set. This is 25# but I started with 5# and added weight progressively. You can also use a PVC and add small plates.
I do like the couch version of the stretch better because my shoulders were just so damn tight that stretching at maximum intensity gave me better results than at a scaled down version. However, if your body is not ready for it then of course do not subject it to injury with reckless inconsideration.
Putting it all together
It is important to realize that everyone is individual, for this reason there are many ways that one could go about this. Keeping that in mind, here is my general recommendation:
- Start with the hanging to warm up and loosen the shoulders
- Move onto the lat stretches
- Work the couch stretch or similar variation
- Lastly, work on your bridge progression/routine
In terms of sets/reps I don’t really like to give out specifics. The reason is that every person is different and will respond differently. My alternative suggestion is to try all of the exercises to familiarize yourself, and then determine how much effort you need to put towards each exercise. I believe that instead of blindly following a sets/reps scheme (for certain stretching) it is more beneficial to “feel” out the exercise. This way you will gain a much deeper understanding of your body and how it responds to certain variables, etc. After that point you may worry about your sets/reps.
So what are you waiting for?
You don’t have to feel discouraged any longer, the elusive line is attainable. With your new and improved shoulders things like the bridge will come along much easier, doors will open and a whole new world of movement will reveal itself to you.
The tools are right here!
You HAVE the right information.
It’s in the palm of your hand.
Now it’s all up to you.
Thank you for reading.
Please share this with someone else who needs some shoulder love.
In the comments below, share some of your favorite shoulder opening methods Alternatively, if you have any specific questions/problems about your shoulder mobility leave a comment below and I would be happy to help!
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