While the type of yoga that I teach has a significant flexibility component, my goal is always functional rather than absolute flexibility. Even in my own practice, I’m far less interested in perfecting Standing Splits than in maintaining a level of flexibility that allows me to do the activities I enjoy without pain, stiffness or injury.
So although the measures of flexibility that I aspire to for my students are qualitative—”It’s easier to put my socks on in the morning”, and not quantitative—”I can externally rotate my right shoulder 45 degrees”, I recognise that it can also be useful to have a yardstick against which to measure your flexibility. You can then structure your yoga program to target the specific areas that you need to focus on and avoid tugging at muscles that are already over-stretched.
In this article, we’ll look at normal shoulder flexibility and how a lack of range of motion can affect poses, including Downward Facing Dog, Tree and Wheel.
NORMAL SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY
The shoulder is one of our most versatile joints. It can flex, extend, abduct, adduct, and rotate internally and externally. But how much range of motion (ROM) is normal? Let’s run some tests.
Bring your arms by your sides, palms facing back. Can you lift your arms straight up by your ears in 180 degrees shoulder flexion? Can you extend your arms back behind you, keeping your elbows straight, to roughly 60 degrees? Can you abduct your palms together overhead with your arms straight? Finally, drop your left arm, keep your right arm up and bend your right elbow. Can you touch the middle of your left shoulder blade with your right fingers in external rotation? And touch the middle of your right shoulder blade with your left fingertips in internal rotation?
MISSING RANGES OF MOTION AND POSES TO FOCUS ON
1. LIMITED SHOULDER FLEXION
If you struggle to bring your arms straight up by your ears, you can improve your shoulder flexibility by stretching the chest, lats, backs of the shoulders and triceps.
2. LIMITED SHOULDER EXTENSION
If you struggle to extend your arms back behind you, you can improve your flexibility by stretching your chest, biceps and the fronts of your shoulders.
Additional poses that increase shoulder extension include Upward Facing Plank, Snake, Silver Surfer and other postures in which your fingers are interlaced behind your back.
3. LIMITED SHOULDER ABDUCTION AND ADDUCTION
If you can’t bring your palms together overhead with your arms straight, you can stretch the chest, shoulders, lats and serratus anterior in side-bending poses.
EXTENDED SIDE ANGLE POSE
Additional sidebends include Standing Sidebend, Triangle and Reverse Warrior.
4. LIMITED INTERNAL ROTATION
This is the least likely range to be restricted as we spend most of the time with our arms out in front of us and our shoulders slightly internally rotated. Unless you’re a surfer, in which case Eagle arms feel great.
Eagle, Half Spinal Twist and Chair Pose Twist are also great for stretching the backs of the shoulders.
5. LIMITED EXTERNAL ROTATION
These poses are going to be especially beneficial for cyclists, weightlifters, drivers and desk jockeys, to stretch the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
THREAD-THE-NEEDLE (top arm)
Other poses to improve shoulder flexibility in external rotation include Twisted Scorpion, Reclining Spinal Twist and Cow Face pose (bottom arm).
GOAL POSES FOR SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY
The most common missing ranges of motion are shoulder flexion, abduction and external rotation. So if you have problems with any of the following poses—Downward Dog, Tree or Wheel, it may be that flexibility, and not strength or balance, is the limiting factor. Practicing the relevant poses above should help you to improve your alignment.
Downward Dog requires 180 degree shoulder flexion.
Tree pose requires full shoulder abduction.
Wheel pose requires considerable shoulder flexion and external rotation.
YOUR YOGA 15 SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY VIDEOS
If you are a subscriber to the site, here are 5 videos that you can practice to improve your shoulder flexibility.
Please let me know if you have any questions and which other poses you struggle with that you think might be related to a lack of shoulder flexibility.
I’m loving the ‘Extended side angle pose’ Abi, seems to be working some kind of wonderful magic. I wonder if It’ll allow me to fully extend my arms in ‘Wheel pose’?
Hope you’re well
It’s my favourite pose! It will certainly help. Puppy and Bridge too.