Shoulder Mobility Screen

Shoulder Mobility is the second screen covered in our Functional Movement Series. Together with the Active Straight Leg Raise, it’s one of the most fundamental components of the system.

Specifically, this article provides the following:

  • Introductory video to the Shoulder Mobility Screen.
  • Detailed instruction on how to perform, score, and interpret the screen.
  • Corrective exercises, including a printable handout and instructional videos.

What is the Shoulder Mobility Screen?

The purpose of the Shoulder Mobility Screen is to address limitations in upper body mobility and stability. We can then use this information to improve our overall physical function.

Performing The Screen

The first step is to measure the distance from your distal wrist crease to the end of your longest finger. You can use a ruler, yardstick, or any other measuring device. We’ll call this your “hand measurement”.

Next, stand with your feet together and make a fist with your thumbs inside of your fingers. Reach both hands directly out to your sides, then simultaneously reach one fist behind the neck and the other one behind the back, trying to get the fists as close as possible to each other. Don’t try to scoot the fists closer to each other; where they land during the initial reach is where you want to measure. The measurement between the end of the two fists is your “gap measurement”.

Shoulder Mobility Measurement

You’ll want help with this screen so you can get an accurate measurement. If you don’t have assistance, I suggest setting a delay on your camera and snapping a photo of each of the patterns.

Perform the screen a maximum of three times (on each side).

Scoring the Screen

The Shoulder Mobility Screen is scored on a scale of 0 to 3. The score is determined by comparing your “hand measurement” to your “gap measurement”.

Scoring the Screen

If you feel pain while performing the screen, your score is 0. You should consult a medical professional. A score of 1 indicates that your “gap measurement” is greater than your “hand measurement”. This score is quite obvious, as you’ll notice a major struggle to achieve the reaching pattern. A score of 2 indicates that your “gap measurement” is about the same as your “hand measurement”. A score of 3 indicates that your “hand measurement” is greater than your “gap measurement” (i.e. your fists are touching or very close to touching).

A score of less than 3 (on either side) indicates that you have sub-optimal shoulder performance. In this case, you should complete the Corrective Process outlined later in this article.

Interpreting The Screen

The bottom line is that shoulders are complicated. As you can see, their performance relies on the function of several other systems and components (both within and outside of the joint itself).

Shoulder Components

Interpreting shoulder dysfunction requires a multi-dimensional analysis, beginning at the center of the body.

  1. The neck, upper back, and rib cage can significantly impact thoracic spine mobility. Breathing patterns and sustained postures (e.g. sitting at a desk) play a key role in determining the position of these anatomical components. Shoulder mobility typically deteriorates as we spend more and more time sitting in front of a computer.
  2. Mobility in the thoracic spine will determine the stability of the scapula. If your t-spine is “locked up”, your scapulae will lose stability as they attempt to compensate for the decreased range of motion in your t-spine.
  3. The glenoid of the scapula is the connection point for the humeral head, while the scapula serves as the base for the rotator cuff muscles. A properly positioned, stable scapula allows for proper mobility and control of the shoulder joint.

In any case, it’s clear that the Shoulder Mobility Screen gives us great insight into overall upper body function (if we know what to look for). With that said, this series focuses on correcting dysfunction by improving movement patterns. In other words, don’t overly concern yourself with these interpretations, as our Corrective Process is designed to address a wide range of possible issues.

Corrective Process

Correcting limitations in the Shoulder Mobility Screen is a two-part process. First, we must remove any “red light” movements that are causing or exacerbating the dysfunction. Second, we must simultaneously incorporate corrective exercises into our daily routine.

I’ve prepared a printable handout below that can be used as a helpful reference throughout this process. However, I would suggest first reading the sections below to ensure proper form.

Shoulder Mobility Screenshot

“Red Light” Movements

Your daily posture will be a big factor in your corrective process. Sitting with rounded shoulders and a forward head all day long will likely sabotage any corrective approaches. Sitting with a tall posture is important, but the big key is to get up and move as much as possible. The Wall Sit with Reach you’ll see below is a great exercise to correct posture and can easily be performed throughout your workday.

In addition, anything overhead is likely to cause issues. In most cases, I “red light” all overhead work, including pressing and pulling, and especially including any overhead work with a straight bar (e.g. pull-ups, barbell presses). However, there are a few variations that you can perform with caution:

  • Landmine trainers can be used to press overhead at a 45-degree angle, which is much safer than straight overhead.
  • A suspension trainer (such as TRX) provides the option for pull-ups with your feet supported on the ground. Start with palms facing forward in the dead hang position and pull up while rotating your palms toward you.
  • I’ve seen success with overhead pulling that is more controlled (e.g. band pulldown) or unilateral (e.g. one-arm cable pulldown).

Lastly, horizontal rowing and pressing exercises are considered “yellow light” movements. You’ll want to be especially careful with bench pressing or avoid it altogether (until your shoulder dysfunction is corrected).

Corrective Exercises

The FMS manual states that “breathing, t-spine mobility followed by scapular stability is a good way to begin the corrective strategy.” From my experience, this is right on.

As you progress through this series of corrective exercises, please keep in mind these are just suggestions. There are many exercises that can improve shoulder mobility.

You may feel discomfort when performing these exercises, especially if you are “locked up” in your rib cage and/or t-spine. However, please see a medical professional if you ever feel pain.

Mobility

Static Motor Control

Dynamic Motor Control

Next Steps

Improving your performance on the Shoulder Mobility Screen will produce benefits for your entire upper body. I suggest performing these corrective exercises on a regular basis until you receive a score of at least 2. Once you achieve this, you’re ready to move to the next installment of this series, which will focus on trunk stability.

About the Author

Sean Griffin Bio Picture
Sean holds certifications from Functional Movement Systems, National Strength and Conditioning Association, and International Youth Conditioning Association. Read his full bio or visit ChicagoPrimal.com. Email him at Sean@ChicagoPrimal.com.

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