Are your shoulders up to the test? December 12 2014

The shoulder joint is perhaps one of the most banged up parts of the body for most lifters. Ask any lifter and it is likely they will complain of some degree of discomfort in their shoulders. It's easy to see how this could happen though, since the shoulder girdle is heavily stressed in most general barbell lifts - from stabilizing the overhead and bench pressing movements, to holding the bar in place during a squat (through external rotation).

The best solution for crappy shoulders is really to do preventive work to ensure optimal range of motion and balance among the muscles surrounding the shoulder girdle. Naturally, the first step to this would be to assess what your current range of motion is like for your shoulders. 

Here are some simple tests that you can do at home to see if you have a healthy range of motion in the shoulders.


1) Raise both your arms till they are overhead with the upper arms beside your head. Picture yourself reaching for a high object that is directly above your head, as shown in the picture below.

Reaching overhead (source)


       Optimal shoulder range of motion (source)

Ideadlly, a healthy range of motion should be such that you can bring your arms all the way overhead without having to push our your chest or arch your lower back excessively. Any range less than 180 degrees, or any point in the curve where you would need to compensate with pushing the chest out and arching the back would indicate a poor range of motion. If this occurs, take note of any pain during the movement.


2) For this test, slowly raise your arms from your side. It should look like you are performing a lateral raise exercise. The end result should have you with your arms extended outwards from your sides, forming a T-shape with your body. The main thing to take note here is how high you can get your arms before your traps start to contract. Do take note of any pain that may occur in any portion of the movement as well.

Raising the arms to the side (source)

Ideally, you should be able to raise your arms to the degree shown in the picture, without your traps contracting. If your traps do tense up as you are lifting your hands from your sides, then it is likely that your traps are excessively tight and overactive, and will likely be restricting your shoulder range in any of the other tests.


3) Lastly, you can perform Apley’s Scratch Test. Try your best to get into the position shown in the picture and repeat with the opposite combination. It is not necessary for both hands to touch each other. However, do take note of how high or how low each hand reaches.


Apley Scratch Test (source)

Ideally you should be able to reach the middle area of your back with no severe tightness in either shoulder. If you have a higher range of motion, you will find that you are likely to be able to touch both hands together.


If there is no pain (learn to differentiate between pain, ache and stiffness) involved in the 3 tests, here are some usual tight spots that WILL affect the mobility of the shoulders.

  • Chest
  • Rhomboids
  • Lats
  • Traps

Should you experience any stiffness in any of these areas, evidenced during the test, do try rolling and easing these muscles out. Try releasing them out individually in the order given and notice which ones give you the most relief. However, should you feel any pain during any of the tests, do consult a doctor!


By Tan Chee Chong