7 Exercises to Open Up the Shoulders

April 27, 2017 by VAHVA Fitness

Different pullover and hanging variations to open up the shoulders. Great for developing overhead shoulder mobility.

To keep your shoulders healthy and functional, there needs to be sufficient levels of overhead shoulder flexibility and mobility.

"Open shoulders" definition comes from the gymnastics and yoga - it typically means that you can fully open the shoulders overhead in the full range of motion in a way that the shoulders are freely aligned with the natural curvature of the spine.

Open shoulders is something many gymnasts, acrobats and yogis want to achieve for the perfect straight line handstand. "Closed shoulders" on the other hand means that there is a smaller than 180 degree angle between your shoulders and the spine (think of the banana handstand). 

In order to have open shoulders, many of the shoulder and scapula muscles need to be strong and flexible. The exercises in the video and in this article will mainly focus on building the range of motion by stretching the shoulders open. 

Building strength and range of motion in the shoulders will prevent injuries and also allow your shoulders to perform at a higher level.

Shoulder mobility plays a vital role in sports, martial arts and lifting weights. For example, your overhead press can increase by improving the overhead mobility and you will be able to throw freer punches. 

For a structured mobility program, see Movement 20XX.

Supine Overhead Flyes

overhead chest fly

Supine overhead flyes are superb active flexibility work for the chest and lats muscles. You will be stretching the muscles in their lengthened end-range of motion.

You will be stretching and strengthening mostly the outer chest, upper chest, lats and the shoulder muscles.

You will get great results when you explore the overhead range of motion around your head by doing pulses in different posititions as seen in the video. 

Focus on feeling a stretch in different muscles and use light weights.

Straight Arm Pullovers

straight arm pullover

Different types of pullovers are excellent mobility work for the shoulders and back muscles. You will also be opening up thoracic spine. You can increase the shoulder stretch by keeping the lower back flat.

You get the best stretch when your arms are straight - this can be rough on the elbows if all of your elbow muscles aren't strong enough. In this case, you can have a little bend in the elbows or you can just use less weight (better option). 

Pullovers can be done with both barbells and dumbbells. Try different grip widths like narrow, shoulder width and wide. 

The stimulus is a bit different with dumbbells which is why it's recommended to try both dumbbells and barbells. Dumbbells also allow you use different grip placements.

You don't need to use a lot of weight (the purpose is to stretch the muscles) and you don't need to lift the weights all the way up. You can focus on the end-range of motion with pullover pulses to keep a stretch and tension in the shoulders.

Passive & Active Hanging

l-sit hang for shoulders

Passive and active hanging are amazing for overhead shoulder flexibility. The stretch will be significant because you are using your entire bodyweight for the stretches. 

You start with the normal two-arm passive hangs and focus on hanging for 15 to 60 seconds per set (for 3-5 sets). You can do this daily or every now and then.

Once it gets easier, you can try to hang with just one arm at the time. Notice that the one arm hang is mechanically very different which is why the one arm hang cannot replace the two-arm hang.

Once the shoulders start to open up and get a bit stronger, you can turn the passive hang into an active hang by activating the scapula muscles.

You can also lift your legs up. Raising your legs will flatten your lower back (hollow body) and as a result demand significantly more flexibility and mobility from your shoulders.

In the beginning, keep your legs tucked and focus on holding the position. Eventually straighten the legs into an L-sit to make the exercise even harder.

Passive hanging should feel natural and relatively comfortable, but in the active hanging it's normal to feel burn in the back and shoulder muscles because you are working the muscles.


samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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  • Thanks a lot for your articles and tips. This is my first week doing your muscle up pdf program. I’ll let you know about my muscle up progress. Peace.

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