While the type of yoga I teach and practice has a significant flexibility component, my goal is functional rather than absolute flexibility. I’m far less interested in perfecting Standing Splits than in maintaining a level of flexibility that increases suppleness in the body, prevents aches and pains and reduces risk of injury.
Although these measures of flexibility are all 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 compare yourself. You can then structure your yoga program to target the specific areas you need to focus on and avoid tugging at muscles that are already over-stretched.
In this article, I’m going to look at normal shoulder flexibility and how a lack of range of motion can affect weight-bearing poses such as Downward Dog and Wheel.
Shoulder ROM goals
The shoulder is one of the 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 shoulder flexion? Bring your arms back down. Can you extend your arms behind you to roughly 60 degrees? Bring your hands back by your sides. Can you abduct your palms together overhead with your arms straight? Finally, drop your left arm, keep your right arm up and bend right your 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 the poses to focus on
1. Limited flexion. If you struggle to bring your arms straight up by your ears, you need to stretch the lats, backs of the shoulders and triceps.
2. Limited extension. If you struggle to extend your arms back behind you, you need to stretch the pecs, biceps and fronts of the shoulders.
3. Limited adduction and abduction. If you can't bring your palms together overhead with straight arms, you need to stretch the shoulders, lats and serratus anterior with side-bending poses.
Extended Side Angle Pose
4. Limited internal rotation. This is the least likely range to be restricted as we spend most of the time with our arms stretched out in front of us and our shoulders internally rotated. Unless you're a surfer in which case Eagle arms feel great.
The most common missing ranges of motion are shoulder flexion, abduction and external rotation.
Do you have problems with either of the following poses? Counter-intuitively, your flexibility not your strength might be the limiting factor. Can you see how practicing the relevant poses above could help to get you closer?
Downward Dog requires 180 degree shoulder flexion.
Wheel requires considerable flexion and external rotation.