Poor movement quality is a pandemic among athletes, and whilst many of them are able to identify their own weaknesses and imbalances, I am always surprised by athletes' reluctance to address and remedy them. It seems to be much harder for them to be humble and regress to mastering the basics than it is to lift heavy shit and muscle their way through a workout.
Mobility, stability, and motor control play a critical role in an athlete’s ability to perform and stay injury free. Mobility is the degree of uninhibited range of motion around a joint, and stability is the resistance offered by muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding that joint to protect it against injury. Motor control refers to the body’s capability to take sensory input from the environment and execute the proper muscle co-ordination in response. Mobility, stability, and motor control are all inter-related in the human body, with most movement quality issues arising from problems within this trifecta.
In this article we’re going to look at how to improve movement quality in the upper body with mobility, stability, and motor control focused exercises. Sports-specific needs aside, the bulk of my initial programming for my clients’ upper body work focuses on the posterior chain, and there's no change here. I believe in lengthening the front and strengthening the back of the body first.
Perform the exercises below to make sure you’re hitting the right muscles at the right times to improve your performance and reduce your injury risk when training your upper body. These exercises will improve your overall mobility, stability, and motor control and make sure your trifecta stays solid.
MOBILITY + STABILITY + MOTOR CONTROL = CORRECT FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT PATTERNS
Let’s take a look at mobility first.
Limited range of motion compromises the most basic of movement patterns, as tightness affects the ability to engage the right muscles in the right sequential order. This inevitably leads to imbalance and injury as compensation by more dominant muscles occurs. If your upper back is movement restricted, your lower back will compensate for it, leading to instability, pain, and injury.
Upper Body Mobility Issues
In the upper body, common mobility issues include tight pectorals, internal rotators, stiffness in the serratus anterior, and blocking of the thoracic spine. These issues make it very difficult to keep a proud chest and active back in movements such as Olympic weightlifting. It can also be hard to draw the shoulder blades together during pulling movements such as pull ups.
Upper Body Mobility Solutions
Let’s take a look at some exercises you can implement into your program to alleviate upper body mobility issues.
1. Mobilize the Thoracic Spine with a Foam Roller
One of the simplest ways to mobilize the thoracic spine is to use a foam roller. Stiffness or blocking in the thoracic spine affects breathing and posture and decreases the range of shoulder movement, particularly when lifting overhead as it changes the position of the shoulder blade on the rib cage.
- Roll from the upper trapezius all the way down to the bottom rib.
- Perform with a neutral spine, then in extension.
- Avoid the neck or cervical spine area at the top.
For further release, you can also use this method with two tennis balls taped together in a figure of eight to isolate and mobilize each vertebral joint.
2. Mobilize the Serratus Anterior with a Foam Roller
The serratus anterior is responsible for holding the scapula to the rib cage. A tight serratus anterior is more common than you think, and plays a major role in pulling the shoulder forward. You can also use a foam roller to mobilize this area.
- Start at your bottom rib and roll across the muscle fibers from back to front.
- Repeat for each rib.
You can foam roll pre or post workout, on recovery days, and before bed. I find that spending 10-15 minutes targeting specific areas before a dynamic warm up to be the most beneficial. To achieve the best mobility gains, Andy Ginn suggests releasing the serratus anterior before targeting the pecs and internal rotators with dynamic warm up mobility sequences like the one I’ve given below.
3. Open the Chest and Shoulders with a Dynamic Warm Up
For a general opening of the chest and shoulders, I favour using a resistance band in the simple mobility sequence I’ve given in this video.
Perform 10 reps of each exercise shown here. These variations of the shoulder dislocate are inspired by my experience with The Real Movement Project. They open the chest and the front of the shoulders first, before working on retraction and drawing the shoulder blades towards the spine.
I recommend completing this sequence after foam rolling before all workouts involving the upper body.
Stability and Motor Control
Stability is immediate integrity around a joint in the presence of full range of motion. Stabilizers are reflex dependent and rely on motor control rather than strength to function properly. Motor control and stability are co-dependent, which is why I’ve put these two components together.
The best way to improve stabilization is to improve motor control. If your alignment is good and your body position is where it should be in your upper body movements, your brain will automatically fire the targeted muscles to give you integrity, joint compression, and a perfect axis of rotation around which your primary movers can do their job effectively.
Upper Body Stability and Motor Control Issues
The most common movement fault I see in the upper body is dominance and over-development of the upper traps. This could be due to purposefully training the muscle with exercises like shoulder shrugs, or through chronic poor posture and reinforcing poor movement patterns through volume or load. Your upper traps are most likely dominant if you round your shoulders in your pulling movements or shrug your shoulders when pressing overhead.
Overactive upper traps over time can develop into uncomfortable tension around the neck, possible tension headaches and in the worst cases, chronic inflammation and pain. You need to learn how to minimize the involvement of the upper traps and recruit the mid traps and rhomboids, the lower traps, and the external rotators. A weak and/or unstable shoulder girdle will not only affect your primary upper body lifts. It can also affect your lower body compound exercises like the front squat and deadlift.
Upper Body Stability and Motor Control Solutions
Let’s take a look at some exercises you can implement into your program to improve your upper body stability and motor control issues.
1. The T3 Raise
One of my biggest takeaways from learning under Charles Poliquin was the T3 Raise and its contribution to scapular stability. If the scapula fails to stabilize, shoulder complex function is inefficient, which results in decreased neuromuscular performance and injury in the shoulder area. Stablizing the scapula prevents this and enhances motor control in this area of the body.
I find that performing this as a single arm variation allows me to feel my lower traps engage more in my workout. When your lower traps engage in the T3 Raise, you should get a pinching feeling right underneath the shoulder blade that refers contralaterally down and across towards the opposite hip.
- Start with the hand directly underneath the shoulder. I like to exaggerate the initial movement by reaching my fingertips toward the ground in protraction before retracting the shoulder blade.
- Keep the retraction whilst the arm moves as high as possible at a 45 degree angle, with the thumb up.
- Keep the arm as straight as possible.
- Pause at the top, then lower with control before repeating.
- Make sure to keep the hips and shoulders level throughout and to brace the spine.
Start with your weaker arm, and if you fail at a specific repetition, just complete the same amount on the other side. This is a great exercise to address any imbalances you may have in the scapular area.
Perform two sets of 12-15 reps and superset the T3 Raise and the Sidelying External Rotation exercise given below. The T3 Raise can be performed before or after your workout.
2. Sidelying External Rotation
External rotation is one of the most important components of any upper body training program for postural strength and injury prevention. The rotator cuff tendons provide stability to the shoulder, and the muscles allow for rotation of the shoulder. As external rotation is not directly addressed as a component of any other exercise, it must be worked in isolation.
Sidelying external rotation is arguably the easiest external rotation exercise to perform, as you can use the wall to align the entire body correctly and for a tactile cue to signal the top of the movement. As a guideline,you should be able to complete one repetition using 10% of your 1RM bench press weight according to Poliquin’s structural balance ratio.
3. The Hanging Retraction
The Hanging Retraction is my favorite pre-pullup drill. A good cue for this exercise is shoulders wide, sternum up. As well as a pull up bar or rig, you can also perform this exercise on a lat pulldown machine.
- Grab the bar and come into a dead hang with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Make sure your lats are in a stretched position and your elbows are locked.
- From the starting position, initiate the movement by trying to pull your shoulder blades down, resisting the temptation to unlock your elbows.
- Pull the shoulder blades down, squeeze, then return under control to the starting position.
Perform one set of 6-8 reps before doing pullups or any upper body focused workout.
Move well now for dividends in the future
The importance of addressing your movement quality in the upper body can’t be overstated. Mobility is the foundation upon which motor control, stability, strength, and power is based, but just having the mobility to perform a certain movement does not mean that you have the movement knowledge to perform those movements correctly. To build this knowledge, you need to groove proper movement patterning until the movement becomes automatic. With these exercises, you're taking the first step toward getting there.
If you can’t move efficiently, you can’t move effectively, and you will struggle to make any gains in your upper body training. Never sacrifice your form for load, volume, or speed. Remember it’s not practice that makes perfect. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.