Check your Shoulders, Are They Cleared for Circus

This month’s post is about checking in with your shoulder placement for your overhead activities. Whether you are about to train aerials, handbalancing or do some pull-ups, knowing where your overhead range of motion (ROM) is can help inform where you are and what you might need to work on to improve your overhead range of motion. See below for the Check-in to see if your shoulders have full overhead ROM and if not, learn the mobility exercises here to help get your shoulders to where they need to be to keep potential injury at bay.

The Check-in

A great way to test your overhead ROM is with a back to wall shoulder flexion test. You’ll want to to this before you warm-up for your activity; then try again after your warm-up to see if it’s improved.

Incorporating some of the movements in this post can help improve your overhead ROM. Testing after the warm-up give you an idea of the ROM you are starting your training with is if there is a limited ROM that needs to be worked on at times when you are not training.

The set up: all you need is a wall! Make sure to keep the entire back touching the wall throughout the raising of your arms. Allow your shoulder blades to naturally rise as you lift your arms, this is not the place to tuck your shoulders in your back pockets.

Go slow. Be strict. This is for your knowledge to help you to make choices to improve your ROM to reduce the likelihood of injury.

You only need to do one rep of the exhale and reach over your head. When you’ve raised your arms as much as you can see where your arms have stopped. How far overhead are they? Is all of your back still touching the wall? Have your ribs flared? Are your arms in line with your ears? Are your thumbs touching the wall?

If your arms are in line with your ears and thumbs are touching the wall, congrats, you have the mobility under core stability that is needed to support your body either while hanging, in a handstand or pressing overhead. Although don’t run away too quickly, there are other shoulder pointers you’ll want to read later in this post that will help keep your shoulders strong and stable.

If your thumbs didn’t touch the wall, that’s ok, most people can’t get their arms all the way overhead with good core positioning and many of those people are participating in circus training already.

To be clear, I am not saying you should stop your training right now or risk catastrophe. What I am saying is be aware of your current limiting factor, your lack of full overhead ROM, and how to address making changes in your mobility, flexibility and even core strength to increase that ROM. This is something that you should take seriously and dedicate some time to on a weekly, if not daily basis, to help eliminate a large reason for potential shoulder and back injuries.

I can’t promise that if you increase your ROM, all while holding a hollow body (core tension) that you wont ever injure your shoulders, accidents can happen, but these techniques can greatly reduce a many risk factor for injuries while participating in overhead activities.

This ‘risk factor’ being that the shoulders simply do not move into full overhead range without compensating somewhere else in the body to get the arms overhead. Usually this is done by arching their low back and flaring their ribs, which also means the core has lost it’s engagement (AKA tension)

The Why of it

At this point you may be thinking, ‘but why is this potentially injurious?’ And/or ‘why are my shoulders limited?’

Let me first start with why your shoulders may be limited. There is no one answer. There could be many reasons: the makeup of your bone structures (arm and shoulder blade bones), poor scapulohumeral rhythm,  or muscular imbalances.

Most often, muscular imbalances are front vs. back of the body and are due to any number of reasons such as sitting behind a desk all day, staring down at your phone all the time,  or having a job picking up heavy things. Usually, poor posture causes the muscular imbalances that then can screw up your scapulohumeral rhythm. Below you will find some tips to help address these issues. Bone structures are not normally the reason for limited overhead range of motion, you would need an x-ray to know this and for most people this is not the case.

Why is this potentially injurious? Well, when a person can’t get their arms overhead while maintaining core engagement, it forces the acromion (bony part of your shoulder blade that you can feel on the top of the shoulder) to put a lot of pressure on the muscles and tendons in the upper part of the front of the shoulder, mostly the supraspinatus and th biceps. This is called impingement.

The same thing happens if you have rounded shoulders from poor posture: your shoulder blades no longer sit in the correct spot on your back and will probably not move correctly when you raise your arms overhead (meaning you have lost proper scapulohumeral rhythm). On top of the shoulders not faring well, your low back is probably now overly arched and the load–from hanging, overhead pressing either in a handstand or lifting dumbbells overhead–goes straight to your vulnerable low back.

When the arms line up with the ears the force of gravity (when hanging) or the force from a load overhead goes straight through the body. When the arms can’t come into full overhead ROM and a person has to compensate with an arch in their back the forces produced go to where the arch in their back is and puts a ton of strain on the low back.

The Movements

So you might be thinking, ‘What Now?’

Now that you’ve discovered your ROM in your shoulders from an engaged position and if you are one of those people who discovered they have limited range of motion, how do you increase your mobility?

As stated above, muscles imbalances are probably happening. They happen to all of us.

Soft Tissue Work

(If this is your first time performing soft tissue work, please check out the Do’s and Don’t on my previous post about it.)

Pectoral Mucslces

Biceps and Triceps: Using a foam roller, lie on your stomach and place the foam roller near the front of your elbow and then slowly roll towards the front of your shoulder. Rotate the arm a little to roll different parts of your bicep. For your tricep, lie on your side, placing the foam roller just above your elbow and slowly roll towards your armpit. Also rotate the arm here too, this helps target the 3 muscles of the triceps. Rolling in this area also targets the Lat attachment.

Back & Lats: This video shows more than just your back and lats, but back and lats are the first to demoed in this video.


Here are two mobility drills that aid in increasing overhear ROM.

Child’s pose with T-spine Rotation

Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion as a drill


  • Tricep Stretch. Check to make sure you have the correct set-up, check one one of my previous posts. Many people do this stretch wrong.
  • Chest Stretch. Clasps hands behind your back and using your middle traps (muscles between your shoulders blades) pull your shoulders closer together. Make sure not to flare your ribs and arch your low back.
  • Lat Stretch. Standing tall with your ribs slightly tucked in. Raise one arm up like you’re about to do a tricep stretch. Make sure the elbow remains in line with your shoulders and your ribs stay in. Keeping your abs engaged, slowly side bend over to feel the stretch in the lat and obliques of the arm that is raised. Return to upright and repeat on the other side.


The exercises below are to help to help strengthen the muscles around the shoulder that may be weak due to poor posture. Gaining strength in these muscles will naturally help the tight muscles relax and help improve your posture.

Serratus Wall Slides: Perform 1-2 sets of 8-10 reps.

Bent-over Row: Perform 2-3 sets of 10 with a weight you can lift, but feels a little challenging.

Landmine press: Perform 2-3 sets of 10 with a weight you can lift, but feels a little challenging. Use a cable machine at the gym (as demoed) or a challenging band. When you reach up at a diagonal, reach to the edge of your ROM. This strengthens your end ROM and will help increase your ROM.

I hope this has given you some insight and some helpful techniques to help you on your path towards good range of motion and movement mechanics. As always, if you have any questions or need some more guidance please leave a comment or contact us-we work with people in person and online. If you know someone who would enjoy this post, please share.

In a world where we are all super busy and with a plethora of info out there, I thank you for your interest and time.

Be Well,~~Theresa