How to Combat Poor Movement in Your Upper Body Training
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.
For the best results in your upper body work, you need to fundamentally correct your movement. (Photo: Pixabay)
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.
Fixing Poor Movement in the Upper Body
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.