Exercise to Improve Shoulder External & Internal Rotation ROM

Dissociation Technique to Improve Shoulder Rotation Range

By Coach E

Exercise to Improve Shoulder External & Internal Rotation ROM

If you’re not including rotation in your shoulder workouts, you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle. Try this shoulder internal rotation exercise.

Looking Beyond Linear Movements

Most folks have a one-track mind it comes to training their shoulders. They focus on linear, pressing and pulling movements with stuff like overhead presses and pull-ups.

shoulder training exercise active athlete

These exercises are great, but it’s important not forget about a crucial element in shoulder movement – rotation.

Doing so can result in shoulders that lack range of motion and strength in directions that are key to how we actually use our shoulders functionally – internal and external rotation (IR and ER).

Problems With Poor Shoulder Rotation Mobility

When your shoulder is lacking in rotation mobility, a number of issues can occur.

The most common problem is probably impingement.

If your shoulder rotators aren’t correctly firing when you lift your arm overhead to do a press or to serve the ball in tennis, your humerus, or upper arm bone, might move improperly and pinch other structures in the area. This pinching or impingement can cause a pretty gnarly pain and a real disruption to how you like to move and stay active.

The muscles of your rotator cuff can also be prone to developing painful tendonitis or tendinosis when you’re lacking mobility or dependent on faulty movement patterns.

These muscles also fire to help hold the head of your humerus in place in your shoulder socket. If they aren’t firing correctly or your rotational range of motion is limited and you’re forcing through repetitive motions like say, throwing a baseball, it could contribute to a more major shoulder issue like a labral tear.

Dissociating Movements

To address these common internal and external rotation deficiencies, we are going to use a dissociation technique.

This type of technique works to break apart two commonly associated movement patterns. By dissociating the motions, these techniques can help you build better neuromuscular control over your movement at that joint.

With the dissociation exercise I’ll teach you today, we’ll be tackling how your glenohumeral joint and your scapula move together.

The head of your humerus sits in a shallow socket called the glenoid fossa on the lateral edge of your shoulder blade, or scapula. Movement of one of those bones is therefore strongly connected with movement of the other.

For example, just lifting your arm overhead involves not only upward movement of the humerus, but also external rotation of the humerus and upward rotation of the scap over your rib cage. [1]

lifting arm overhead shoulder rotation exercise

Typically, when you move your shoulder into external rotation, or rotate your arm away from your body, your scapula retract, or pull toward each other on your back. And, when you internally rotate your shoulder, or rotate your arm in toward your body, your scapula tend to protract, or move away from each other.

scapular movements shoulder rotation

We’re going to work on your shoulder control by dissociating this pattern and pairing the opposite movements.

This style of exercise will also improve the activation of muscles that help you enter a range of motion and get deeper into it – so you’ll build strength and muscle extensibility, too.

Your shoulder external rotators run from your scapulae to an area near the head of your humerus. As you start to perform this exercise, you’ll likely feel those muscles fire up way more than you usually do. That’s because you’re asking them to work in a range and a position they aren’t used to working in.

This shoulder external and shoulder internal rotation exercise has a lot of benefits, so let’s give it a go.

Shoulder External Rotation Exercise

For the first part of the movement, we’ll be dissociating shoulder external rotation and scapular retraction and instead pairing ER with protraction of the scaps.

Shoulder Internal Rotation Exercise

  • Start in full internal rotation with elbows bent and both hands on your belly and full scapular retraction by pinching your shoulder blades together
  • Move into external rotation by rotating your hands out away from your body and at the same time, try to protract your scaps and move them away from each other
  • Pause at the end of your range of motion and keep your muscles active and engaged in external rotation and protraction as you take a slow, deep 360° breath

Shoulder Internal Rotation Exercise

Now we’ll tackle dissociating internal rotation of the shoulder with protraction and instead pairing IR with scapular retraction.

shoulder external rotation exercise

  • Start from the end of the previous exercise – with your shoulders externally rotated and your scapulae protracted
  • Move into internal rotation by moving your hands back toward your stomach as you retract the scaps and pinch them back toward each other
  • At the end of your range of motion, you can press your hands into your belly to help you maintain activation of the internal rotators
  • Keep this internal activation going and keep firing up scapular retraction as you pause and breathe deeply

How to Use This Technique

These two motions combined represent one full cycle of the dissociation technique. I recommend starting with just 3 cycles. As you get stronger at the movement pattern, you can work your way up to 5 or 6 cycles.

As you perform the movements, try to rotate your humerus at the same rate that you move your scapulae.

And remember not to just relax when you get to your end range. Instead, keep firing up both motions as much as you can.

Finally, pay attention to your breath. Stay active while you take that deep 360° breath – breathing into not just your chest, but into your back and sides as well.

Incorporating your breath in this way well help you maximize your endurance and better integrate the movement pattern into your nervous system.

This shoulder external and shoulder internal rotation exercise makes a great warm-up before a workout where you’re going to be doing any shoulder rotation. It’ll help activate your muscles, getting them fired up while also increasing your range of motion and shoulder control.

And if shoulder control sounds like something you could use more of, you should definitely check out my Shoulder Control Program. This is a progressive, three-phase course that culminates with functional integration that can improve your performance in the gym or sport.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.