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Exercises to Understand Anatomy and Mobility of the Shoulder

mobility and stability of the shoulder complex

Functional Kinesiology of the Shoulder Girdle

In the previous post, we introduced the idea of learning anatomy through movement. Now it is time to get moving! Specifically, let’s move the shoulder and review all the various movements that allow us to pull, pull, reach, throw, climb, crawl and so much more!

The objectives of this article are threefold. First, review some common exercises that represent the various movements of the shoulder. Second, look at the general structure of the shoulder complex and how it can achieve great amounts of mobility while maintaining some stability. Lastly, review the movement of each exercise, separating the movements of the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint from the movement of the shoulder (pectoral) girdle.

Common Exercises to Understand Anatomy of the Shoulder

For this post, we will look at common upper body exercises and examine the basic movements. Specifically, we will look at the shrugs, lateral raise, front raise, pull-up, shoulder press, chest press, and high row. These exercises were chosen because they give a good representation of the fundamental movements of the shoulder. That said, because of the complexity of the shoulder joint, do not think that the shoulder joint is limited to these movements.

Mobility versus Stability

Before we start examining exercises and their movements, it is important to take a moment and discuss the concepts of mobility and stability. Mobility refers to the ability of an object to move freely, while stability refers to something that is not likely to be moved or changed. Therefore, there is an inverse relationship between mobility and stability (i.e., when something is very stable, it is not very mobile, and vice versa). The shoulder joint has the greatest range of motion in the body; hence, it is considered the most mobile joint. To retain some stability, the body distributes the range of motion through a complex of three bones and multiple points. Hence the term, “shoulder complex.”

The next post will cover the specifics of the bones and joints of the shoulder complex. For now, we will separate the movements of the shoulder complex into the movements of the shoulder joint (or, more appropriately, the glenohumeral joint – the ball-and-socket joint that most associate with the “shoulder”) and the scapulothoracic joint which involves movements of the shoulder blade (scapula) and collar bone (clavicle). Scapulothoracic movement positions the scapula so that the “socket” (glenoid cavity) of the shoulder joint is positioned to accept the various forces placed on it through the range of motion. We will go over this in more detail in future posts as well.

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Now is the time to get moving! Let’s review some basic motions of the shoulder using exercises. Remember, the shoulder has three degrees of freedom, which means it can move the arm in all three planes in space. 

This is done through three major axes:

  1. transverse axis
  2. anterior-posterior axis
  3. longitudinal axis



 The transverse axis (sometimes called the medial-lateral axis – shown as the red arrow) lies in the frontal and horizontal planes. Movements around this axis will allow flexion and extension movements to occur in the sagittal plane. An example of this motion would be doing a front raise.


The anterior-posterior axis (shown as the blue arrow) lies in the sagittal and horizontal planes. Movement about this axis will allow movements of abduction and adduction to occur in the frontal plane. An example of this motion would be doing a lateral raise.


Lastly, the longitudinal axis (shown as the green arrow) lies in the frontal and sagittal planes. If the arm is first abducted, the arm will move about this axis in the horizontal plane in what is known as horizontal adduction and horizontal abduction. An example of this motion would be a chest press.

If the arm is not abducted, then the longitudinal axis corresponds the long axis of the arm bone (the humerus) and we get movements of internal (medial) rotation and external (lateral) rotation.

Movements about these three axes of rotation will often involve the entire shoulder complex, with most of the motion coming from the glenohumeral joint. It is important to be able to separate the movements of the shoulder girdle from that of the glenohumeral joint, so let’s take a movement and review those motions specific to the shoulder girdle.

First, the shoulder is pulled back in the movement of retraction and forward in the movement of protraction (also known as scapular adduction and scapular abduction, respectively). Once again, shoulder girdle movements place the glenoid cavity in a better position for accepting forces. These movements can be seen by watching the scapula in the row and the press.



Next, we have elevation (upward movement) and depression (downward movement) of the shoulder girdle. A great example of these motions would be the shrug.

elevation (upward movement) of the shoulder girdle

Downward (depression) movement of the shoulder girdle

Upward and downward rotation of the shoulder girdle happens during abduction and adduction. This can be seen in the pull-up.


To summarize, the shoulder complex is possible of movement in all three planes of motion due to the movement of the glenohumeral joint and the shoulder girdle. The fitness professional must be able to differentiate these motions to properly load the joints and the muscles in an exercise.

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