5 Yoga Poses For Shoulder Strength And Flexibility

Each month, yoga coach Gwen Lawrence shows us five yoga poses designed to keep athletes in the game. To start the spring off right, she's putting the focus on perfect yoga poses to strengthen and stretch the shoulders.

When people think of shoulder workouts, it's often presses and pull-ups that strengthen the front of the shoulder. But it's a three-dimensional joint that requires more attention than that.

Most sports wreak havoc on the shoulders, wearing and overusing the joint leaving it sore and tight. From receivers to outfielders to swimmers, though, sustaining full range of shoulder motion through strength and flexibility is key to their athletic success.

Here are some poses to help make the whole shoulder area more supple and strong in all directions. (As always, consult a doctor before you begin any new exercise program.)

Happy Cow Arms

Gwen Lawrence

Not a traditional favorite among my athletes, but this pose will do double duty. It opens the bottom arm and shoulder as well as strengthens the small spinal muscles. You can do it standing or sitting.

Keys to the pose

* Reach your right arm up to the sky, holding a strap in your right hand.

* Bend the right elbow and pat yourself on the back.

* Bring the left arm down by your side, bend the left elbow and climb the left hand as close to the right on the strap as you can. Hold and breathe. (One day you won't need the strap and you'll be able to grab hands or wrists, as in the photo above.) Repeat on the other side.

* Hold each side for at least two minutes, focusing on relaxing the tight areas of the shoulder.

* A cool variation is to do this lying down and lying on the arms so your body holds you in the position.

Plank

Courtesy of Gwen Lawrence

The yoga staple is essentially being at the top of a push-up and strengthens the shoulder joint while working the chest and abs, too.

Keys to the pose

* Starting on your hands and knees, make sure your wrists are under your shoulders and your wrists are at a 90-degree angle.

* Tuck the toes under and straighten the knees, lifting them off the ground.

* Push the floor with your hands and hold the abs tight, keeping your body in one line. No sagging hips or lifted hips.

* The key to this is to hold it for one to two minutes, building strength through the static hold.

Face-Up Shoulder Stretch

Gwen Lawrence

I love to use this pose on all athletes because it is localized to the front of the shoulder in the exact area where poor posture tends to show its face. It undoes slouch shoulders.

Keys to the pose

* Starting on your back with your knees bent and feet flat, slowly bend the right elbow so it forms a Figure 4 to the body.

* Your right hand should be under the small of your back, palm FLAT on the floor, fingers extended.

* Carefully, start to drop your bent knees towards the right until you feel resistance. Keep working, and one day your shoulder blade will be flat on the floor.

* To increase the stretch, draw the knees in to more of a fetal position. Repeat on the other side.

* Hold for two to four minutes on each side, breathing into the tight spots.

* Make sure you are in a safe spot where nobody will push you into this pose. In this contorted position you will not have enough momentum to go to deep but the shoulder joint is shallow so even the slightest push from another person or pet could hurt.

Inverted table

Gwen Lawrence

While plank will take care of the front of the shoulder, inverted table will work on balancing that by reinforcing the back of the shoulder. Both poses will open the wrists, too.

Keys to the pose

* Start in a seated position with your knees bent and feet flat.

* Roll your shoulders up and back down, squeezing your shoulder blades together behind you.

* Lean back and place your hands flat on the floor behind you, hands flat, fingers spread.

* Plug the whole hand into the floor, press the whole foot into the floor and start to lift your hips as high as you can, eventually as high as your shoulders.

* If you feel comfortable, drop your head back.

* Hold this pose one to two minutes each time, pushing the floor away and positioning your arms so the wrists are right under the shoulder joint.

Downward Dog

Courtesy Gwen Lawrence

Down dog is a basic move in yoga, but it's hugely important for the sound structure and stability of the shoulder joint. It is a great pose to do to tackle the joint from many different angles.

Keys to the pose

* Starting on your hands and knees, set your hands at shoulder-width apart, palms flat and fingers spread with equal space between each finger.

* Tuck your toes under and straighten the legs.

* Look down and make sure your feet are hips-width apart and you are trying to sink the heels as far to the floor as you can. It's not important to force the heels to touch the floor.

* If your hamstrings are tight, bend the knees a little. One day you'll be able to be straighten them without putting pressure on the spine.

* Keep both arms strong and straight, and try to eliminate stress around the neck and top of the shoulders. Gently push the floor away.

* Hold this pose for one to two minutes to really build sound strength and flexibility of the shoulder joint.

Gwen Lawrence owns Power Yoga for Sports and works with athletes in professional basketball, football, baseball, hockey and soccer as well as Olympians and collegiate champions. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @gwenlawrence and at www.gwenlawrence.com.

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