By Til Luchau
[Myofascial Techniques]

The arm needs to move. Reaching, lifting, pulling; hanging, swinging, pushing
—the motions of daily life depend on a mobile shoulder. In this first of two articles,
we’ll discuss ways to assess and restore lost motion to the glenohumeral joint, using techniques taught in’s Advanced Myofascial
Techniques seminars. 

In order to get the mobility the shoulder needs, the boney socket of the shoulder joint (the glenohumeral fossa) is quite shallow. Instead of relying on a deep socket like the acetabulum of the hip, the shoulder gets stability from the soft tissues around the joint—the joint capsule and ligaments (Image 1), as well as the muscles of the rotator cuff (which we’ll talk about in the next article). These soft- tissue structures allow the necessary balance of stability and movement, yet are vulnerable to injuries and strain, which can cause these structures to restrict movement instead of allowing and supporting it.

Glenohumeral abduction, or bringing the arm out to the side, is often the first movement to show inhibition when the soft tissues of the shoulder joint have lost mobility. Often, when abduction has been lost, it is linked to a loss of inferior glenohumeral glide.


Try this: raise your arm out to the side, while you use your other hand to feel what happens at greater tuberosity of the humerus, the most lateral boney protuberance of the shoulder. In a healthy shoulder, you’ll feel this boney prominence drop out from under your touch (move inferiorly) as the arm starts to abduct (Image 2). This is because the head of the humerus glides inferiorly in the glenohumeral joint as the arm abducts. This inferior motion will be most apparent upon the initiation of arm movement—just check the first inch or two of movement. 

There is a long list of possible causes of lost inferior glide—shortness or restriction in the deltoid, supraspinatus, or joint capsule; injury, inflammation, impingement, or adherence of ligaments, bursa, labrum, or capsule membranes. These most often relate to injuries, posture, and strain, although sometimes there is no apparent primary cause for a loss of shoulder movement and glide. Whether the cause can be easily determined or not, when inferior humeral glide is lost, the humerus rolls upward in the joint instead of dropping downward. This rolling up causes the greater humeral tuberosity to run into the boney acromion or its ligaments, causing discomfort or pain and keeping the arm from raising any higher.1

It is easiest to assess inferior glide of the humerus with your client sitting up straight on the front edge of a seat. Standing at your client’s side, use your thumb to feel for the dropping of the humeral tuberosity with active or passive abduction, as described above. Compare the left and right sides—a side-to-side difference is often more significant than the amount of glide. You will find that a lack of glide on one side frequently corresponds to a loss of abduction and/or glenohumeral pain.

Inferior glide Technique

If you find reduced inferior glide, more often than not you can restore range of motion by simply encouraging the head of the humerus to drop when the elbow comes out. Use the flat part of your ulna, just in front of (distal to) the point of your elbow, to gently lean on the humerus (Image 3). Without moving your ulna (no sliding, rocking, grinding, etc.), wait for the humerus to respond. Eventually, you’ll feel it drop slightly in the joint. Move the arm to another position, farther forward or back, and repeat—waiting in each place as you feel for the humerus to glide inferiorly. Make sure your pressure doesn’t cause discomfort here or elsewhere. Monitor your client’s seated position during the work as well: make sure the spine is easy and erect and the shoulders are square, so that your gentle downward pressure doesn’t collapse the seated posture or cause discomfort. 

Quite often, this simple technique tangibly improves shoulder range of motion and restores the movement options needed for the change to be sustainable. Other times, additional work (such as the following Glenohumeral Capsule Technique) is required. 


If shoulder motion is still restricted after performing the Inferior Glide Technique, the Glenohumeral Capsule Technique can help you get more specific. 

With your client side-lying, raise his or her elbow toward the ceiling (passive abduction). While supporting the arm in this abducted position, gently move the forearm around a bit, looking for a position where the humerus balances vertically above the glenohumeral joint (Image 4). When you find this balanced position, you can easily use one hand to passively “swivel” (rotate) and “stir” (circumduct) the humerus at the glenohumeral joint.

While moving the arm at the glenohumeral joint, use the fingers and thumb of your other hand to feel around the articulation of the humeral head and the glenoid fossa. With the humerus passively “swiveling” here, you’ll be able to feel any restrictions in the soft tissues crossing the joint: the rotator cuff muscles and tendons, the long biceps tendon, as well as ligaments and tissues of the joint capsule itself (Image 5). At their proximal attachments, these ligaments and capsule membranes blend with the outer edges of the labrum, the fibrocartilaginous rim that deepens the glenoid fossa. That makes this a useful technique for clients who have been diagnosed with labral tears or who still have symptoms after labral surgery (once an adequate time has passed for recovery from the surgery itself, of course). 

Your finger pressure is firm but sensitive, hunting all around the joint for thickened, hardened, or immobile tissues, and using your finger pressure, in combination with movement of the humerus, to release these areas. In addition to passive movement, you can also use your client’s gentle active motions to release any restrictions found.

Hint: be sure to keep your client truly on his or her side—not rolling partly forward or backward. This makes it easier to find the vertical balance point you need and avoids working the shoulder girdle in a protracted or retracted position.

Of course, other factors can contribute to shoulder immobility; for instance, the muscles of the rotator cuff. In the next article, I’ll discuss ways you can assess and work with those important shoulder structures, as well. 


 Til Luchau ( is a lead instructor at Inc., which offers continuing education DVDs and seminars throughout the United States and abroad. He is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and a Rolf Institute faculty member.


1. Frozen shoulder is used informally to describe a movement restriction of the glenohumeral joint, often with pain. I generally don’t use the term in my practice—from a body-image perspective, frozen probably isn’t a particularly constructive metaphor. In physical medicine, frozen shoulder is sometimes a less-preferred synonym for adhesive capsulitis, a specific condition of overall decrease in shoulder range of motion, linked to surgical findings of adherence of the capsule to the humeral head.