Often times, external rotation is the focus in athletic movements. When the shoulder is externally rotated, it can be packed into the back of the capsule to improve stability and congruence. It also rotates the humerus in a way that the anterior structures of the shoulder have room to move without being pinned between bones. Many of the stretches people gravitate towards for the hip involve external rotation: sitting figure 4 stretch, pigeon, etc.
What is internal rotation and why do I need it?
Internal rotation is one of the movements of a ball and socket joint, such as the shoulder and hip. In the shoulder, it allows you to reach behind your back and pull your wallet from your back pocket or tie your bikini behind your back. More importantly for athletes, it allows you to keep the bar close to the body during Olympic movements and arrive at the bottom of a ring dip safely. Hip internal rotation is needed for athletes for proper biomechanics during any form of a squat or while running. Without full internal rotation, you will likely have a “butt wink” or your low back will slightly round at the bottom of the squat. It is also important for runners to have full internal rotation, coupled with extension, to allow correct biomechanics in the trail leg.
During internal rotation, the ball of the joint (humeral head and femoral head) will glide posteriorly and roll anteriorly. This movement can be restricted with a tight posterior capsule or muscles around the joint. Unfortunately, many people will have issues here due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and desk jobs. As you sit all day, the hip rarely reaches full extension, allowing the posterior capsule to become tight. This in turn decreases the posterior glide and thus decreased internal rotation. The same deal happens at the shoulder when you sit all day at the computer with terrible posture.
Interestingly, hip internal rotation deficits have been correlated with low back and sacroiliac pain. It is better to start improving internal rotation now rather than trying to manage back pain!
How to check internal rotation
It is easiest to accurately check internal rotation of the shoulder with a buddy. Lay on your back, arm straight out to the side and elbow bent (as in the picture below). Your buddy should provide solid but comfortable pressure to the front of your shoulder to avoid it from raising off of the ground. Now move your palm down towards the ground. Ideally, you would be able to get at least a fists-width from the floor! Be sure to check both sides because noting an asymmetry is important. Also, be sure to do this same test after practicing the mobilizations below!
To check hip IR, lay on your stomach and allow your feet to drop out to the side. Again, we are looking for asymmetries and major deficits. Ideally, your leg will move about 40 degrees or roughly halfway down toward the floor.
Mobilizations to Improve Internal Rotation
Below are a few mobilizations for the shoulder and hip to improve internal rotation. They are by no means an exhaustive list but merely a starting point.
Bully stretch- used to mobilize the humerus into the back of the shoulder capsule, which increases internal rotation.
Pec smash- nearly everyone has a tight pec minor due to the poor postures we often keep throughout the day. This muscle is located in the front of the shoulder, so if it’s tight it can easily restrict the posterior glide!
Internal Rotation Stretch- start with your foot flat on the ground and the other leg crossed over. Slowly walk your foot out to the side until you feel a strong but comfortable stretch in the hip. You should feel this in the bottom leg.
Lateral Hip Opener- this does not have to be banded if you do not have access to one, you will still feel a stretch!
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what internal rotation means, how we achieve it and why it is needed. More importantly, I hope these videos give you a good idea of how to begin to manage internal rotation deficits!
At Athletes’ Potential we want to help every athlete remain healthy and meet goals. You don’t have to be in pain to come see us. If you find asymmetries with tests such as these or know you have movement deficits, we can help you with proper movement and self-maintenance. We also have recovery options to further augment your fitness and health. We look forward to hearing from you!
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jackie, PT, DPT
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Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.