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The Apley Scratch Test (aka zipper test, or Back Scratch Test) involves trying to touch your middle fingers behind your back, with one arm reaching back over the shoulder and the other reaching up from behind. How can I increase shoulder mobility (most likely scapular mobility) to be able to do this? What specific shoulder function is it testing?

I can do it with my right arm, but not my left. Is it possibly a natural shoulder-blade alignment difference from being right-handed?

Edit: Here is a video of me attempting the test. Even through my back hair, you can see my left shoulder blade moves differently right from the start. I believe this is a muscle issue because a muscle activation therapist massaged various muscles and I was able to touch my fingers on the left just as well as on the right... but only during that one session. I have not been able to achieve it with self-massage. Which muscle could be responsible for the difference?

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    Unless you have a very specific reason to target this test, I would focus the attention on shoulder mobility as a whole instead of on just one single measurement of it. – Moses Dec 27 '14 at 1:20
  • I discovered this test as part of my general interest in shoulder mobility. I do scapular push-ups, face pulls, infraspinatus drills, front squat shrugs, scapular and serratus wall slides, and more -- and none of those muscles seem to be involved in the weird winging motion this stretch requires. Also, it's considered important enough to be in the GALS screen, so I'm curious. – Noumenon Dec 27 '14 at 6:51
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    What's your source? Everything I can find on the GALS screen doesn't include this test. However, safe swimming stretches will help with shoulder mobility. usmsswimmer.com/201001/swimmer_stretching.pdf – JohnP Dec 29 '14 at 16:34
  • It may help that apparently the two parts of this, reaching up and over the shoulder, and up from above, are often considered to be part of the Apley Scratch Test, although what I've found so far doesn't have people doing them at the same time. – Sean Duggan Dec 29 '14 at 19:43
  • @JohnP You're right about the GALS screen, sorry. That's a great warm-up stretching link, thanks. – Noumenon Dec 30 '14 at 6:09
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I remember training myself to get a better extension on this when I was learning yoga as a child. The simplest way to train for it is to practice it. If you are able to link your hands, either with a hand clasp or with your fingertips, you can gently increase tension that way. If you are not yet flexible enough, dangle a scarf from the upper hand and catch hold of it with the lower hand. As with any stretch, apply enough tension as to feel the stretch, but not so much that you injure yourself.

You can also individually train either arm from either position, getting it into general position and then using the other hand to gently push up or down at the elbow to get it more into position. As before, be careful to not apply too much pressure. Shoulders can be a amazingly fragile.

On a side note, the book I learned the stretch from identified it as the "cow pose". That's generally used for something entirely different, the counter-position to the Cat Pose, but it does exist under the name of the Cow Face pose.

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  • This used to be a common swimmer stretch, and is now contraindicated because of injury and overstretching. – JohnP Dec 29 '14 at 16:34
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    Ah. I take it the reason for the downvote is not for my answer then, but rather over a dislike for the stretch. – Sean Duggan Dec 29 '14 at 17:36
  • You're recommending a stretch that is known to produce injury and unstable joints. – JohnP Dec 29 '14 at 18:53
  • JohnP, can you provide a source for that? What I've found so far is that this is still in use by physical therapists around the world as part of the Apley Scratch test. Admittedly, separately rather than both at once, but I've yet to find any indication that it was contraindicated. In terms of use for the stretch, I've personally reaped the benefit over the years of being able to apply soap and sunscreen to my entire back when by myself. :) Small thing, but handy. – Sean Duggan Dec 29 '14 at 19:46
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    I suppose it depends on your source. When looking it up via Google, they seem to alternate between "touch the scapula on the other side" to "reach down as far as you can", with the inferior Apley Scratch test all having the patient reach "as high as they can". I think we may just be coming at this from different ends. I will concede that at least one person has the stretch contraindicated for swimmers, but I'll counter with the number of physical therapists using it as a test with results of fingers overlapping considered to be the "good" result. – Sean Duggan Dec 29 '14 at 20:33

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