Skin the Cat for Better Shoulder Mobility

There are many exercises in any athletes’ rosters that require good shoulder mobility. Any presses– overhead, bench, dips, push ups, or any variation thereof- as well as any exercises that require a rack position (like front squats or cleans) will need it. Swimmers need it, as do gymnasts, as do Rugby players… the list goes on.

It’s not just athletes, either. Good joint mobility is a marker of physical fitness as sure as any other. Having proper range of motion through our joints helps us to live our lives comfortably, painlessly, and with full physical function.

Because of this, exercises that help us to attain and maintain good shoulder mobility should be celebrated and incorporated into our fitness regimes.

Skin the cat is one of the best shoulder mobility exercises going. It will bring about a significant shoulder stretch through a full range of motion, alongside aiding spinal decompression and giving you a first-class core workout.

Try adding Skin the cat to your next pressing day as a mobility warm up before a heavy lift. Alternatively, use it as a core exercise at the end of your workout, or on your rest days as an active recovery.

Performing Skin the cat

It will help to go into Skin the cat thinking of it as something of a pull up variation, with all of the lat, upper back, core, arm and grip strength that that entails. Indeed, these muscles will all benefit from performing Skin the cat: they will all be strengthened by it.

If you struggle with pull ups, it may be a good idea to work on getting proficient at them before going into Skin the cat to any great degree. This exercise can put a lot of tension into the shoulders and absolute control over your torso will be key in keeping you safe. It may also be a good idea to work on your hanging leg raise proficiency- as you will see, controlled leg raises form a core part of the main movement.

Though it may be muscularly challenging for beginners, Skin the cat is actually fairly simple. In fact, children all over the world do variations on it on climbing frames all the time! You can perform Skin the cat on a climbing frame, of course, or a pull up bar, though rings or TRX cables will be best as you start out as they are far more forgiving on your shoulders’ range of motion.

To perform Skin the cat:

  • Set up your rings above head height.
  • Either jump or climb a box or bench to get into position.
  • Take hold of the rings with a pronated grip, with your arms straight overhead.
  • Brace, breathing deeply and engaging your core. Bring your knees up to your chest, flexing the hips backwards and curl your body upwards towards the ceiling.
  • Tuck your chin into your chest. Roll over, legs overhead, control your descent and straighten your legs.
  • From here, reverse the motion. Curl your legs back to your chest, roll your torso back through your arms and come back down to the starting position. This is one rep.
  • Never force a position if there is pain during or after the movement. This is vital.
  • Repeat for you desired set and rep ranges.

Pro tips

You need a quite astoundingly large range of motion through your shoulders to complete this exercise. Because of this, many people cannot perform complete reps when they first start out- this is completely normal. You can use a few progressions to get yourself there. Try breaking up the movement and running through different pieces in isolation before piecing it together.

For instance, practice simply hanging from the hoops for a few seconds at a time. Then practice bringing your knees up to the top and back down again. Then practice taking them over your head, back, and back again. Your body will get used to the movements and will allow you to relax into them whilst maintaining control.

Make sure that you are confidant with the eccentric portion. Practice it in isolation, as above, if in doubt. This is where your shoulders will be the most open to injury: many of us lack adequate shoulder extension to maintain this position without excessive pressure to the anterior capsule without a little practice and stretching out first.

Use your lats and abs to maintain solid control as you pull yourself through the movement. You cannot simply rely on momentum. Firstly, this could be dangerous, as you can easily snap through a range of motion for which you’re unprepared. Secondly, you will get no benefit to your core strength if you leave the core muscles out!

If you want to open your shoulders out to a broader range of motion, and in so doing create far greater mobility for all your upper body movements, Skin the cat is a very good place to start- though be careful to work through a few progressions first, building up to it. You will also increase your back and core strength and work on your core brace and control.

Simply put, if you want a strong, mobile torso, Skin the cat is for you.

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James Dixon

James Dixon is a fully qualified personal trainer and award winning writer, with a decade’s worth of experience under his belt. Throughout his career, he has helped hundreds of people to meet their dietary and fitness goals, writing exercise and nutrition plans to suit any and every requirement.

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