Exercising, driving, sitting, reaching, standing, looking at our cell phones — you name it, we round our shoulders doing it.
While some people can train themselves to pull their shoulders back while pretending to squeeze a golf ball between their shoulder blades, the rest of us spend extended periods slouching in front of a computer, with our shoulders forward and down.
Unfortunately, poor posture from rounded shoulders becomes a habit that can trigger everything from neck pain and headaches to lower back strain and poor circulation.
Austin Martinez, MS, CSCS, ATC, director of education for StretchLab, says the rounded shoulder position is often associated with a condition termed “upper crossed syndrome,” which is characterized by tight chest muscles (pectoralis major/minor) and neck/shoulder muscles (levator scapulae).
The good news? With some retraining of your brain and body, a handful of exercises and stretches for rounded shoulders, and a lot of practice, you too can learn how to hold that golf ball (OK, maybe a softball!) between your shoulder blades.
Here are six moves to open up your chest, relax your shoulders, and correct your posture.
Martinez says this stretch targets the trapezius and scalene muscles, which play a role in posture and breathing throughout the neck and shoulders.
- Stand or sit upright in a chair with your shoulders down and back.
- Gently pull your left ear towards your left shoulder to get a stretch in the right side of your neck.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Complete 1–2 sets on each side, holding for 15–30 seconds.
The doorway stretch is a top pick for rounded shoulders, says John Gallucci, Jr., DPT, MS, ATC, physical therapist and CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy. This move opens the chest while gently stretching the shoulders.
- Stand with a doorway about 1 to 2 feet in front of you.
- Bend both your elbows to 90 degrees and raise your arms so your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Place your forearms on either side of the doorway.
- Step forward placing one foot on the other side of the doorway.
- Slowly shift weight onto the front foot until you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold.
- Complete 3 sets for 15–30 seconds each, two to three times a day.
The reverse shoulder stretch is another move that opens up the chest and stretches the shoulders. It’s also a great biceps stretch. It does require shoulder flexibility, so if you feel pain while trying to do this move, shorten the range of motion.
- Stand looking straight ahead, feet shoulder-width apart and arms by your sides.
- Clasp your hands behind your back with thumbs pointing towards the floor.
- Stand tall, open your chest and move your hands back and towards the ceiling. Stop when you feel a stretch in the shoulders and biceps muscles.
- Hold in this position for 20–30 seconds.
- Release the stretch and return hands to the starting position.
- Complete 2 sets, holding 20–30 seconds each, one to two times a day.
The prone I, T, Y exercise helps strengthen the smaller stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and upper back.
- Lie on your stomach, forehead touching the ground, arms straight above your head with your hands in a thumbs-up position.
- Raise your arms as high as you can, pause, and then slowly lower them back down.
- Move arms out into a “Y” position, raise them as high as you can, and then slowly lower them back down.
- Move arms out into a “T” position, raise them as high as you can, and then slowly lower them back down.
- Return to the “I” position and repeat.
- Complete 2 sets of 10 reps, one to two times a day.
The band pull-apart exercise opens up the chest and strengthens the muscles in your upper back and rear shoulders. You’ll need a resistance/exercise band — the level or strength of the band depends on your strength level.
- Stand upright with back straight, feet shoulder-width apart, and knees slightly bent.
- Hold the band with an overhand grip and your arms straight out in front of you.
- Slowly pull your hands apart by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Focus on the squeeze by imagining a small ball between your shoulder blades.
- Slowly return the band to the starting position.
- Complete 2 sets of 10–12 reps, one to two times a day.
Scapular wall slides help
- Stand with your back against a wall, arms at your sides. Make sure your head, upper back, and glutes are in contact with the wall. Your feet will be slightly away from the wall.
- Raise your arms overhead and press them into the wall, palms will face out with knuckles touching the wall.
- Bend the elbows to 90 degrees, while keeping arms against the wall. This is the starting position.
- From this position, slowly slide your arms up the wall as high as you can go without your back, shoulders, elbows, or wrists coming off the wall.
- Pause at the top of the movement.
- Slowly lower your arms by sliding them down the wall to the starting position (elbows bent at 90 degrees). This movement is slow and controlled.
- Complete 2 sets of 10 reps, one to two times a day.
Your first line of defense for correcting rounded shoulders is stretching and strengthening. Beyond that, Gallucci says soft tissue mobilization by a physical therapist can loosen the tight muscles in the chest region, which may occur due to the hunched-over position.
Some people may benefit from a shoulder posture brace that helps to keep your neck and shoulders in the correct position. If you want to go this route, talk to your doctor, or a physical therapist. They can assist in fitting one that works for you.
As long as you’re not experiencing pain or discomfort, Gallucci says you don’t need to avoid specific exercises. What he does recommend is stretching and strengthening.
“Hunched or rounded shoulders are most often experienced due to a muscle imbalance between the chest and shoulder/upper back region,” explains Gallucci.
To correct the imbalance, he says stretching and strengthening should target the chest and upper back, and not specifically one or the other. When performing exercises, make sure that your spine is straight and you’re not hunching over.
Rounded shoulders are a common issue for many people. By following a stretching and strengthening program designed specifically for this issue, you can help correct muscle imbalances and improve posture.
As always, if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort while doing these exercises, stop what you’re doing, and ask a physical therapist or fitness expert to demonstrate these moves with the correct form.