Upper back and neck pain and the ’’upper crossed syndrome’’ are major problems for so many people in the age of digitalization and smart phones. We spend an enormous amount of time sitting down working or studying hunched over our desks and even when we’re not working, we’re always looking down at our smart phones. As a result, we spend most of our days enabling bad posture that causes a vast set of symptoms. Our shoulders rotate internally, our head moves forward and chin goes up. In addition to the unflattering posture this causes, other problems include headaches, problems in eyesight, sore arms and the sensation of tingling, shoulder pain, tiredness and even jaw tightness that can lead to malocclusions and even more headaches. Pretty significant, huh?
Our shoulder is a complex joint consisting of several muscles and bones as well as the ligaments and tendons that hold all of them together. The range of motion in the shoulder is almost unlimited and partially because of this, shoulder injuries and pain is extremely common as it is very easy to move our shoulders incorrectly. Bad upper body posture can increase the likelihood of this, building up to the point where the rotator cuff can get ’’pinched’’ against a bony shelf called the acromion. Eventually this poor movement can increase the risk of tendonitis and tendinosis. While this posture deformity is a common and awkward problem that can even become debilitating over time, it is actually pretty easy to fix with a couple simple stretches and exercises in four steps.
The first step is to identify where the root cause is located. You might be thinking that it’s just your shoulders when actually it all begins in your upper spine, the thoracic spine. Stretching this area of your back will make you feel taller and open up your entire back enabling you to follow through with the following steps to fixing your posture. Even if your posture is fine to begin with, this stretch is useful for maintaining that posture. If you are experiencing notable back pain, I recommend seeing a doctor or a physiotherapist before beginning any spine stretching routine.
THE ROLLING SPINE AND BELLY BUTTON DIP
To roll your spine up and stretch the thoracic area, get onto the floor on your hands and knees. Look down at the floor and slowly pull your abdominals in and up, rolling your spine one vertebrae at a time. Release back to the starting point and repeat. The belly-button-dip begins in the same position as the rolling spine. This time, dip your belly button down toward the floor. Feel it move one vertebrae at a time, then raise back to the starting position. I alternate between these two, starting with the roll and going on to the dip after I come back down to the starting position. These stretches will mobilize your thoracic spine and develop your muscle- mind coordination. This will help you identify more accurately what position your back is in and therefore, help you ’’reset’’ your posture.
The second step is to stretch the tight, overdeveloped chest muscles that are pulling your shoulders forward and in. As these muscles become overdeveloped compared to their antagonists in the upper and mid back, a muscle imbalance is created leading to the classic hunch back and rounded shoulders. These tight muscles include the minor pectoralis and subscapularis muscles. Here’s three of my regular stretches to release these muscles and help re-balance the imbalanced muscles. I recommend doing these three (you can also google more since there are tons of them out there) at least a couple times every day.
THE SINGLE ARM CHEST OPENER
Find a doorway and grab onto it with one hand at shoulder height. Step away from the doorway so that your arm is straight. Rotate your hips until you feel the stretch across your chest. Rotate your arm so that the pit of the elbow is facing up. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Repeat for the other arm.
ROTATOR CUFF STRETCH
Stand in the middle of the doorway and place your hands on either side. Turn your elbows behind your back and step forward so that you feel the stretch deep in your shoulders.
Raise your arm to your side with your elbow in a 90 degree angle. Externally rotate your arm so that your forearm now points upwards and behind you. Hook your arm on shoulder height on the doorway and take a step forward until you feel a slight stretch. Rotate your upper body away from the doorway and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat for both arms.
Now that we’ve completed steps one and two, we can now look at the third step in which we’re going to target the muscles involved in shoulder extension (the opposite of internal rotation that rounds the shoulders). These muscles include the rhomboid, trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles. It’s more beneficial to focus on this entire group rather than just one or two of them. These muscles are underdeveloped and require strengthening to even out the imbalance causing the posture deformity.
Lie down on your stomach with your arms to your sides. Reach with your fingers to your toes as you lift your chest and legs off the floor. Remember to keep your core muscles engaged to prevent too much arching of the back. As you raise your arms off the ground, rotate your shoulders externally to pinch your shoulders together and really hit the rhomboids. The key to making this exercise more efficient is to hold the elevated position for a couple of seconds so that you make sure the muscles are really doing the work.
Stand up with your back flat against a wall. Make sure that you chin is tucked in and your whole back is as flat against the wall as possible. Hold your arms to your sides at a 90 degree angle. Raise your arms up from there, sliding against the wall. You could also just hold the beginning posture for 45-60 seconds as this one is actually a lot harder than you might think.
PULL APART WITH RESISTANCE BAND
If you don’t have a resistance band and suffer from your bad upper back and shoulder posture, I really recommend that you get one even if you only do this one exercise with it. Grab the band with both hands, with the thumbs pointing up and raise your arms straight in front of you. Begin to pull your arms apart to your sides. As you do this, rotate your arms so that your thumbs point behind you at the end position. Do this exercise slowly and hold the end position for a couple seconds. Be very careful that you do not shrug and you do hold a correct posture while doing this exercise in order to get the benefits.
Now for the fourth and final step. This is the hardest part of this entire routine. The fourth and most important thing is to change your habits. We get into the habit of hunching over our desks and not using our muscles correctly. This habit leads to some muscles actually becoming weak and stretched and others becoming tight and overdeveloped. First and foremost, you’ll need to check your work station. Raise your computer screen as close to eye level as possible. Adjust your chair and table height and scootch your chair closer to the table so that you don’t have to lean forward to reach your keyboard. Set a tennis ball between your shoulder blades and your chair. As soon as the ball falls down, you’ll instantly notice that you’re slouching. These stretches and exercises are so convenient and quick that I recommend getting up from your chair every 60 minutes and do a set of wall slides and chest openers. It’ll make all the difference and you’ll feel fresh to continue working. Get into the habit of actually doing all or at least some of these exercises regularly. If you do these exercises every single day, you’ll get the best results but even 3-4 times a week will definitely do the trick and help you find a better, more healthy posture. You will be surprised by the benefits you’ll get!
And there you have it, four easy steps to fixing a rounded back and nerd neck! Believe me, these steps do work and I guarantee your back is going to thank you.