How’s your posture? Are your shoulders properly aligned with the rest of your body or are they rounded and pushed forward? If you said the latter, you’ve suffered from hunched shoulders, one of the most common postural alignment problems. It’s a problem that’s epidemic, thanks to too much sitting and standing in a slouched position.
How many times do you bend your head down to look at your smartphone? Every time you do this, your shoulders fall forward and it places added stress on your upper back and neck. Do it enough and it becomes an ingrained habit that you do unconsciously and then wonder why your neck hurts. Look around and you’ll see it’s a silent epidemic. We are truly a hunched-over society.
How do you identify shoulders that are hunched or rounded? It’s easiest to see when you look at someone from the side. Rounded shoulders are not only unattractive, but they also place added stress on your back and neck and can lead to chronic pain issues, including neck pain, upper back pain, and headaches. When you constantly let your shoulders fall forward, whether you’re sitting or standing, your upper back falls forward, your chest muscles tighten, and your shoulders internally rotate.
How Do You Know if You Have Rounded or Hunched Shoulders?
A simple test for this common alignment problem is to stand up straight and let your arms fall naturally at your side. Which way are your palms facing in this position? Normally, they should be facing inward towards your body. If they’re pointing behind you, it’s likely you have rounded shoulders.
Now that you know you have them, how did you correct the problem? As mentioned, sitting in a hunched position with your shoulders falling forward reinforces this abnormal posture. Muscle imbalances are also a factor. If you’re hunched, some of the muscles in the front of your body, particularly your anterior deltoids, upper trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and pectoralis muscles are too tight. As a result, they’re pulling your shoulders forward. In turn, the opposing muscles that keep your shoulders in proper alignment are weak. These include the posterior deltoids, mid and lower trapezius, rotator cuff muscles, and rhomboids.
To tackle the problem, we have to correct the muscle imbalance. One way to do this is to stretch the tight muscles that are pulling your shoulders forward, the pectoralis muscles, upper trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and anterior deltoids and strengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders back. First, let’s look at how to relax the tight muscles that pull your shoulders too far forward.
A Simple Stretch to Help Correct Chest Tightness Due to Hunched Shoulders
Here’s one of the easiest ways to relax tight chest muscles arising from hunched shoulders. Stand inside a doorway. Place the palm of each hand on the frame of the door on either side. Now, gently let your body fall forward as you hold your palms against the frame until you feel the stretch. Hold for 20 seconds and relax. The beauty of this exercise is you can do it anytime that you have access to a doorway. It’s an easy stretch you can do throughout the day when you take a break.
Strengthen the Weak Muscles
Now that you know how to stretch and lengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders forward, let’s work on strengthening the muscles that help pull your shoulders back. For this, you need to strengthen the muscles in your upper back and the back of your shoulders.
One of the best exercises for doing this is the bent-over row. Bent-over rows are effective because they strengthen the middle trapezius, and rhomboids, muscles that help pull your shoulders back. Another effective exercise that strengthens these muscles are inverted rows with wide elbows. Be sure you’re pulling up using your back muscles rather than leading with your hips.
Another effective exercise “anti-hunch” exercise to add to your arsenal is bent-over reverse dumbbell flies. This exercise targets the muscles in the upper back, like the upper trapezius and posterior deltoids, that help pull your shoulders back.
Strengthening your scapular retractors helps rebalance your shoulders and keep them from falling forward as well. If you have an elastic band, there’s a simple exercise you can do to strengthen the muscles that retract your scapula. In a standing position, loop the band around a secure object and hold onto each side with your hands. Position the band somewhere around the midline of your body. With your elbows bent to 90 degrees, pull on each side of the band as you try to bring your shoulder blades together. Hold this position for a few seconds and then relax. Complete 8 repetitions and 3 sets total.
Other exercises that strengthen the muscles that keep your shoulders in alignment are inverted rows and chin-ups. If you can’t manage chin-ups, lateral pull-downs are a good substitute. Make sure you’re including these exercises in your routine.
Finally, watch your posture when you’re using mobile and desktop technology. Hold your smartphone at eye level rather than letting your head and shoulders fall forward. Place laptops and iPads on a stack of books or another device that keeps them at eye level.
Other Problems You See with Hunched Shoulders
Hunched shoulders are typically not an isolated problem. The same behaviors that reinforce rounded shoulders, including leaning the head forward and sitting too much, also cause other muscle imbalances that lead to posture problems. The two most common are text neck and anterior pelvic tilt. Text neck is caused by leaning the head forward and down to look at a smartphone or other device for long periods.
It’s easy to see how the two go together. Anterior pelvic tilt comes from an imbalance between the hip flexors and hip extensors and is usually caused by prolonged sitting. What happens is the hip flexors shorten and the hip extensors lengthen and become weaker. Correcting these problems is a subject for another post but be aware that if you have hunched shoulders you may very well have other postural problems as well.
The Bottom Line
Have someone you know and trust evaluate your posture and see if you’re suffering from hunched shoulders. Identifying the problem is the first step. Then change your workstation so you’re sitting upright and not bending your head down. Then, work on stretching the tight muscles and strengthening the weak ones. Your back and neck will thank you!
Medical News Today. “Rounded shoulders: Ways to fix ‘mom posture’”
Fix-Knee-Pain.com. “The 3 Steps to Fix Rounded Shoulders & Computer Posture Through Exercise”
J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Oct; 28(10): 2929–2932.
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