Look around at the folks you work with and the people you see in your daily life. You’ll notice many of them have something in common – rounded shoulders. It’s not a hard problem to recognize. In folks with this problem, the shoulders, neck, and head fall forward creating a hunched over appearance to the back. Not only are rounded shoulders not aesthetically pleasing, but they’re also a set-up for orthopedic problems like neck and upper back pain.
Rounded shoulders are epidemic among office workers and people who sit in front of a computer all day. They come from bending over a desk or keyboard rather than sitting up and maintaining proper alignment. Shoulder rounding also becomes a more common problem with age, although you can have it even when you’re young. In older adults, rounded shoulders and a forward-leaning head increases the risk of falling.
Have you ever watched the average person texting on their iPhone? Notice how their neck and shoulders are hunched over as they type or strain their eyes to read the screen. This is another variation of rounded shoulders, not to mention a precursor to neck pain.
Rounded shoulders and hunched-over posture can even impact how much air you take in when you breathe. When your head falls forward, it compresses your rib cage so your lungs can’t fully expand. If you feel tired after sitting all day, it may partially be because you’re not getting enough oxygen to our brain due to shallow breathing.
Do You Have Rounded Shoulders?
Here’s a self-test you can do to see whether you have rounded shoulders. Stand in front of a mirror facing the glass. Let your arms hang loosely at your sides and notice where your palms naturally point. They should face inward toward your thighs. If your palms are facing outwards, you likely have tight chest muscles, which contribute to rounded shoulders.
As mentioned, tight chest muscles cause your shoulders to fall forwards and places excessive pressure on your upper back. Muscle imbalances between the chest and upper back are a common cause of shoulder rounding, and you further reinforce this problem by hunching over when you sit. Slouching pulls on the muscles in your upper back, causing them to lengthen. The lengthened muscles make the imbalance between your tight chest and stretched back muscles more pronounced.
Think about the strain you place on your cervical spine when you let your head and shoulders fall forward as you sit or stand. You’re placing added pressure on the muscles, ligaments, and fascia that support your spine. Research shows this stress accelerates the degeneration of discs in your cervical spine and can lead to other painful problems like a disc herniation.
Here’s a fact that might surprise you. For every inch your head falls forward over your shoulders, it places an additional 10 pounds of pressure on the muscles, ligaments, and fascia in your cervical spine. Remember, the muscles and ligaments have to work harder to hold your head upright when your head weighs more because it falls too far forward. The added strain on your cervical spine can trigger other problems too – like headaches.
Correcting Rounded Shoulders
If you have the rounded shoulder syndrome, what can you do to correct the problem? Fix the muscular imbalance that’s contributing to the problem – tight pecs and overstretched muscles in your upper back. Strengthen your upper back muscles and stretch your chest muscles to lengthen them.
One exercise you can do to strengthen your upper back that only requires an exercise mat is a cobra. To do this move, lie on an exercise mat with your head facing down. As you contract your glutes, raise your head, chest, and arms off the floor while bringing your shoulder blades together. Hold this position for 15 seconds and repeat several times.
Another effective exercise for strengthening your upper back is bent-over rows, using good form, of course. Seated rows, lat pull-downs, barbell pullovers, and shoulder shrugs are other exercises that specifically target your trapezius and the deeper muscles in your back that stabilize your spine. If you’re doing pec work without equal attention to your traps and deeper upper back muscles, you’re setting yourself up for muscle imbalances. Another exercise, cobra pose, a move performed in yoga classes is also helpful for strengthening your upper back.
Along with strengthening your upper back muscles, stretch your pecs. One way to do this is by doing doorway pec stretches. Here’s how. With your lower arm at a 90-degree angle relative to your upper arm, hold onto a door frame on each side. Step one foot forward while holding onto the frame until you feel the stretch in your shoulders and chest. Hold for 20 seconds and step back to starting position.
Another chest stretch you can do almost anywhere, even at the office, is a sitting chest stretch. Place both hands behind your head with palms facing forward. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you move your elbows closer towards your back. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and release. Do these stretches several times a day to lengthen your chest muscles.
Most people don’t think much about posture enough. As a result, they have problems with their posture, like rounded shoulders, and aren’t aware of it. If you work eight hours a day with your head and shoulders hunched forward, you’re a set-up for orthopedic problems. Focus on maintaining proper alignment when you sit in a chair. Sit in a chair that allows you to place both feet comfortably on the floor. Be aware of your alignment in the chair and when you’re letting your upper body fall forward. Just as importantly, take a break to stand up, walk around, stretch, and readjust your posture every 20 minutes or so throughout the day.
The Bottom Line
Rounded shoulders are one of the most common postural problems and one that can lead to more serious orthopedic issues. Correct those muscle imbalances and be more aware of your posture when you’re sitting or standing.
Spine Journal, 2006; 6:591-694.
Upper Crossed Syndrome and the 42 Pound Head. Eric Dalton Ph.D.
Phys Ther. 2992; 72:425-432.1.
Physical Therapy, 72 (6), 425-31.
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Repositioning Poor Posture”
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