Rounded shoulders make you look decades older than you are. You’ve probably seen people with them. Guys and gals with this posture problem typically have a head that’s hunched forward in an unnatural manner and their shoulders are in a pronated position. Ideally, you want shoulders that are pulled back enough to stand firm and proud on your frame. Rounded shoulders are unattractive, and they’re linked to muscle imbalances that can lead to injury and chronic pain.
Unsure whether you have rounded shoulders? Here’s a simple test. Stand in front of a mirror with your arms hanging naturally by your sides. Which way are your palms facing? If you have rounded shoulders, your thumbs are likely pointing towards each other and your palms pointing behind you. In contrast, if you have normal shoulder alignment, your thumbs are pointing forward and your palms facing your body when you stand naturally.
How do people end up with rounded shoulders? They’re typically caused by an imbalance between the muscles in the front of the body and the back. Usually, the pectoral, or chest, muscles are too tight, and the muscles in the upper back are weak. But, weakness in two particular muscles is the underlying cause of many cases of rounded shoulders. Unlike the large trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles in your back, these muscles are small in size, and they’re called the rhomboids.
What Are the Rhomboids?
The rhomboids are two small muscles in your upper back that run parallel to each other and lie underneath the larger trapezius muscle. In a minority of people, these muscles are fused together to form one larger muscle. The rhomboids attach to the thoracic portion of your spine and to your shoulder blades. Their primary function is to retract, or pull back, your shoulder blades. When you squeeze your shoulder blades closer together, the rhomboids are doing much of the work. When these muscles are weak and your pectoral muscles in the front of your body are too tight, the imbalance pulls your shoulder forward and causes them to look rounded. The rhomboids also help to elevate the shoulders, as when you do a shoulder shrug.
The Problem of Rounded Shoulders
Forward falling, rounded shoulders are a major problem in modern society. The reason? We’re so addicted to technology that we tilt our heads down much of the time. Your head weighs around 12 pounds, but when you fold your neck down 60 degrees to text, the force your head generates on your neck and upper back is around 60 pounds. Over time, this added burden weakens and stretches the rhomboid muscles so that they no longer pull the shoulders back in the way they should. Being small muscles, the rhomboids are quite prone to being overstretched. Along with contributing to rounded shoulders, weak, stretched rhomboids can cause your chest to look sunken. Needless to say, it’s not a youthful posture or a healthy one.
Even if You Strength Train, You May Have Weak Rhomboids
You might assume that if you work with weights, your rhomboids are strong. Not necessarily. Most strength training exercises aren’t particularly effective at strengthening the rhomboids. That’s because most people do a greater ratio of pushing to pulling exercises and it’s upper body pulling exercises that strengthen the rhomboids. In fact, pushing exercises for the chest, like bench press, strengthen the pectorals rather than the rhomboids. Unless you balance your workout by doing some pulling exercises, you’ll likely end up with tight pecs and weak rhomboids.
Exercises That Strengthen the Rhomboids
One of the best pulling exercises for strengthening the rhomboids is the bent-over row. But, make sure you’re using proper form. When you do the exercise, slow down the tempo and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. If you need to lighten up on the weight, do so. You’re trying to isolate the rhomboids, the very muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together.
Another effective exercise for strengthening the rhomboids is rear deltoid flies. To do this exercise:
· Sit down on a bench with your knees together and feet flat on the floor.
· Pick up a dumbbell in each hand and lean forward at the hips with your arms hanging down to the floor in front of you.
· With the dumbbells in your hands, your palms should be facing each other just above your feet.
· Slowly raise the dumbbells out to your sides until they’re around shoulder height. Bend your elbow slightly if necessary. Exhale on the way up.
· Now, slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position as you inhale.
· Repeat 10 to 12 times.
You can also do this move standing. Start out with a light weight on this exercise. Using a heavy weight too early can lead to a shoulder strain or injury.
Any exercise that requires scapular retraction works the rhomboids to some degree, and these include exercises that work the middle trapezius, like lying rows, incline rows, and bent-over shrugs while holding a barbell or dumbbells. The key is to include these exercises in your routine and do them consistently. Gradually increase the resistance over time. When you do these movements, focus on retracting your shoulder blades and keeping them depressed. When you row, you should feel it in the middle of your back, not your arms.
Stretch Your Pecs
Along with strengthening your rhomboids, stretching your pecs is an effective way to correct the muscle imbalance that leads to rounded shoulders. If your pecs are too tight, they’ll inhibit the activity of the rhomboids and further worsen the imbalance.
A simple chest stretch you can do almost anywhere uses only a towel. To do this stretch:
· Roll up a long towel.
· Stand up straight while holding the rolled-up towel behind your back.
· Slowly raise your arms toward the ceiling behind your body as you hold the towel.
· Hold the position for 20 seconds as you feel the stretch in your chest.
· Repeat 10-12 times.
The Bottom Line
The price we pay for weak rhomboids and rounded shoulders is the potential for future spine problems. Plus, it throws off your alignment in a way that adds years to your frame. So, do pulling exercises for the upper body to balance out the pushing exercises that you do – and be sure to stretch out those pectorals!
J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Oct; 28(10): 2929–2932.
Tufts Medical Center. “Rhomboid Strain or Spasm Exercises”
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