Whenever I teach a class, I will invariably be asked one of these three questions:
What I can do to fix my rounded shoulders?
Why are my shoulders so tense?
And what can I do about my stiff neck?
These are great questions, which deserve a more in-depth answer than I am usually able to offer in class. So today I’m going to address both some causes and potential solutions to “rounded shoulders” and neck and shoulder tension, which may have the same root cause.
Also, FYI I created a 2 part video series and a written explanation. It’s the same content, so feel free to read OR watch the videos. Note, you’ll have to scroll a bit to get to each video.
First, what causes rounded shoulders and (for some people) subsequent neck or shoulder tension?
When we talk about shoulder alignment, we often think of just the arms and shoulder blades.
However, your shoulders sit on top of your ribs, which means if your rib cage is in a funny position, then your shoulders will be too.
So before I even go into the shoulders, let’s talk about the ribs.
Most of us are really stiff in our upper backs and ribs, because we sit a lot and you’re only going to be flexible/mobile in the positions you use. This doesn’t mean that sitting is bad, but it can make you kind of stiff. The end result is that you will often end up standing with a rib flare, which may be coupled with rounded shoulders and some neck tension. For more specifics on why, scroll down to watch the video embedded in this post.
What causes stiff ribs and in turn rounded shoulders?
A rib flares doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have pain or that there is anything wrong with you or your posture. However, if you want to address it, you want to consider the limitations in mobility that may result in this posture.
The common cue I hear to fix this is pull your ribs down. However, I’m personally not a fan of this, because it actually reinforces rib stiffness for a lot of people and and can be really uncomfortable. For some people, it even INCREASES neck and shoulder discomfort!
A better approach? Mobilize the upper back and ribs by practicing exercises upper back rotation, side bending, and extension.
How to improve upper back mobility
There are a lot of opinions on this, but I’m going to share a strategy with you that has worked really well for my clients and myself.
I like to address upper back extension in a four steps. For a video tutorial of the exercises outlined below, fast forward to minute 4 of this video.
Step 1: mobilize the upper back with rotation.
If you have limited mobility in one plane of motion (thoracic extension), moving the stuck area through other planes of motion will improve mobility in the most restricted plane.
So if you can’t extend well in your upper back, creating upper back rotation can help.
Enter book openers. I share this move all the time, but it’s because it’s gentle, super effective and it feels really good.
- Lie on your side with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your hands stacked on top of one another.
- Take your top arm towards the ceiling, so your hand is in line with your shoulders.
- Slowly rotate your ribs back, letting the arm follow. Let your gaze follow your arm. As you do this make sure your arm does not fall behind your shoulder.
- Check that your hips have stayed stacked forward and have not fallen back with your ribs. Breathe into the stretch for 2-3 focused breaths and return to start.
- Perform 4-6 reps and repeat second side.
Step 2: Create passive upper back extension.
Once I’ve done some rotation, I now have a running start to accessing better upper back extension.
However, before I go into active motions, I want to let my body find that feeling of extension in a passive way.
Enter one of my favorite passive upper back openers. Now, there is a trick to this one. I see lots of people try this with big props, but what you really want is just a small lift of maybe 2 or 3 inches.
This is because you’re trying to access range in the stickiest spots. If you start with too high of a prop, then you risk bypassing the upper back and overextending in the lower back, which is where most of us are already a little too mobile.
Upper back stretch
- Roll up a yoga mat or a large towel. Place it behind the bottom third of your shoulder blades, so your spine and the prop make a “T.”
- Extend back over the prop and allow your arms to lie overhead or by your sides in a passive position, where your shoulders feel comfortable. Maintain a slight pelvic tuck or imprint of the low back into the ground.
- Check that your neck only has a slight extension. If you feel like your chin is jutting up towards the ceiling or you experience neck tension, place a small pillow under your head.
- Stay and breathe in this position for 1 to 2 minutes.
Note: If that is well tolerated and you don’t experience any pain after the first several tries, then you can work your way up to holding this stretch for up to 3 to 5 minutes. However, remember that less is more.
Step 3: Move from passive upper back extension to flexion in the lower ribs.
Once I’ve created that feeling of extension in a passive way, I want to start training my abdominal and back muscles to find control in that range.
I do this through rib curling over a ball or a roller from a slight extension to “neutral” (e.g. no flexing in through the upper chest and neck).
This allows me to find the extension with gravity AND the abdominal control to bring my lower ribs forward over my pelvis without compromising the position of the neck and upper spine.
- Place a small exercise ball (I like the slomo or bender ball) or roller at the bottom tips of your shoulder blades.
- With your hands behind your head and elbows fairly wide, slowly curl the head neck and shoulders forward being mindful that you aren’t jutting your chin or tugging on your head.
- While in this forward position, gentle tuck your pelvis under so your pubic bone moves towards your ribs and let your head be heavy in your hands.
- Start to extend back on the ball. Pause before your ribs pop open towards the ceiling or your low back or neck go into a big arch (or extension).
- Focusing on keeping the top half of your body still, shorten the distance between your ribs and your hips by curling forward. Check that your head stays heavy in your hands and your elbows stay a little bit wide. Perform 8-10 times.
Step 4: Perform active upper back extension.
Active upper back extension is really hard for a lot of us.
It’s why exercises like yoga cobra and the Pilates swan induce low back pain. Many of us don’t have enough upper back extension to perform these moves without overextending from the lower back.
I’ve made this the last exercise in the rib mobility series, because if you’ve done the other 3 exercises, by the time you get to this move, you have a much better chance of doing this exercise well.
The variation I’m giving today is with a small pillow under the abdomen. This helps most people find and feel the stability in their low back, so they can better find upper back extension.
- Lie on your stomach on the mat, with a small pillow or folded towel under your abdomen and your forearms planted by your sides.
- Set your shoulders by gently rolling your shoulders back and letting them relax, your collar bones smile open and tuck your pelvis, so your pubic bone pushes gently towards the floor.
- Slowly lift your head, so your gaze is just past your fingertips and your head is in line with your upper spine.
- Slide your breastbone forward as your start to lift your chest off the ground.
- Stop just before your bottom ribs leave the mat. Make sure that your chin is slightly lifted, so you have a gentle extension through your neck. You should feel the work primarily in your upper spine and there should be an absence of tension in the neck and low back. Perform 6 to 8 times.
Now just for fun, stand up and notice if you feel a little more upright or if your shoulders feel a little more open and notice we haven’t even addressed the shoulders yet.
But what about the shoulders? Don’t they get some love?!?
Of course. See my tips for strengthening your shoulders and reinforcing good posture below.
How to fix rounded shoulders and reduce neck and shoulder discomfort
I’ll spare you the anatomy lesson, but shoulder stability can do a lot to reduce neck and shoulder discomfort while causing your shoulders to appear less rounded. You can watch the video below for a tutorial or read the full descriptions underneath it!
Also, while I totally get wanting to change your posture, just know that it’s not bad to have rounded shoulders. Odds are you shoulders are fine! However, we can all benefit from shoulder stability and strength work.
Step 1: Activate your rotator cuff to help with shoulder positioning
The rotator cuff is responsible for holding your arm in its socket and it does a few actions. Here are two simple exercises that you can try to strengthen it!
Screw in the Light Bulb
- Find a comfortable sitting or standing position and be mindful that your ribs are settling over your pelvis.
- Start to rotate your arms in and out as your bring your arms overhead.
- Continue the same rotational motions as you bring your hands back down by your sides. Perform 6 to 8 sets.
- Tie a light resistance band to a doorknob, pole or heavy piece of furniture. Stand with your left shoulder facing the anchor point and hold the band in your left hand.
- To set your shoulder position, roll your shoulder up and back, so the shoulder blade floats and the front of the shoulder is open. Bend your elbow by your side, so your elbow is in line with the hip or slightly in front of the hip.
- Without moving your shoulder blade, internally rotate your arm, so your hand moves towards your stomach. You should feel a gentle activation deep in the shoulder, but no work in the neck or the front of the shoulder. The front of the chest should stay open and the elbow should stay close to the side, but should not press into the hip.
- Return to starting position. Perform 10-15 reps.
Step 2: Train your shoulder blades to move with control, because this can help your neck and shoulders feel less achey!
Other things that this can help with is winging of the shoulder blades. 😉
Here are 2 exercises to target the serratus for stability and upward rotation.
- Come onto all fours, with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
- Set your shoulders by lengthening from tail to head and feeling the collarbones widen (i.e. no shrugging).
- Keeping your spine long, drop your chest towards the floor, so your shoulder blades come closer together.
- Return to the starting position, by pushing through your arms to activate the muscles alongside of your shoulder blades. Perform 8 times.
Overhead Reach with Band
- Start standing about 8 inches away from a wall with palms facing in. Pinkie fingers and wrists should gently be touching the wall. Elbows will be not be touching the wall.
- Slowly straighten elbows so the slide hands up the wall. Notice how the shoulder blades will upwardly rotate or glide up and out along the rib cage. Let this happen!
- Bend elbows to slide hands back down the wall, so you return to the starting position. Perform 8 times.
Step 3: Strengthen the mid and lower traps, because they are also important for being able to control how our shoulders move.
Also the mid and lower traps help our shoulders sit in a more balance position, so there’s that is posture is an area of interest for you. Here’s a simple exercise for that.
Mid Trap Activation
- Lie on your stomach with a rolled up hand towel underneath your forehead, so your head is in line with your spine. There should be no neck tension.
- Gently place your hands behind your head.
- Without squeezing the shoulder blades together, gently lift your elbows towards the ceiling, so you feel a gentle retraction of the shoulder blades.
- Slowly lower your elbows to the ground. Perform 8 to 10 reps. After a few reps, you should start to feel the muscles between your shoulder blades fire.
Shoulders are complicated, but the exercises to take care of them don’t have to be. Ultimately, having rounded shoulders or flared ribs isn’t dangerous and doesn’t necessarily mean you will have pain. However, should you want to address these things, working on your upper back mobility and shoulder stability and strength can help!