From driving around in the car to sitting in front of a computer for hours and texting on the phone, most of what we do in our modern daily lives seems almost purposefully designed to be awful for our posture. One common result of the slouched position many of us sit in for hours at a stretch is rounded shoulders, which is when your shoulders are naturally stuck in a position that’s in front of your chest. Aside from the postural issues this can cause, it’s also likely to lead to, having rounded shoulders can also cause pain in your upper and lower back.
Good posture relies on and directly affects your back and shoulder muscles. The muscle imbalances caused by rounded shoulders and bad posture can quickly cause your joints and muscles to sit in unnatural positions, which in turn leads to back, neck, and shoulder pain. Getting rid of this pain tends to be more difficult the longer you go with rounded shoulders.
Read through this guide to understand what rounded shoulders are, what causes them, and what muscle groups they can affect. Finally, you’ll find out what shoulder exercises and other methods you can use to fix rounded shoulders once and for all.
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What Are Rounded Shoulders, Exactly?
When you picture a strong or powerful figure, you probably don’t imagine them hunched over or slumping. Unfortunately, for many people who are forced to sit at a desk or behind the wheel of a car for long periods, slouching is exactly what results. It’s likely that you just start slouching slightly to take some pressure off your shoulders or lower back, but if you can’t move to a standing position or change the scenery entirely it’s likely you’ll be slouchingly progressively more as time wears on.
Rounded shoulders are the name we give to a specific kind of bad posture where the shoulder position is engaged forward rather than parallel with the hips as it should be. Don’t think of this as being a Hunchback of Notre Dame situation. Many people have this slight slouch resulting from long periods of time behind a desk or just sitting down in general. It might not even be visible at a glance.
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Negative Effects of Rounded Shoulders
Besides affecting your appearance, round shoulder posture can detrimentally affect your workout routine and the range of motion of your shoulders and back. While we tend to divide the hundreds of muscles in our bodies into smaller groups to make them easier to talk about and target in an exercise routine, they are all interconnected and the upper body is a great example of that.
For example, the posterior chain runs the entire length of the back of the human body. Any kind of movement you make that requires running, jumping, pivoting and any other direction movement uses the posterior chain. But since it runs up through the back muscles and onto the tops of the shoulders, your posterior chain is very easily affected by bad posture and your shoulder position.
Try this experiment: hinge at your waist fairly low and then try to walk normally. Try it again with your knees severely bent and you’ll see that either task is very difficult. It might even require you to brace yourself by placing your hands on your hips or legs. This stereotypical ‘old person’ posture is exactly the result of letting bad posture and inactivity go on for too long. Long periods with rounded shoulders only compound the problem and further restrict your range of motion and ability to move in general.
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What Muscles Are Involved?
Beyond just the posterior chain, many other muscles are affected by rounded shoulders and may also be part of the reason behind rounded shoulders in the first place. It’s important to know what muscles we are dealing with so you can target specific areas of pain with the appropriate stretching and strengthening exercises. Here’s a quick list of the major muscles affecting and affected by rounded shoulders:
Rhomboids are the closest muscles to your shoulder blades, so it should be no surprise that they are involved when it comes to rounded shoulders. You can feel the rhomboid stretching when you lean your head forward and rotate your neck from side to side, especially at either end of that range of motion.
Since rhomboids are located in the upper back just underneath the trapezius muscle, they play a critical role in posture. If you have huge pecs and well-developed chest muscles overall, then your rhomboids will be more engaged because they come into action to move the shoulder blades together.
Your trapezius muscles are postural and they’re also used for the movement of the head, neck, shoulders, and arms. They’re especially important for manipulating the scapula and internally rotating the arms. Trapezius muscles can cause pain in the shoulders and neck if they’re overused, so people who regularly lift heavy objects should take care.
The trapezius is also a great place to target your stretches if you have pain resulting from rounded shoulder posture. There are many simple exercises to loosen tight traps that you can do at your desk or standing up without the need for any other equipment.
The muscles that cover the shoulder joint are called your deltoids and they’re responsible for arm movements away from the body. If you have rounded shoulders, your deltoids are effectively stuck in a painful position. This is especially true for the rear deltoids on the back of the shoulder joint, which you can feel just by mimicking the forward shrug of rounded shoulders.
If you let rounded shoulders go on for too long, notably if it starts from childhood, it can lead to chronic spine curvature and conditions like kyphosis or scoliosis. Luckily, just as with the trapezius muscles, there are some simple exercises you can do to stretch your deltoids. There are also combination exercises that will stretch both simultaneously.
Although they aren’t likely to be the source of any pain or stiffness, your pecs can cause rounded shoulders through a chain reaction if you overwork them at the gym. When you have big chest muscles, it can cause your trapezius and rhomboids to be pushed backward. This is to accommodate the prominence of the pecs.
Chest exercises shouldn’t be ignored as a consequence of this possibility. Rather, you should take care to give your upper back and shoulder muscles a workout as well so that they can support the larger pecs without any issue.
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How to Fix Rounded Shoulders
Simple exercises and stretching are the best ways to correct rounded shoulders. They’re also the best way to build strength in all the key muscles we just mentioned so that you can prevent rounded shoulders from happening in the first place. Physical therapists use them throughout physical therapy regimens but you can also do them at home with a foam roller or at the gym.
There are tons of exercises, but these are the most effective for targeting your pecs, deltoids, trapezius muscles, and rhomboids. Use them as a warm-up or mix them into your existing workout routine to ease pain from rounded shoulders and prevent them in the future.
1. Neck Rolls
A great stretch that you can do at your desk or even when you’re stuck in traffic, neck rolls help loosen the tendons and ligaments in your neck. All you need to do to perform this exercise is let your neck go slack so that your chin is more or less resting on your chest and then slowly swing your head from shoulder to shoulder.
Many people claim neck rolls or neck circles as they’re sometimes called should be abandoned entirely because they put pressure on the spine and could lead to restricted blood flow. However, if you avoid tilting your head back and don’t try to stretch past your range of motion, you can still stretch your trapezius muscle with neck rolls.
2. Clasped Hand Stretch
This is a great move to open up your chest and there are two ways to do it to target slightly different muscles. In the first version, all you need to do to get into the starting position is clasp your hands together behind your back. Extend them out and away from your body and you’ll feel a stretch in your shoulder muscles, notably the deltoids.
In the second version, you can reach your left arm over your left shoulder and put your arm behind your back on the right side. Clasp your hands together mid-back, almost between your shoulder blades. If you find you can’t quite reach your hands together with this method, continue stretching with the first version and your range of motion might improve with time.
3. Standing Passage Stretch
To complete this simple exercise, find a standard-sized doorway and place the palms of your hands on either side of it. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle and you should be about a foot away from the doorway, although the distance will vary depending on the length of your arms.
Step forward into the doorway without letting your hands slide down the wall. Think of this more like a lean forward than a full step, more like what you would do to execute a lunge than a standard stride. You should feel a slight stretch of your shoulder joint and in your chest.
4. Resistance Band Stretch
This is a really simple exercise that you can use as a warm-up or use to fill in the rest intervals of a HIIT workout. All you need to do is take either end of a resistance band in each hand and raise your arms straight out in front of you. An overhand grip works best for this stretch.
Slowly pull on the resistance band with each hand until it won’t stretch any further or you reach the end of your arms’ range of motion. Return to the starting position and repeat. This resistance band move is one of the best chest stretches because it won’t wear you out and you can still open up your shoulders quite a bit if you perform it in the correct position.
5. Scapular Wall Slides
Wall slides are a great morning exercise to wake up your body and make sure your shoulders are loose and ready to go. Stand with your back against a flat wall, making sure you have enough vertical space to lift your hands against the wall to the limit of their range of motion.
With your palms facing out, place both hands against the wall on either side of your head. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Slowly raise both hands as high up as you can without lifting them from the wall. Hold the position once you feel your shoulders stretch and then lower your hands back to the starting position.
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6. Thoracic Tennis Ball Massage
A tennis ball is a surprisingly effective tool for massaging your back and shoulders. You can also roll it with the bottoms of your feet to prevent plantar fasciitis. If you want to stretch out the muscles in your back, simply lie down on the ground on top of a tennis ball. Slide around and the tennis ball will roll underneath you, effectively giving you a targeted massage.
If you want to try using a tennis ball to target your shoulders or neck, don’t roll on the ground as you could injure your neck that way. Rather, simply roll the tennis ball around with your hands, exerting pressure to target the more delicate muscles of your neck and shoulders.
Traditional pull-ups are one of the best shoulder and upper back workouts you can get. If you aren’t able to do pull-ups or can only do a few, lots of the shoulder exercises used to prepare for pull-ups also work to stretch out the muscles in your upper back and shoulders that will help prevent rounded shoulders.
There are many variations of pull-ups but the standard one just requires you to find a sturdy pull-up bar, hold onto it with an overhand grasp, lift your feet to suspend yourself, and then lift yourself by pulling your elbows toward the ground.
Aside from the off-putting appearance of rounded shoulders, they can also impact your range of motion and wreck your posture. It might not seem like such a huge deal, but bad posture can affect the quality of your whole life. If it’s bad enough to ruin your sleep, you can look forward to worse brain function, focus, and mood.
Rounded shoulders can also affect how effective your exercise routine is. It’s difficult to do your deadlifts, push-ups, or shoulder flyes with the correct form if your shoulder blades are out of whack and your arms are positioned strangely as a result. Luckily, rounded shoulder posture can be fixed by exercising more purposefully, so you can keep getting a workout in while you fix your rounded shoulders and get rid of the annoying pain they cause.
Depending on how severe your rounded shoulders are, you might even be able to fix them with a deep stretch routine. There are other shoulder stretches and simple exercises you can use to get the correct posture. Many also give a deep stretch to the important muscles that are most directly affected by rounded shoulders, so if you’re experiencing pain you can use these shoulder stretches to get some immediate relief.
Understanding all the muscles affected by rounded shoulders should help you find out how severe your rounded shoulders are and which shoulder exercises will work best to correct the situation. The interplay between the shoulder joint and the neck and back involves many important muscles such as the trapezius, pecs, rhomboids, rotator cuff, scapular muscle, serratus anterior, and deltoids. Surprisingly enough, even your glutes can come into play if you’re trying to prevent back pain from rounded shoulders.
You can use the information about back muscles, chest muscles, and shoulder muscles not only to fix round shoulders but also to prevent neck pain, loosen a tight chest and tight muscles all over the upper body, and even be used as strengthening exercises. Poor posture has many more negative effects on the human body than are immediately apparent and understanding these effects can also help motivate you to fix the forward head posture that rounded shoulders typically cause.
Most people with a round shoulders problem concentrate on fixing the pain first and foremost, which makes sense. It’s the most apparent result of rounded shoulders. But you should also take care to start correcting bad posture as soon as possible. It will help you get rid of the pain faster and make sure it stays away.
Luckily, there are many simple exercises and stretches you can do to correct rounded shoulders. Also bear in mind the interplay between your shoulders and the muscles in your back and chest. Overdeveloping your chest without also working on your glutes, shoulders, and trapezius muscles makes rounded shoulders more likely. Use the stretches in this guide to prevent rounded shoulders or correct them once they occur.
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