We’re all at risk of developing Upper Crossed Syndrome. Upper crossed syndrome is attributed to the rounded shoulders – forward head posture. If you work in an office where you spend the majority of your day looking at a screen and typing, then you’re more likely to develop this imbalance.
I understand you have to be at work and do your job. The issue is when you’re not aware of how you’re holding your posture for 8-9 hours a day, then spending the rest of your waking hours sitting again at home, texting, and looking down at your phone.
Below, I’ll explain the main reasons behind developing this imbalance, which leads to chronic upper back pain, shoulders and neck pain, and how to fix it. Here’s what this post will cover:
- The muscular imbalances behind the rounded shoulders-forward head posture.
- Can you correct this imbalance?
- Which muscles are involved in this imbalance
- Exercises to correct rounded shoulders
Can You Correct Rounded Shoulders?
The good news is… this imbalance can be fixed with corrective exercises and a few postural changes. The key is consistency. We have to work on correcting our posture on a daily basis to not only undo the damage of sitting for hours (months or years prior) but to also maintain the body’s proper alignment.
What causes rounded shoulder posture
Here are the main causes behind the rounded shoulder – forward head posture imbalance:
Daily Unconscious Movement Patterns
Poor postural habits can be developed at work, at school or at the gym without you even realizing it… For example, carrying heavy bags or purses using the same side of the body. Always carrying a backpack on the same shoulder (I’m guilty of this too!).
The body won’t re-adjust to its neutral position after you drop the bag. The same thing happens when sitting and leaning on the same side, or standing on just one leg. It’s common for individuals to shift all their weight into one leg when standing at the grocery store or waiting in line (ever noticed that?). This is an example of an unconscious (or even sometimes conscious) habitual movement pattern that’ll lead to an imbalance when repeated over time.
Repetitive Movements (Sports-Related Or Work-Related)
Repetitive movements can be sports-related (such as spending hours training for a specific sport like rowing), or work-related. An example of a work-related repetitive movement that comes to mind is… serving food as a waiter or waitress and always using the same arm for that.
Or if you have to keep your arms overhead for long periods of time (like painting). These repetitive movements create muscular tightness in the front chest and shoulder muscles contributing to rounded shoulders.
And of course, if you spend hours looking at your computer screen typing or reading text, that will lead to extremely tight chest muscles in addition to the forward head posture.
Changes in Movement Patterns Due To Prior Injury
Most people start moving differently after experiencing an acute injury. We all want to avoid pain. A good example is using one leg more than the other when you have sciatica or piriformis pain. Or using one arm more if the other side is hurting. It’s human nature. The issue is these changes will create more muscular imbalances and will affect the shoulder joint and the musculature surrounding it.
Incomplete Prior Rehabilitation
This is tied to the last point. If you experienced an acute injury and didn’t go through a full rehabilitation phase, there may be a chance those imbalances weren’t completely resolved. The body will adapt to the current limitations and will compensate for that… feeding into the imbalance.
There are many studies showing the effects of rounded shoulders on the hips and pelvis (1). When your head is traveling forward, your body needs to adjust its center of gravity by tilting the pelvis anteriorly. The body is a connected chain. Never think that what’s happening at the neck level won’t affect the base or the hips (2).
Chronically Tight Muscles Causing Rounded Shoulders
The following muscles are more likely to tighten up and create the rounded shoulders posture: Upper trapezius, levator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid and scalenes (neck muscles), Latissimus Dorsi, Pectoralis major/minor.
On the other hand, the muscles that weaken and lengthen due to inactivity (also contributing to that rounded shoulders posture) are: The deep cervical flexor muscles, Rromboids, mid-lower trapezius.
I want to help you strengthen these muscles today. Because simply stretching and releasing the tight muscles won’t fix the problem for the long-term. We want to focus on maintaining proper posture.
Exercises To Fix Rounded Shoulders
I’ve created a step-by-step video to take you through these great exercises that’ll help you restore proper shoulder and neck alignment. I also included exercise images below the video if you can’t wait right now.
Don’t forget that you’ll also need to release tightness from the tight chest muscles, and I’ll link to tutorials on that below the exercise video.
Please don’t skip these steps. You want to release tightness and also strengthen the weak back muscles. This is taking a long-term approach vs just getting quick relief from the symptoms.
Start by stretching the front chest muscles. You can do this using a stability ball or a chair.
Next, grab light weights and a stability ball to do the strengthening exercises.
Make sure you’re stable on the ball. Legs straight without flexing the knees. Keep your glutes and core engaged. Don’t let go of that stability! If you want to start without weights, just get on the floor, extend your arms out and follow through with the exercises (I explain this in the video too).
Ball Combo 1 – ‘W’
Keep your shoulders down. Start and end the exercise with control. As I explained in the video, keep the weights light (2-3 lbs). If the exercise still feels challenging, you can do it with just your bodyweight as demonstrated below…
Ball Combo 2 – ‘T’
Same thing… Don’t shrug your shoulders. Focus on keeping your back ‘down’ and keeping that contraction in the mid-back. You can do this exercise without weights as well.
Ball Combo 3 – Cobra
Do your best to keep your back stable. And as you move into that cobra position, keep the contraction in your mid-lower back. Avoid extending your neck to ‘help you out’. Keep your posture aligned.
Shoulder External Rotations
This is a great exercise to strengthen the rotator cuff (the group of muscles that support the shoulder joint), and to undo the damage of “flexed shoulders”. You can do this exercise standing against the wall, but I love doing it using the ball because it challenges my core’s stability and I prefer to train muscles together (in the real world, muscles are always working together, not in isolation).
Avoid shrugging your shoulders in Step 3. Your body will compensate if the shoulder external rotator (teres minor) is weak and can’t hold that posture. Just lower the weights or use a band if you can’t push with proper form.
One-Arm Cobra Exercise
The same principles apply. Keep your shoulders down and focus on moving the weights using your mid-back. When you’re bringing the dumbbell to the front, make sure you keep your back stable.
To summarize, you need to maintain your body on a daily basis through corrective exercise. If you identified a rounded shoulders imbalance happening, you need to pay attention to your daily activities, release tight chest muscles and strengthen the back muscles.
Click here to learn how to release the latissimus dorsi, the biggest back muscle that can contribute to the anterior pelvic tilt…
More exercises to restore back posture using bands: