This is the second post in our series on shoulder positioning. Read Part 1 here!
Typing with shoulders too far forward.
Often, in industrialized cultures, the shoulders are slumped or held forward. There are so many daily tasks in the modern world that make it all too easy for these bad habits to set in: holding our arms out front for hours with poor shoulder placement while we are typing, gaming, driving, and so on. Over the years this is likely to cause various problems:
Impingement, bursitis, wear-and-tear
Reduced circulation to the arms
Compromised breathing patterns
Reduced athletic performance, increased injuries
Hunched upper back and forward head
Common pitfalls in getting the shoulders back
Unfortunately, well-intentioned advice such as “pull your shoulders back” often has negative consequences. When we try and correct our shoulder position by pulling back, we are likely to either tense and sway our lower backs, or tighten the rhomboid muscles between our shoulder blades — or both! Neither of these responses are healthy or comfortable for very long.
Meet the rhomboids
The rhomboids, which pull the shoulder blades together, are not designed to be squeezed tightly for long periods. If you consistently rely on them to pull your shoulders back, they can become sore, knotted, and inflamed
The rhomboids are not designed to be squeezed tightly for long periods. Original image courtesy Wikimedia user Anatomography under CC BY-SA 2.1 jp.
Those of you familiar with the Gokhale Method are probably already practicing the shoulder roll. This gentle movement brings the shoulders home to a naturally sustainable position. For detailed tips on refining your shoulder roll, please see my recent blog post on shoulder positioning.
Though the rhomboids should not be continuously contracted when you are upright, they exist for good reason. The rhomboids play an important role in keeping the shoulder joint stable, especially when you bend forward, carry heavy objects, or reach for something in front of you. These actions would otherwise displace the shoulders forward.
Inactive or weak rhomboids allow the shoulders to be pulled forward when carrying loads in front of the body.
This farmer doesn’t bring his shoulder forward to carry his watering can.
This Burkinabé teenager pounds millet with her shoulders staying far back.
Our ancestors, like people in traditional and non-industrialized cultures today, had many more opportunities in daily life to use their rhomboids and upper back muscles: drawing water, clearing land, sweeping the yard, and harvesting crops. We can get much of this conditioning from sport such as rock climbing, games such as tug-o’-war, and chores such as gardening or vacuuming, but suitable activity may not continue into a more sedentary adult life. Without regular challenges, the muscles of the upper back can become weak and lax, allowing the shoulders to drift forward and the upper back to round.
Rhomboid toner exercise
Exercises are useful to isolate and strengthen muscles that have been systematically under-used. I find the rhomboid toning exercise below to be effective.
- Hold a physical therapy band or strap. Keep your wrists straight, palms facing up.
- Begin by performing a shoulder roll. This healthy shoulder position places your rhomboids in a position of mechanical advantage.
- Pin elbows to your sides at a 90º angle. The position is similar to when you’re carrying a tray.
- Draw your shoulder blades as close together as you can. Your hands will move away from each other. The band or strap provides resistance to this motion, challenging the rhomboids. Be sure not to tense the shoulders or neck.
- Hold for a few seconds. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
Getting your rhomboids to work for you when you need them will benefit both your shoulder health and your posture. Next time you are carrying heavy bags or pulling a door towards you, notice how these muscles help to preserve your shoulder position. Sometimes a little pulling back goes a long way!