Shoulder fun fact: The shoulder blades are not connected to any other bone in the body, but fixed in the body with merely a few muscles.
The human shoulder is crazy complex. It’s built for movement and dexterity. Countless problems stem from imbalances within it’s fine inner-workings. The most prevalent shoulder problems stem from sitting all day. Go figure.
Whether standing or sitting, the human body is built to turn inward; naturally possessing more muscle mass that turns us inward than outward. Perfectly formed to slump back in a chair, or round forward over the desk. Sitting this way from kindergarten through now at your computer, it’s a safe bet you’ve experienced neck and shoulder tension.
When focusing on upper back strain, it is important to remember the body compensates as an entire unit. No muscle is an island unto itself. Pain manifesting in the neck and shoulders could be created, in part, by the tightness and tension in the hips and low back. This is why posture is so crucial. Proper posture elongates and disperses the muscle work of holding up the body against gravity evenly. See the below examples and its easy to get the gist:
We are so used to allowing our neck to tense and our shoulders to round forward, that they take over everything we do, down to our abdominal exercises.
TRY THIS TEST: Sit on the floor. Bend your knees together. Try curling half-way back, scoop the belly, and hold. See if you can completely relax your shoulders and hold the curled position.
If your fall backwards = Your abdominals are weak and the upper body pushes you through most core movements.
If your legs pop up = your hip flexors are tense
If you can hold the position = you should feel deeper core engagement by releasing the shoulders
Roll Down Test (notice how the front of the neck stays open and the knees do not move)
Our shoulders and hips can act like a barrier surrounding the core muscles. To strengthen the core of the body, we must learn to let go of tension. Pilates and muscle awareness helps correct this by building strength from the inside out.
Now back to the upper back! This post simplifies (perhaps overly so) the complexity of the shoulders in order to create achievable goals with a few easy exercises. Besides a tall overall posture, you need awareness of the following muscles to do the movements:
Muscle of interest #1 – The Rhomboids. They pull your shoulder blades together. Imagine cracking a walnut between your shoulder blades, those are your rhomboids.
Muscle of interest #2. – The Latissimus Dorsi. They connect the upper body to the hips. Imaging drawing you armpits towards the hips, those are your latissimus dorsi. Strengthening these muscles will help allow for a stretch in the upper back and neck.
Engaging the rhomboids and the latissimus dorsi (lats) allow neck and shoulder tension to release and that energy to be channeled into shiny new postural alignment.
Try this: Imagine drawing the shoulder blades down and together creating the point of a V at the mid back. Feel the chest stretch open, while constantly allowing your head to drift up towards the sky. This simultaneous contraction and stretch allows for deeper breathing and over all better well being. One note: Don’t force or hold for too long. Gently contract, hold for a moment, then release. Keep at it.
I recommend investing in an elastic band.
Here are 3 elastic band exercises balancing upper body strength, using that tall, core-engaged posture, the above muscles, and while stretching the neck and shoulders:
Shoulder Shrugs: Stand on the band, arms by your side. Shrug shoulders up and down, allowing band to gently stretch the shoulders downward. Head is constantly drifting up towards the ceiling.
Rowing: Wrapping the band securely around a door knob or fixed point. Lead elbows back towards each other. Head is lifted. Shoulders squeeze back.Crack the walnut between shoulder blades.
Chest Expansion: Wrapping the band securely around a door knob or fixed point. Draw straight arms down and back. Aiming fists towards your heels. Squeeze shoulder blades together. Head drifts upward. Neck is long.
Another small view of chest expansion
More details on these and other exercise can be found at here and here.
A few simple, quality moves with moderate weight (or resistance) and a focus on breath is far better than a massage or a static stretch for releasing neck and shoulder tension. Building proper muscle strength gives the tension a place to live, rather than allowing it to set up camp in your neck a few hours later. Quality of movement is more important than quantity.
Find little movements all day long that create length, strength, and stretch.