Your body is an amazingly complex and adaptable structure. It will literally mold to serve you best based on your everyday habits and movements. Every new learned movement is usually difficult at first and takes a lot of focus to perform correctly. But after some practice, working on form and strengthening the muscles, movements such as the squat and push up become easier. Your body learns the proper movement patterning and those wires between the brain and the muscles grow stronger making each movement feel more natural and easier to perform. Unfortunately, the same goes for poor movement patterning or a lack of movement. We sit FAR too much. Many of us sit for a living hunched up in front of a computer letting everything collapse inwards. This shuts off the gluteal and core muscles, stretches/weakens the back and your pectorals and anterior neck/shoulder muscles are in a state of constant work and stress. Over time and without proper corrective work, your body will adapt to this position so much that you may lose mobility throughout the body leading to pain and stiffness, putting you at a higher risk of injury and leaving you with posture like Quasimodo!
Specifically, this blog will address Upper Crossed Syndrome – a condition that is caused when your head and shoulders spend too much time in a hunched forward position. With UCS, your upper trapezius, levator scapulae and pec major/minor become tight from being overworked and the opposing muscles- the rhomboids, lower trapezius, serratus anterior and cervical flexors in the neck become weak and inhibited. If you suffer from UCS, you may find that you have pain and stiffness throughout the shoulders and neck (which can sometimes resonate into the elbows and wrists and often into the lower back and hips) You may also experience headaches and a loss of mobility within the neck and shoulders. You may find during exercise that you are constantly hunching over or struggle to keep your shoulders down and away from your ears.
So what can you do to fix it?
First of all, let’s learn how to "set" your shoulders. Sit Up Straight! – pull the shoulders back and down. Think about trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets. If you struggle with this, practice up against a wall, pushing your head and shoulders back into the wall and relaxing the shoulders away from the ears. Hold for 10-30 seconds until it becomes easier and you can do it on cue away from the wall. Strive to be in this position as often as you can, whenever and wherever!
Once you’ve mastered setting the shoulders, you can move on to strengthening the back. Corrective exercises for the upper/mid back and rear deltoids (Y and T raises, DB or TRX rows) can be effective if done with proper form. Be mindful of keeping a neutral spine and not letting your shoulders curl inwards or travel up to your ears. The goal is to target those muscles surrounding the shoulder blades and to not exasperate these issues by straining the neck. Start with lighter weights or body weight to work on proper form and build up from there.
If you have lost so much mobility that you struggle to keep your spine in proper alignment with scapular retraction, a focus should be put on stretching and relaxing tight muscles. Self myofascial release using lacrosse balls or foam rollers can help to release trigger points and knots in those tissues that are causing restrictions in your range of movement. You can use a foam roller to stretch out the thoracic spine and chest like shown above
Hold for 1-3 minutes once a day. As this stretch becomes less intense, slide the foam roller lower on the shoulder blades to increase the stretch. Also, try this stretch with the foam roller lined up with your spine, allowing your arms to fall in a “T” shape
Hold this stretch for 1-3 minutes once a day. As this stretch becomes less intense, raise your arms a little higher over the shoulder joint to intensify.
Lacrosse ball rolling, albeit more painful than the foam roller, is a highly effective tool for eliminating or reducing knots in the tissues that are restricting ROM. When using the lacrosse ball, remember to roll into the muscles (not over bones) and when you come across a trigger point, stop and put more pressure into it – more info on the science behind this to come! To address issues with UCS, we will look at knots in the upper traps. Either leaning against the wall or lying on the floor, place the ball into the upper traps. Roll around seeking out knots- they will feel like bumps in the tissue, tender to the touch. When you find one – here comes the fun part – move your arm up over your head and back down, grinding into that knot to wear down that scar tissue. Take your arm through different movements, keeping pressure on the ball. The more pressure you can muster putting on to that ball, the more likely you will be to break it down.
Aim to do this once a day until your ROM improves.
Remember that our muscles change what they do based on the environment they are in! Do your homework and fix your posture if you want your body to keep serving you in a positive way!