Technological advancements and sedentary lifestyle habits are at an all-time high in Western society. Perks abound, yes, but our bodies often take a hit as a result. Between hours spent sitting at a desk or scrolling through social feeds on our smartphones and a lack of physical activity, many find themselves struggling with chronically poor posture and achy shoulders.
Being in these harmful positions for hours on end has detrimental effects on the kinetic chain. In regards to the upper body, these behaviors create compensation patterns resulting in "tightness" and dysfunction in the upper back, neck and shoulders. This affects how we feel, move and function on a day to day basis.
When shoulder pain arises, the first thing many want to do is attack the shoulders directly. In the attempt to resolve the experienced discomfort quickly, countless stretches, mobility work and strength training exercises are thrown at the shoulders, often leaving you with the same pain you had when you first started.
When it comes to fixing a weak link or painful area, the focus should not be placed where the symptoms arise, but rather on the origin of dysfunction. A naturally highly mobile joint, the shoulder usually does not need more mobility to fix the issue at hand—what it really needs is more stability. In fact, the region that is more commonly affected by poor lifestyle habits is actually the middle back, or thoracic spine region. When the thoracic spine region is limited in mobility, it impacts the functionality and position of the shoulder blade, effectively causing it and the shoulder itself to drift forward and out of a neutral position.
Be Proactive About Your Posture and Spine Mobility
While it's unlikely that you're going to give up your smartphone forever or say "sayonara" to your desk job, the continuation of those habits that threaten good posture creates an imbalance of weakness and strength in the body which could eventually result in the loss of mobility. This raises a red flag because the thoracic spine needs to be mobile while also maintaining the ability to help stabilize the posterior chain. The thoracic spine should be able to easily flex, extend, laterally bend and rotate without challenge, but these simple capabilities tend to decrease over time due to sedentary habits.
When these movement capacities are lost, the surrounding joints compensate for the lacking area, which ultimately makes them inherently less stable and more mobile to make up for the weak link. Pain and dysfunction can occur due to poor biomechanics as a result.
To address the underlying issue and establish a positive change in the body, it's important to intelligently approach programming the correct sequence of exercises. Adequate mobility is the first step. Focusing in on mobility exercises first will allow the thoracic spine and shoulder area to work as a functioning unit before more damage occurs. While mobility varies from person to person, over time you should generally "feel" the improved mobility and an overall better function in that area. Notice if you start to feel less tight, your posture has improved when looking in a mirror and if the tension in the upper back, neck and shoulders have decreased. Once you feel as though these small feats have been achieved, the strengthening process can begin to re-establish strength and stability in the appropriate areas.
Using these six exercises listed below—three focused on mobility first and then three on strength—you'll be taking a positive step toward improving your posture, mobilizing your spinal area and finally relieving that unwanted pain. Simple enough to do at home, in the office, when you're traveling or at the gym, you can easily incorporate these moves into your daily routine to create consistency and an overall high weekly volume to help offset poor postural positions our bodies face.
At work, use these exercises as a tool to remind you to keep good postural habits and move the body more often by setting a timer to remind yourself to get up and practice a few moves. At the gym, you can perform these moves as part of a dynamic warm-up to help prepare the body to function properly, or in your post-workout recovery to bring the body back to a more rested state. You can also add them to your actual workout by incorporating them during your rest periods between sets of exercises. This method will not only increase the total volume of these movements, but will also keep your heart rate up and body active instead of counting the seconds until your next set.<pagebreak>
Improve Your Thoracic Spine Mobility
If you are experiencing significant shoulder or back pain, be sure to check with your doctor before trying any of these exercises. While they are intended to help guide individuals who are struggling with chronic shoulder pain and poor posture habits, shoulder pain could be a sign of a more significant issue so it's best to be safe before diving in.
1. Quadruped Thoracic Spine Rotation
Get on the floor in a tabletop position, bracing the pillar complex (shoulders, core and hips) to create a neutral spine.
Place your fingertips of one arm on the side of your head.
Lead the movement with your head by looking over the shoulder of the raised hand and externally rotating until you hit your end range of motion. You must limit the movement from the lower lumbar spine to ensure authentic movement of the thoracic spine region.
Remember to audibly exhale as you rotate to release tension and allow for a further range of motion.
Return to your starting position. Complete your repetitions, then switch to the other side.
Complete two sets of eight to 10 repetitions on each side.
2. Lumbar and Shoulder Lock Thoracic Rotation
Begin in a tabletop position with the pillar complex braced to create a neutral spine.
Shift to sit all the way back on your heels to help lock the lumbar spine in place.
Bend both arms at 90 degrees on the floor.
Place one arm behind your back with your hand resting on the lower back.
Lead the movement with your head by looking over the shoulder of the locked arm and externally rotating until you hit your end range of motion. Remember to audibly exhale as you rotate to release tension and allow for a further range of motion.
Return to your starting position.
Complete two sets of eight to 10 repetitions each side.
3. Thoracic Spine Roller Extension
Sit on the floor with a foam roller in between your shoulder blades.
Extend the feet forward and support the head and neck by placing your hands behind your head.
Lightly bracing the glutes and core, extend back over the foam roller in a pain-free range of motion.
Audibly exhale during the extension portion of the movement, then inhale on your way back up.
Complete two sets of eight to 10 repetitions.<pagebreak>
Shoulder Strengthening Comes Second
Once adequate mobility is established as described above in the thoracic spine, bulletproof your shoulders with intelligent strength training principles and exercises. Since the posterior side of the shoulders are often undeveloped and weakened from poor postural habits, action needs to be taken to stabilize and strengthen these specific areas.
These smaller muscles of the upper back and shoulders respond well to higher volumes and frequencies of work with lighter loads. Resistance bands and light dumbbells will be all you need to immediately start implementing these exercises as part of daily maintenance from here on out to help get rid of that slouched posture and nagging shoulder pain.
1. Banded Pull Apart
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Grab a resistance band with a double overhand grip with the hands about shoulder-width apart.
Gradually pull the band apart in a smooth fashion until the band stretches across the midline of your chest.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end range of motion of each rep.
Control your hands back together to the starting position.
Complete three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
2. Banded Face Pull
Attach a resistance band to an area either equal to, or higher than shoulder height.
Grab the band with a double overhand grip.
Starting with your arms fully extended in front of you and your pillar complex braced, bring the hands back toward your face.
While keeping your elbows the same height as your shoulders, squeeze the shoulder blades and rear deltoids hard at the end range of motion.
Control the movement back to the starting position
Complete three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
3. Dumbbell Reverse Fly
Place your feet about shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a neutral spine, hinge forward from the waist into your starting position.
Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip with your arms vertical to the ground. Hands should be facing in.
Raise the dumbbells up until your arms are parallel to the floor while engaging the upper back, squeezing at the top end range of motion.
Control the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Complete three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Utilizing these effective exercises will have a profound effect on your body. What are you waiting for?
Tim is a strength coach, wellness instructor and functional training specialist in North Carolina. His primary focus is working with general and special populations to regain proper movement mechanics and improve total body strength. Tim's passion is focused on enhancing overall quality of life and pain-free performance for his clients.