Look at the average person walking around the average industrialized nation and you’ll notice something:
Their shoulders are rounded inward.
Look down at yourself right now reading these words and you’ll probably notice something:
Your shoulders are rounded inward.
Older kids, teens, grownups, athletes, powerlifters, grandmas, moms, dads, students, baristas, almost everyone. It’s rare to see someone with neutral shoulders—shoulders that sit in their sockets as nature intended, rather than rolled and rounded inward in perpetual internal rotation.
Why is this?
The Problem with Rounding Your Shoulders
First, let’s explore why rounded shoulders are bad.
First principles tell us that that which is intrinsic and natural to our skeletal structure is ideal and optimal. Our natural state is not to rest in the rounded shoulder position. It is to have neutral shoulders, shoulders that sit in their sockets, neither externally nor internally rotated. Shoulders that simply are. Young kids tend to have these stable, neutral shoulder positions, mostly because they are closer to their natural state and less altered by the trappings and designs of modern society.
But let’s get more specific with the issues that emanate from rounded shoulders:
Promotes forward head tilt, which places a ton of stress on your neck and impairs your breathing and reduces your lung capacity.
Begins pulling the rest of your torso forward as well—hence the hunchback that’s so prevalent in people who are too young to have any business having it.
When shoulders are perpetually rounded, the supraspinatus tendon tends to get pinched against the boney bridge running from your clavicle to your shoulders, particularly if you’re lifting overhead or pressing. This can cause pain, wear and tear, and degeneration.
It’s unattractive. This might seem inconsequential, but it’s an important signifier. Aesthetics in many respects represent utility, form, and function.
To get an exaggerated sense of what rounded shoulders are doing to your shoulder function, try fully protracting your shoulder blades (rolling your shoulders as far forward as possible by spreading your shoulder blades). Now, try lifting your arms directly over head, like you were performing an overhead press or setting up for a dead hang pullup. You can’t do it comfortably. Your shoulders are out of place. Do the opposite: retract and set your shoulder blades back, then lift your arms overhead. It should be a lot easier. That’s how shoulders are supposed to work.
What Causes Rounded Shoulders?
Excessive laptop and computer usage
Sitting plus typing plus intensely focusing on a screen a few inches below and in front of us has created a nation of slumped shoulders, protracted scapulas, unstable shoulder joints, and tight pecs. It gets worse when you lean on your elbows and forearms to work, because then you’re turning that rounded shoulder position into a rest position—into the “baseline” your body comes to expect.
Too much time on the phone
Pick up your phone and look at it. How’d you do it? Did you hold it up at eye level with externally rotated shoulders, or did you hold it at belly height and look down with internally rotated/rounded shoulders? Now do that for 6 or 8 hours a day.
You might find that one shoulder is more problematic than the other—rounds forward more than the other one, hurts more during training, is stiff when you wake up. In my experience, this is almost always caused by too much time on the phone using the one hand over the other.
Sadness and lack of spirit
This is going to be controversial, but it’s true in my experience. Extreme sadness, melancholy, lack of direction, and depression all cause you to “look downward” and revert to the rounded shoulder position. And it goes both ways. Being in that consistently rounded shoulder position promotes looking downward and prevents you from seeing the beauty, from looking up and forward, from moving toward your purpose. You look down and you’re going to move down, both literally and figuratively.
They support each other in a vicious cycle.
Too much pressing and pushing, not enough pulling
People, especially fitness beginners, tend to focus primarily on the “pushing” muscles with push-ups, bench presses, overhead presses, and dips. The ones that you can see in the mirror. The ones you can hit with some quick pushups whenever you feel like it. They neglect the pulling exercises: pull-ups, bodyweight rows, bent over rows, and all the other permutations. Pushing exercises easy to do anywhere and they’re effective, but they’re also good at tightening the pecs and promoting a rounded shoulder position without sufficient balance from pulling exercises.
Lack of frequent movement
Most people’s shoulders are in stasis. They are locked in position. They don’t move or explore their natural range of motion.
The fact that the “locked” position is an internally rotated one taking place in front of a computer or smartphone doesn’t help, but the biggest piece is the immobility. If you were to move your shoulders through their range of motion throughout the day, it wouldn’t matter that you spent hours at a computer. You’d get away with it. It’s the stasis, not necessarily the position.
Combine the lopsided push/pull ratio with the aforementioned computer and phone overuse, and you end up with a recipe for perpetually rounded shoulders.
How to Fix Rounded Shoulders
Consciously pull your shoulders back
Set a reminder to check your shoulder position every hour. Are you rounding? Pull your shoulders back. Stay on top of it and eventually it should become unconscious. Now, this doesn’t mean you should overcorrect in the other direction. The ideal scapular plane in relation to your torso is about 30 degrees. That’s “neutral.” Not flat, not retracted, and certainly not rounded all the way forward.
You’ll need something to grab onto overhead, like a branch or a pull-up bar. Grab the bar, relax and let the stretch develop slowly, gradually, over three seconds or so. Relax into the hang. This will stretch just about everything that interacts with the shoulder girdle—lats, pecs, biceps, and delts—while opening up the space through which your shoulder connective tissues pass. Move your hands out a bid wider than shoulder width once you’re comfortable enough to increase the stretch.
If you feel a pull in your pecs, this indicates tight pectorals and a bad shoulder rounding habit. This means you really need to hang. Hang from the bar for at least 5 minutes a day, broken up into manageable chunks. More than 5 minutes is fine and may help even more.
More pulls than pushes
While pushes and presses are important for strength and fitness, they also bias you toward shoulders rolling inward if you don’t balance them out with pulls and rows. In my book, you should be pulling about twice as many reps as you push. If you bench press 30 total reps, do 60 total rows. If you do 20 dips, work toward doing 40 pull-ups or bodyweight rows. Keep that ratio as close to 2:1 as you can. The balance should arise over the course of days, not within workouts.
Use a standing workstation
A standing workstation makes you stand up tall. When you’re standing, you’re less likely to slouch forward, lean on the table, rest on your elbows, and roll your shoulders inward.
You can also adjust the height of most standing workstations so that the computer is closer to eye level so you aren’t looking down all day.
Frequent breaks from computer and device usage
Part of breaking up the stasis at the root of rounded shoulders is not doing the things that bias you toward that shoulder position. At some level, if you’re using the computer or device, your shoulders will default to an inopportune position. That’s very hard to escape, no matter how many times you remind yourself to keep your shoulders back.
Just stop using the devices so much and if you must use them, take frequent breaks.
Hold your phone at eye level
This is a simple fix that takes practice. It’s so easy and feels so normal to hold the phone at the waist and look down upon it. You might feel a little silly holding your phone up at eye level, but just do it because it will prevent your shoulder from rolling inward. If it keeps you from using your phone too often, all the better.
Frequent movement with lots of shoulder activity
Throw balls for your dog or play catch with your kid. Throw rocks into lakes. Practice javelin throws. Swing your arms around like Chinese grandmas walking early mornings at the local park. Just move your body and especially move your shoulders through their full range of motion.
Take a cue from kids. Kids will run while helicoptering their arms around for no reason at all except that it’s fun to do. It’s certainly not “efficient.” Or maybe it is?
Do shoulder dislocates every day
Take breaks to do shoulder dislocates using a flexible band, a broomstick, a piece of rope, a ribbon, a sedate pet snake, or even a dog leash. Hold both ends with straight, locked arms. Starting at your hips, bring the band (or whatever you’re using) behind your head until you reach your hips on the other side while keeping those arms straight. At this point, you can go back the way you came and repeat. It may be uncomfortable or “tight.” Just avoid pain, whatever you do.
If this all sounds like a lot to take in, it’s really not. Most of these tips for fixing rounded shoulders support and encourage each other. Do some, and the others become much easier.
Let me know what you think down below. If you have any other suggestions or fixes that worked for you, add them to the comment section. Take care, everyone.