When I was a massage therapist (way back in 2008!) every single client who walked into my office asked me (some even begged me) to dig into their shoulders. Regardless of whether or not they had other issues (and most did, like low back pain, hip pain, etc), they all wanted their shoulders to get some relief from carrying the weight of the world.
For my entire short lived (year long) career as a massage therapist, I made people feel amazing for an hour or 90 minutes. They left feeling loosey goosey, a little high and finally at peace. But every time they came back their shoulders would be right back where they were before: stiff, achy, sore and in need of some major love (or a beat down, which a lot of people requested).
I quit massage therapy in large part because, though I was very good at it, I never helped permanently reverse my clients’ pain. I’m a very goal oriented person, so this wasn’t ok with me!
If you want to permanently reverse your shoulder tension, then you need to commit yourself to not only getting the proper areas of fascia released (which is not necessarily your shoulders or traps), you MUST also strengthen your mid back muscles.
Sure, the human body can adapt to “poor” posture. You may even live that way without serious pain; for a few decades. Trust me though when I tell you, you do NOT want to end up like my older clients who are 70 or 75 and wishing desperately they had learned all of this earlier, before compensation pattern piled onto compensation pattern and a lifetime of poor posture and stressful bio-mechanics caught up to them.
Start Strengthening NOW! (You can ‘release’ any time)
These exercises will take some time to carve new neural pathways and build healthier structure so I say don’t delay for any reason, start NOW. They will yield small rewards quickly that will build over time, and you can ‘release’ the tight areas as soon as you can make time (how to’s for that at the bottom of this article).
What we’re targeting:
The upper traps are one of the most overworked and overactive muscles, ready to work for us at any given moment. No wonder they’re so tired and angry (stiff/sore/achy)!
To counteract this overactive pattern we have to strengthen the lower traps and actively STOP engaging the upper traps during so many upper body exercises.
The following exercises target the lower traps, rhomboids and lats with short intentional movements of the shoulder girdle: downward rotation (depressing the scapula), and retraction (pulling the scapula back towards the spine).
Create new neural pathways and healthy habits:
The whole purpose of this blog post and video is to show you what shoulder girdle retraction and downward rotation feel like.
When you know how to do this and decide to use it, you will put your body into better posture no matter what you’re doing – whether it’s a lat pull down in the gym, push ups, pull ups, sitting at a desk, walking your dog or helping a friend move furniture.
This 1-2 “exercise” combo can (and should) be utilized in ALL areas of our lives, whether we’re working out or working. I try to remind myself to do this whenever I’m on the computer (like right now!), while I’m trail running or backpacking (especially backpacking!), and definitely while performing ALL upper body exercise in the gym.
The goal is to create a new healthy habit that will start to override the old unhealthy ones, promote spine and neck health, leave our chests open so we can breathe and help us avoid the downward spiral that can happen from becoming a hunchback.
The exercises are just three simple examples you can try right now wherever you are – in the gym, at work or at home! – to feel what shoulder girdle retraction feels like, and from there I encourage you to use this shoulder positioning whenever you can remind yourself of it.
As mentioned above, the purpose of these exercises isn’t about getting pumped or building muscle, it’s about training your nervous system to engage in better shoulder posture while performing exercises SUCH AS a lat pull down, a push up or life habits like working at a computer.
#1: Pull Down
You won’t be performing the an actual lat pull down, only the shoulder rotation (downward) portion.
So if you’re a gym rat or have access to one and want to try this, it’s a great example of pulling your shoulder blades down where they’re supposed to be.
You don’t even need a machine to do this! You could certainly try it without any weight at all – just put your arm in the air, lock your shoulder blade in place and pull back and down, then extend your arm back up via the shoulder girdle.
Please watch the video to know how to perform this. Your arm won’t be moving (as in, not bending at the elbow) and your upper traps should NOT be working during this one!
1. Use a cable machine, a TRX or nothing – the point is to engage and stabilize the arm in a straight overhead position. If using weight, use light weight!
2. Keeping your arm straight, pull your shoulder blade down (downward rotation of the scapula). The movement will be small!
3. Move the scapula back up.
4. Repeat 10-12 times.
#2: Push Up Shoulder Retraction
Again – the goal here isn’t to DO a push up (though maybe you’ll do some push-ups after mastering the shoulder retraction!)
The goal is to get a very solid feel for shoulder retraction, positioning your shoulder to be fully supported and “locked in” for stable movement through whatever exercise you’re about to perform, be it a push-up, driving to work, sitting at the computer, rowing, riding a bike…you name it!
Make sure to watch the video, and especially the close up of my shoulder retraction when I do the technique – your back muscles should be engaging STRONGLY here!
The movement is small, but the muscles performing the action are fully engaged.
1. Get into a push-up position with straight arms, shoulders over wrists, eyes looking in front of you a little (don’t look at your feet).
2. Pull your shoulder blades together like you’re trying to squeeze a pencil between your erector muscles (the muscles just along your spine).
3. Then go back to neutral spine position.
4. Repeat 10-12 times.
You might get sore even though you’re not using weight. If so, that’s a good indicator these muscles are weak, underused and in need of strengthening!
#3: Use these two movements – pulling your shoulder blades down and back – during work and life.
This is the main thing I want you to take away from this episode: use these two movements whenever you can remember to and you’ll prevent all kinds of future aches and pains.
That means using this combo while working at the computer, while texting your friends, while sitting in a waiting room, while walking your dog (switch the arm that holds the leash and use this positioning and your excited dog to strengthen those muscles!)
Basically, you can use this in almost every nook and cranny of your life to feel better and create those new neural pathways.
For the BEST and LONGEST LASTING results, combine with fascial release of these key areas:
Now that you know what your new healthy habit should be, you can chip away at the fascial release work, doing as much as you can whenever you have (or make) the time.
If you feel like doing a “routine” fascial release of your upper body, the following list would be my top picks and in the order I would do them.
Generally speaking, it’s beneficial to start in the arms, work our way into the chest and then go to the upper traps and lats. If we try to go to the shoulders or neck first, all that front fascia that’s pulling us out of alignment to begin with is still tight and we’ve just made the back side more elastic! Which means our bad posture could get worse.
1. BICEPS: https://mobilitymastery.com/release-your-biceps-and-free-your-arms-shoulders-and-neck/
2. CHEST/PEC MINOR: https://mobilitymastery.com/ultimate-chest-and-deltoid-release-for-maximum-upper-body-freedom-get-your-shoulders-back-down/
3. UPPER TRAPS: https://mobilitymastery.com/how-to-release-overactiverestricted-upper-traps-relieves-neck-shoulder-pain-headaches-and-more/
4. SCALENES: https://mobilitymastery.com/eliminate-neck-pain-best-release-ever-for-stiff-necks-tmj-pain-tension-headaches/
5. LATS and RHOMBOIDS: https://mobilitymastery.com/how-to-relieve-pain-between-the-shoulder-blades/