I’m lucky. Despite all the stiffness I had my whole life in my legs and hips, I’ve always been fairly flexible in the shoulders and upper back. But a lot of people aren’t so fortunate.
Men, in particular, tend to have tight, stiff shoulders because they genetically have more muscle mass in their upper bodies than women. And, a lot of men work that muscle mass trying to get better definition (do I hear bicep curls, anyone?). The more density you build, the tighter your shoulders will get. In fact, the tendon of the bicep muscle is a huge culprit in forward rounded shoulders, pulling the scapula (shoulder blade) forward and down, causing “winging” in the back and putting strain on the tiny muscles that support the neck.
But all of us are prone to a hunched over back, these days, from all the sitting at computers and driving that we do. Anything that pulls our eyes forward also pulls our heads forward, which in turn causes a hunch-back like rounding to our upper spines. Yikes! I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to look – and feel – like Quasimodo when I’m fifty.
Usually the tightness causing a rounded upper back is not actually in the back. It’s the muscles of the chest and rib cage that pull you forward and down. You can get a lot of relief for your hunched back by mobilizing your shoulders, i.e. taking them through a full range of motion.
You may not know this, but your shoulder joint is one of the most mobile in your body. You can make a huuuuuuuge arc with your arms and hands, but most of us never do because we live in a modern world and don’t have to swing from trees, throw spears or fight off tigers (I’m not sure if shoulder mobility would help in a tiger fight, but it can’t hurt, right?).
Anyhow, use the exercise below to regain your lost range of motion. You’ll need a wooden dowel of some kind – a broomstick works fine. Space your hands wide enough on the dowel that you can make a full circle all the way around. I will warn you, a lot of people are shocked when I show them this exercise because it looks like I’m hyper-mobile or hyper-extending my joints. I’m not! Everyone – barring major injury or surgery – should have this much shoulder flexibility.
If you simply CAN’T make the full circle, do as much as you can comfortably. Don’t force your arms up and around. Do this daily using as much range of motion as you can and you’ll quickly recover your flexibility.
One more thing…if you have injured your shoulder or had surgery, take it slowwwwww! Scar tissue is really tough to mobilize. You can do it, but you don’t want to force anything because you’ll just risk tearing a muscle or tissue and setting yourself back months or years. And you will probably need to incorporate some kind of bodywork to help release that tight scar tissue and speed up the mobilization process.