Photo credit: Fiona Peters
In this article, I’m going to give you a series of poses to counteract a common set of muscular imbalances and one that is responsible for many of the issues and injuries that show up in the neck and shoulders. It's known as Upper Crossed Syndrome.
First, let’s revisit muscular imbalances—what they are, what causes them, how they affect us and how we can work towards correcting them.
What are muscular imbalances and how do they arise?
In our modern environment, it’s almost impossible to maintain optimal posture all day long. Ideally, we’d sit and stand in perfect alignment—ears, shoulders, hips and ankles all in a straight line—stretch muscles and mobilise joints from head to toe throughout the day. This unfortunately is rarely what happens.
The most likely scenario is that we sit too much and gravitate to one or two sports or activities that prioritise a narrow set of repetitive movement patterns performed in an “unnatural” body position.
The result is that, over time, muscular imbalances are established in which one set of muscles becomes tight from overuse and the opposing muscle group weakens and becomes inhibited (doesn't activate correctly) from underuse. Muscular imbalances put stress and strain on the surrounding joints and musculature that are forced to compensate and take on work that was meant to be shared between structures. When you layer a sport on top of this, you put these imbalances on steroids which significantly increases your risk of injury.
What is Upper Crossed Syndrome?
Upper Crossed Syndrome, as classified by Dr Vladimir Janda, MD, is the set of muscular imbalances that arises from standard poor posture—rounded shoulders, collapsed chest and head poking forward. This is the typical set up:
- The muscles in the back and side of the neck and the upper back become tight from overuse.
- The stabilising muscles in the front of the neck become weak from underuse.
- The chest and muscles in the fronts of the shoulders become tight from chronic contraction.
- The muscles that support and stabilise the shoulder blades are overstretched and become weak.
Which sports exacerbate Upper Crossed Syndrome?
Sports that are affected the most are those that prioritise humeral internal rotation, in which the shoulders and arms rotate in towards the body. Some common examples are:
- Racquet sports
Not only do these sports exacerbate the condition, in addition, Upper Crossed Syndrome can reduce athletic performance, accelerate wear and tear on the joints and increase your risk of injury.
What other issues arise from Upper Crossed Syndrome?
There are a number of injuries related to Upper Crossed Syndrome. These include:
- Pain in the shoulders, upper back and neck.
- Rotator cuff injuries.
- Biceps tendonitis.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Compromised breathing, circulation and digestion.
How can yoga help?
A specifically designed yoga program can help restore range of motion in the joints, stretch the muscles that are tight and re-position and strengthen weak, inhibited muscles. Here are the three phases.
Phase One: Mobilise the joints
This mini sequence is designed to mobilise the shoulders, neck, upper and mid back, to enhance circulation and loosen up joint restrictions.
Timing and frequency
You can do these exercises several times a day.
Phase Two: Stretch tight muscles
Here are 4 poses that stretch the muscles that are tight and as a result, pulling joints out of alignment and causing tension elsewhere.
Timing and frequency
Hold each of the poses for at least 3 minutes. This style of yoga is called Yin yoga and it's best practiced later in the day when your muscles are warm and pliable. Long-hold stretches are not recommended before exercising. You may experience discomfort in the poses but pull back if it feels painful.
1. Prone-Twisted Scorpion
- Stretches the chest (pec major and minor), fronts of the shoulders (anterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles) and biceps.
- Re-positions the shoulder blades (scapulae).
- Increases thoracic spine (mid-back) mobility.
- Releases tension in the neck (levator scapulae and sternocleidomastoid).
- Lie face down on your belly with your hands underneath your shoulders.
- Bring your right arm straight out to the side, palm facing down. Bend your left leg and press into your left hand to twist your body open to the left.
- Bring your left foot flat to the mat behind your right leg and let the weight of your left knee increase the intensity of the twist. Relax your left arm.
- Find a position where your head is comfortable. You might want to rest it on a cushion or your left hand.
- You can adjust the position of your right hand according to where you need the stretch.
- Hold the pose for 3-5 minutes, breathing deep into your abdomen and releasing tension on every exhalation.
- This stretch is super intense so when you’re ready, carefully release the pose and switch sides.
2. Puppy With Hands In Reverse Prayer
- Stretches the lats, rib cage (serratus anterior), shoulders, chest and triceps.
- Re-aligns the shoulder blades and the muscles that support the shoulder blades.
- Releases tension in the upper back and neck.
- Come to all fours. Bring your elbows down to rest on blocks or a pillow and your palms together behind your head in reverse prayer.
- Check that your hips are directly over your knees—knees are hip-width apart.
- Stay in the pose for 3-5 minutes, drawing your hips back.
- Stretches the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
- Increases thoracic spine mobility.
- Re-aligns and strengthens the muscles that support the shoulder blades.
- Strengthens the muscles in the front of the neck (deep cervical flexors).
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead.
- Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down and walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels.
- Press into your feet and lift your hips all the way up. Position a block underneath your sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of the spine) and completely relax down onto it. You can stand the block on its end or on its side.
- Roll your shoulders underneath you to increase the stretch across the fronts of your shoulders.
- Hold the pose for at least 3 minutes, breathing deep into your abdomen. Inflate your belly on the inhalation and let it fall back down on every exhalation.
- Remove the block and lower back down to the mat when you're ready.
- Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest. Walk your feet to the edges of the mat and drop both knees to the right, and to the left. Windscreen wiping your knees a few times to release your lower back.
4. Supported Fish
- Opens up the chest and the fronts of shoulders.
- Re-positions the shoulder blades.
- Increases thoracic spine mobility.
- Relaxes the neck.
- Lie on your back with your head and mid-back resting on blocks or pillows.
- Let your arms fall out to the sides, palms facing up and completely let go of tension.
- Stay in the pose for at least 3 minutes.
- Releases tension throughout the body.
- Calms the central nervous system.
- Re-establishes proper postural alignment.
- Lie flat on your back. Let your feet come as wide as the mat and fall open.
- Relax your hands, palms facing up, shoulder blades rest evenly on the ground.
- Try to position your body so that you are aligned symmetrically.
- Close your eyes and allow your body and mind to completely relax.
- Let go of tension in your jaw, throat, neck, chest and shoulders.
- Seal your lips and breathe deep into your abdomen, letting go of tension on every exhalation.
- You can stay in the pose for up to 20 minutes.
- To come out of the pose, bring gentle movement into your fingers and toes, stretch your arms up overhead, roll onto your right side and bring your knees to your chest. Turn your belly button to face the mat and push yourself up to sitting with both hands.
Phase Three: Strengthen weak muscles
When you have loosened up joint restrictions and stretched tight muscles that are pulling the joints out of their optimal position, you can start to strengthen the weak or inhibited areas—primarily the mid-back (lower traps, rhomboids, and serratus anterior), the backs of the shoulders (anterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles) and the muscles in the front of the neck (deep cervical flexors).
The shoulder joint is particularly vulnerable to injury, so it is essential that you strengthen the supporting structures and teach them to work as integrated units, especially if they are weak and de-conditioned.
Timing and frequency
Hold each of these poses for 5-10 breaths, staying fully engaged throughout. You can do them at any time of day, but ideally not too close to bedtime as they are fairly energising. You can practice them together or separately, choosing a different poses a day if you prefer.
For full instructions for each of these poses, click on the image.
Other things you can do
- Posture. Try to maintain good posture throughout the day as you're sitting, standing and exercising.
- Stretch breaks. Take regular breaks during the day to release tension in the chest, shoulders, upper back and neck.
- Warm up and cool-down. This is crucial, especially as you age, to reduce your risk of injury.
- Massage. You can't beat regular massage to break up scar tissue and soften tight muscles. Self-massage is good too.
- Self-myofascial release. Use a lacrosse ball or foam roller to release trigger points in the chest, upper back and neck.
I have put together a 5-video mini series to target pain and tightness in the neck, shoulders and upper back. You can find out more and watch your FREE 3-Minute Upper Body Mobility routine here: yogaforneckandshoulders