You’re aware you shouldn’t be slouching at your desk all day. But what you may not know is that slouching doesn’t just reinforce bad posture — it robs you of upper-body strength. Picture it: When you hunch, shoulders rounded forward, you stretch tight all the muscles in your upper back. This saps them of power (wonder why you struggle on a pull-up bar?) and reduces your core strength. Aside from getting your chin over a bar, this can also lead to neck, shoulder, and low-back pain and injuries.
When I say “upper back,” the exact muscles I’m talking about are the latissimus dorsi and the lower trapezius, or the lats and lower traps. These muscles are responsible for keeping your shoulder blades pulled down and your body upright, which, as a physical therapist, I would argue are equally important jobs. When the lats and lower traps are working correctly, they keep your body strong, balanced, and pain free.
Unfortunately, in my clinical experience I find that most folks have incredibly weak lats and lower traps. Many of us don’t target these muscles when we exercise. And, making matters worse, most of us sit at desks with poor posture that, day after day, weakens these muscles significantly by stretching them too far to fire properly. This leaves the upper traps alone as the main muscles to do work. You can guess what happens next: The upper traps get over worked, and this creates further imbalance and weakness in the lats and lower traps, and perpetuates the poor position of the shoulder blades. It’s a vicious cycle.
This makes a big difference at the gym. Your shoulder blades create stability, and a steady base to generate more force through your arms. If they’re out of position, when you go to do those push-ups or pull-ups, you’re not going to have the strength and power you could have. It’s like trying to use a shovel with a wobbly or broken handle.
If that wasn’t bad enough, your abdominals can also be affected by weak lats. The lats and the external obliques share an attachment site at the ribs; tension on one side activates the other, so when your lats are firing, it’s easier to use your obliques. Powerful lats create a stronger core, while tight, weak lats create sloppier abs.
Now that you know what slouching really does to your back, it’s time to do something about it. To start, you need to release the tight upper-back muscles so your shoulder blades can get back into the right position. Then you’ll strengthen those lats and lower traps to help your shoulder stay in place.
Upper Trap Release
- Stand with your shoulder under a weighted barbell in a rack. (You can also use a lacrosse ball placed half way between the neck and edge of the shoulder on the restricted side, against a wall.)
- Move left and right until you find a tender area. Next, shrug your shoulder up and down for 45 seconds, or until the tension resolves.
- Stand facing a wall. Place a lacrosse ball two inches below the collarbone and toward your armpit.
- Lean your body into the ball, and move right and left until you find a tender area.
- Next, move your arm forward and back, then up and down.
- Do these movements for 45 seconds, or until the tension resolves.
Strengthen: Wall Dips
- Stand facing a wall, about four feet away, with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Lean toward the wall and, with straight arms, place palms against the wall with thumbs facing up and fingers pointing out to the side.
- Bend forward at your waist while dropping your chest toward the ground, and pushing your hips and butt backward.
- Shrug your shoulder blades down your back as you bend, and press palms into the wall to feel your upper-back muscles engage.
- Come back to starting position. Do 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.
Strengthen: Kneeling Lat Pull Downs
- This can be performed using resistance bands or a cable resistance machine. You should be two feet out from the anchor so you can pull down and back.
- Kneel on a pad, chest upright, shoulders down and back, abs engaged, knees hip-width apart.
- Lead with your elbows to pull down until your elbows form a 90 degree angle, forearms parallel to the ground.
- Keep your elbows close to the body. Do 3 sets of 15 reps.
Strengthen: Prone Lower Trap Slides
- Lie facedown on a smooth surface with arms out to the side and elbows bent to 90 degrees.
- Gently press your forearms into the floor to lift your chest an inch off the ground.
- Keeping your forearms and elbows on the floor, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, and pull your torso an inch or so forward, then push back to your starting position. Repeat for 3 sets of 15 reps.
David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy, is the creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Reavy works with numerous pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the WNBA.