In the previous parts of this series on upper and lower crossed syndromes, we established the fact that our bodies are connected through the kinetic chain, and that when one muscle group slacks off, another has to pick up the extra work. This creates imbalances in stability and mobility (strength and length, sthira and sukha) in the body.
Remember the imbalances that constitute upper crossed syndrome? Tight pectorals and anterior deltoids, weak mid and lower trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior, tight upper trapezius and levator scapula, and weak neck flexors. To counter the tightness that plagues muscles effected by upper crossed syndrone, we must open the chest, anterior deltoids (fronts of the shoulders), upper trapezius, and levator scapula, as well as strengthen the neck flexors, mid and lower trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior.
So where do we begin? We want to start by cultivating more mobility in the right places. Stability arises from properly functioning proprioception (your body’s perception of its movement and spatial orientation), and proprioception cannot function properly if limitations in mobility exist. Once proper mobility is established, there will be less restriction in the joints and strengthening can occur more effectively. Here are some specific mobility and strengthening poses/exercises aimed to help correct imbalances associated with upper crossed syndrome.
Chest: Anterior Deltoid Stretch
Lie down on a foam roller with your entire spine supported (sacrum to skull). (You can also do this on a half foam roller if you don’t have a full one (see photo below), or a rolled blanket, towel, or mat if it’s a little too intense on the roller.) Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Bring your elbows and shoulders to 90 degrees, so the upper arms are perpendicular to the roller, and your forearms are parallel to the roller (like a goal post). Relax your elbows and wrists toward the floor (they may or may not reach). Try to keep your forearms parallel to the floor; the wrists will want to be further away from the floor than the elbows, but try not to let that happen. You should feel the stretch across the chest muscles and maybe even the fronts of the shoulders. Your elbows and wrists probably won’t touch the floor, and that’s okay. Make sure your lower ribs aren’t jutting out. Work on allowing your body to relax and letting your chest and shoulders open for at least five steady breaths.
If you don’t have a foam roller, try standing in a doorway with your arms out and bent to 90-degree angles, like a goal post. Step one foot forward through the doorway with your elbows and forearms on the doorframe to feel the stretch.
Arms: Cow Face (Gomukhasana)
This is a great stretch that you can perform anywhere, seated or standing. Inhale to stretch your right arm up toward the ceiling and your left arm down toward the floor. As you exhale, bend both elbows to stretch the fingers toward each other. The right elbow is pointing up toward the ceiling, and the left elbow is pointing down toward the floor. The palm of the left hand should face away from you while the palm of the right hand is facing your back. Don’t worry if your fingers don’t touch—most people’s don’t. If that’s the case, use a strap or towel to make the connection. Make sure your chin doesn’t drop, your chest stays lifted, and your lower ribs aren’t jutting out. Your shoulders should be level with the ground; one shoulder shouldn’t be higher than the other.
Many believe this stretch (in this orientation) is meant to target the right (top) arm; however, it’s actually more beneficial for the left (bottom) shoulder, especially the anterior deltoid. The tendency is for the left shoulder to roll in and forward and for the scapula (shoulder blade) to “wing” out (the path of least resistance). In order to really target that anterior deltoid however, you have to draw your shoulder blade back and down, flattening the scapulae against the rib cage, and roll the front of the left shoulder open.
Hold and enjoy this stretch for five to seven relaxed breaths on each side.
Neck Area: Trapezius Stretch and Myofascial Release
Seated or standing, relax your right ear down toward your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders level with the floor; avoid letting one shoulder lift higher than the other. Relax your left arm down, and imagine you’re reaching for something on the floor with your left hand. To amplify the stretch, bring your right hand to the left side of your head to apply gentle pressure. Experiment by slowly lowering and lifting your chin to find a better stretch. If you find a particularly tight spot, hold there and take several relaxed breaths. Repeat on the other side.
If you have a tennis or lacrosse ball, use it up against a wall to pinpoint any trigger points in the upper trap or neck. Stand with your back to the wall, and place the ball between your neck or upper trapezius and the wall. Gently lean back into the ball to create more pressure against the tight muscle. You may need to search around for a tight spot. If you find a particularly troublesome spot, hold the ball there and take at least five relaxed breaths. By holding pressure on a problem spot or trigger point, you tell the brain that it’s okay to let go of the tension. You can also try this technique lying on the floor, which is a little more intense.
Lying on the floor or standing up against a wall, pretend that you want to touch the back of your neck to the wall or floor behind you. It won’t touch, but you should feel your chin tuck slightly and the crown of your head lift. It should almost feel like you have a double chin. It can be helpful to place a rolled up towel behind the neck to provide something to press into. This motion is strengthening the muscles on the front of the neck and lengthening muscles at the base of your skull, which will help create optimal length/strength balance in the cervical spine (neck). Hold for five to seven relaxed breaths or perform 10 to 15 repetitions. This movement can also be easily performed during your yoga practice, especially in poses lying faceup on the floor, like pavanamuktasana (knee-to-chest pose) or a supine figure-4 stretch.
Resistance Band Row
Loop a resistance band around something that is approximately hip-height (a doorknob is usually good). Facing your doorknob or anchor point, keep your posture tall and your elbows in (not splaying open) while you use both arms to pull the resistance band toward you. Depending on the tension of your resistance band, you will have to adjust how close to the anchor point you are standing. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull your elbows back. Keep your chest lifted and your core engaged. You may want to take a staggered stance to keep your foundation more stable and to avoid being pulled forward by the band. Perform as many repetitions as you can (15 to 40, depending on the resistance of the band) to fatigue (while maintaining good form).
See Jenni Rawlings' article, Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance Part 2 for other great strengthening exercises for this muscle group.
These exercises will help correct imbalances associated with upper crossed syndrome as well as improve your posture, helping to prevent discomfort and injury. These improvements in posture will also help you breathe more efficiently, allowing you to take more air into the body so more oxygen can be delivered to the muscles. This will keep your energy level and mood elevated. Remember, the more we can train our minds and bodies to have balanced patterns (sthira and sukha), the healthier our joints and bodies will be!
Stay tuned for lower crossed corrective exercises!