Having just returned from a long-postponed road trip, I was unceremoniously reminded that car or plane travel can cause us (me) to stiffen up. It’s great to get away, but having no choice but to hold one position for hours on end can mean needing some time to get the kinks out.
An area that can take the brunt of prolonged sitting is our shoulders. The entire shoulder area can easily get tight, locked in, and stuck in a chronic stooped posture. Going on a long trip is not the only time this can happen. We can easily get tight shoulders during the day from prolonged sitting at a desk, computer, or TV.
Shoulders Were Made to Move
Shoulders that don’t move very much are not happy shoulders. The joint where our upper arm meets the shoulder (glenohumeral joint) is one of the most mobile in our bodies. And, when our arm moves, so does the scapula that sit on our rib cage. The whole design is made to let us do a myriad of activities. We can do arm circles in many directions, throw objects, serve a tennis ball, swim, reach for things on high shelves, or lift weights above our heads, to the side, or even to the back.
When we don’t take the time to regularly move our shoulder joint, the muscles will not prioritize maintaining these motions. That is another way of saying they become weak and inflexible. When a muscle is not moved through its full range of motion, it loses strength in that range of motion. This is called lack of mobility. When a muscle loses its ability to lengthen, it is called lack of flexibility. These days this kind of thing is really common. In fact, research tells us that almost 67% of us will experience shoulder pain at some time in our lives. This is right up there with people who will experience low back pain sometime in their lives (80%).
Here are a few dynamic movements to loosen up the shoulders, neck, and upper back. These moves also provide an awareness of how the shoulders, neck, and upper back work together to create movement for us.
A few of the finer points before you start:
- These have been designed to be done laying down on your back. Not only does this give you a chance to chill, but it also helps with alignment right away. You can use gravity to get you into a good position, and relax there. If you do these movements standing up, the possibility is there to arch the back, which may cause your ribs to flare out. You may also unconsciously hike your shoulders up toward your ears. Laying down on your back eliminates those tendencies.
- You can add to the effectiveness of these moves by consciously releasing the back of your neck. Not by actively pressing the back of your neck into the mat, but just a “letting go.” This is something they frequently do in yoga.
These four exercises will get your muscles back to resting length (i.e., get rid of tightness). The moves will also lubricate your shoulder joint, scapula, and mid back. It’s a win-win. You can do these after a workout, before a workout, or after prolonged sitting.
For each one of these moves, start by lying on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor, arms straight and down by your sides.
With arms staying straight, bring one arm overhead, until your hand touches the floor above your head. Then bring it back down by your side. Do the other arm. Repeat, alternating, 10-20 times. No need to hurry! Take it slow and smooth, moving from your shoulders.
2. Skull Crushers.
Bend your elbows and keep elbows bent at the same angle throughout this movement. (See set-up below.) Move your arms overhead until the hands touch the floor. This move will come from the shoulder joint only, not the arms. Return arms to touch the elbows to the floor at your side. This is one rep. Repeat 10 times. You may feel a nice release in the back of your neck as you do this.
3. Shoulder Reach, Positions 1 and 2.
Raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling. For Position 1, keep the hands about a foot apart. Keeping the arms straight and everything else on the mat, push your shoulders up by reaching your arms toward the ceiling. This is not a huge motion, but just enough to get your shoulder blades to move away from the floor a little. Then flatten the shoulder blades back down to the floor. Repeat 10 times. For Position 2, do the same move but keep your hands about 16 inches apart. You will feel a slight difference in how your shoulder blades move compared to Position 1.
4. Open Arms, Alternating.
Raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling as in the starting position for shoulder reach. Do not lift your shoulders off the floor as you did in the reach. Hands can be touching or slightly apart. Keeping the arms straight, bring one arm directly to the side so that it touches the floor. Return it to its original position. Do the same with the other arm. Continue to open the arms, alternating, 10 times.
As indicated, these moves are modifications of similar ones you can do while standing. Laying down offers you the chance to relax your body into the floor so that you can focus on how your shoulder joint, scapula, mid back, and back of your neck are all working together as they loosen up. This awareness can set you up for good alignment during the day. And, the release of tension feels great!
© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: champja | istock