Many of us are cell phone addicts. Even young people in their teens and twenties suffer from rounded shoulders because of this addiction. So how do we correct that? Well, let’s put the phone down and move! However, it is easy to think that we can correct our posture by simply pulling our shoulders back. The rationale goes like this: if they are protracted forward (agonist motion), we do the opposite by retracting them (antagonist motion). In reality, however, we need to BOTH protract and retract the shoulders, and then go beyond that. We need to perform both the agonist and the antagonist motions, as well as engaging the rest of the body to restore optimal posture.
Bad Posture Changes the Shape of Fascia
When our shoulders are habitually hunched, our upper back muscles (trapezius and rhomboids) are overstretched and weak. On the other side, the antagonistic muscles in our chest (the pectorals) are tight and weak. Both lack the strength and flexibility to pull up our upper spine and maintain good posture.
The reason those muscles lose their strength and flexibility is because a persistently hunched position alters the shape of our fascia. Fascia is network of fluid, moist, collagen connective tissues that bands and bundles our muscles, giving them shape. (In latin fascia literally means to “band” and “bundle.”) When we frequently text, surf, and play games on our cell phones, we are molding our fascia to a hunched shape. Over time, the lack of movement causes fascia to dry out and solidify, locking us in that rounded posture. The malleable, fluid matrix turns into a hunched shell. (This may be exaggerating, but you get the idea.) The muscle fibers, on the other hand, become trapped and locked in tight fascia, unable to contract and extend to their full range, losing strength and flexibility. It is a classic case of “use it or lose it.”
Correcting Fascia Needs Both Agonist and Antagonist Motions, and More
To correct rounded shoulders, therefore, we can’t simply pull our arms and shoulders back. That is thinking only in terms of muscles. Instead, we need to start by loosening tight fascia and remodel it. While ball rolling, foam rolling and manual manipulation can help to loosen solidified fascia, only active motions can remodel it and restore its youthful crimp shape. This is why movements are essential. More specifically, it is through slow, multi-directional movements that we regain healthy fascia.
(For more on fascia remodeling, read “What Do Kangaroos Teach Us About Movements and Aging?”)
For this reason, while it may feel counterintuitive, as part of a suite of corrective movements, we protract our rounded shoulders further. In Essentrics, for example, we often round our spine and shoulders forward, then pull up with our arms, and open both our arms and shoulders back and down. We do so fluidly without holding the stretch in any position. Both the trapezius in the back and the pectorals in the front take turn to lengthen and shorten. Our fascia, on the other hand, stretches in all directions.
What’s more, by pulling up instead of simply protracting and retracting our shoulders, we also work our shoulder joints (rotator cuff) to maximize their range of motion. When we habitually lock our body in a rounded posture with little movement, the rotator cuff stiffens. Calcium deposits begin accumulating in those joints. To floss them out, we need to move the arm in every direction naturally allowed by the joint. Since our arms connect to the body through ball-and-socket joints, we need to do rotational movements. Therefore we pull our arms forward and up and back before coming down. This “oils” the joint and evenly engages all the muscles around it, rebalancing weak and strong muscles. Again, each muscle around the rotator cuff gets to lengthen and shorten.
By remodeling our fascia and flossing our joints, our muscles are able to extend and contract to their full range, thereby regaining strength and flexibility. This allows us to pull up and maintain good posture.
Agonist-Antagonist Motions from Head to Toe
By the same token, we rebalance our full body by doing both agonist and antagonistic motions from head to toe. Often when runners develop very tight calves, they would stretch only the calves. It is helpful to alternate stretching with contracting those same fibers. In Essentrics, for example, we would stretch both the shin and the calves to achieve that. When we flex our feet, we stretch our calves (agonist muscles). Then we point our feet to contract them as we stretch the shin (antagonist muscles). Through repeating this alternation several times, and keeping the stretch dynamic rather than holding it, we loosen the calves more effectively. Another Essentrics movement for this purpose is lifting our heels off the floor (contracting the calves), before landing our heels and bending our knees (extending the calves). It employs the same agonist-antagonist principle, with the added benefit of strengthening our ankles, feet, and balance.
Beyond the Obvious
While our rounded shoulders may capture our attention, we can’t just work on our shoulders alone. Often, rounded shoulders are rarely the only postural issue. It can also mean compressed lower back and tilted pelvis, because all the parts are connected. Therefore, to fully correct our shoulders, we need to engage, strengthen and lengthen the whole body. This is why in Essentrics we always work from head to toe, engaging all +650 muscles. We can’t just pull the arms back to regain healthy posture.
We Are More Than Just Muscles
Our body is far more than just muscles. When we need to correct our posture, therefore, we also need to think about other elements such as fascia, bones and joints. Simply doing one motion for the affected area won’t do. It is only when the entire body is balanced that we can stand tall and look good!