What to do about tight shoulders and achy back caused by desk job, driving or athletic training?
Many people experience shoulder limitations – perhaps you cannot join your hands behind your back, your shoulders feel tense or you have one shoulder more mobile than the other. Most shoulder issues are caused by muscle tightness or imbalance and Yoga is a great tool to remedy that. Let’s learn more about tight shoulders and how we can improve them!
The shoulder is formed by the shoulder blade, the collarbone, and the arm bone. The arm bone head fits into the bowl-like hollow in the shoulder blade and the shape of this joint is one that allows the maximum range of motion – the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body! Or at least it should be.
Your arm should be capable of all these movements in the shoulder joint: adduction, abduction, flexion, extension, internal rotation, external rotation, and 360° circular movement. The only anatomical limitation is that when you raise your arm up over your head, at some point the arm bone meets the upper parts of the collarbone and shoulder blade and this stops it from going further. Any other limitation you may be experiencing is in the soft tissues. It’s because the shoulder is surrounded by strong muscles and tendons and if any one of them is shortened, it limits the shoulder range of motion. This can cause bad posture or it may be caused by bad posture, too.
See? So working on your shoulder mobility can help to transform your posture and good posture may prevent shoulder issues such as tight shoulders.
The same goes for an imbalance in shoulder mobility on each side – if each shoulder has a different range of motion, it suggests a disbalanced training or work pattern and it may have a knock-on effect on your posture.
This may sound familiar – the muscles connecting the neck and shoulders are prone to tensing up, the trapezius in particular. When you’re stressed, these muscles contract and can even lift the shoulders, which causes stiffness and pain over time. When you realize it and relax your shoulders, that’s great! But more often than not, our shoulders ride up and stay there, even in training, and especially in many Yoga positions.
It’s the reason why the common Yoga alignment cue is “relax your shoulders away from the ears, keep your neck straight”. And it just so happens that relaxing your shoulders may not just release some of the physical but also mental tension.
By the way, are you reading this with your head hanging low and hunched shoulders? That’s another bad habit and a product of our time that can cause shoulder issues and poor posture – we all need to keep reminding ourselves to straighten up! Hunched shoulders cause shortening of your pecs, pulling your shoulders permanently forward.
Using a smartphone is a bad posture trap and there’s no other solution but to be mindful of how you use it and what shape your body’s in. On the other hand, there is a prescription for good posture for computer work – your back should be straight, including the neck, and your knees and elbows should be at right angles, so play around with your chair height and screen height to achieve the ideal set up. It can help more than you might think!
If in your training, you focus more on the anterior chain muscles – pecs, abs, quads, etc. – this may be pulling your shoulders strongly forward, contributing to shoulder stiffness and bad posture. To have a healthy back and mobile shoulders, it’s absolutely crucial to pay attention to the posterior chain muscles too – the whole back, glutes, hamstrings, etc. These muscles hold us upright but they’re not automatically strong.
How can Yoga help?
Regular Yoga practice helps to rectify shoulder imbalances – it strengthens the muscles but also stretches them. If you cannot join your hands behind your back just yet, all you need is time and practice. Just like with other muscles, it’s important not to force anything beyond the pain threshold, so you don’t actually tear the muscles. Be patient and success will come.
When it comes to shoulder mobility exercises, there’s one big advantage – hands! If you find something too difficult, adjust your grip or hand position, or use a strap in some Yoga poses where your hands are behind you and you struggle to keep them there.
For overall back health and posture, Yoga is ideal because each practice deliberately alternates spine movements forward, back, sideways, and rotations, in order to mobilize the whole back. It stretches, strengthens and realigns your body.
Try our dedicated Back and Shoulders mobility practice!
The cues you hear during the practice are useful to take off the mat too – your neck should always be in line with the rest of your spine, your chin not sticking out or dropping down, upper back straightened, shoulder blades together and down, and a natural curve in the lower back. That natural curve is important – your pelvis shouldn’t be tilting too much forward or back to offer the best support. Try both extremes, and settle somewhere in the middle.
Many of the Yoga poses best for tight shoulders involve some kind of backward bending action. Why? Simply because tight shoulders usually mean shoulders being pulled forward so one of the remedies is to pull them back. To achieve the maximum effect, if you bend your upper spine backward too, it opens not just your shoulders but your chest as well. It stretches your pecs, front deltoids and neck flexors, while strengthening rhomboids, transverse trapezius, and neck extensors. While all this is great, some people shy away from backbends because of lower back pain.
Although backbends can be challenging, don’t avoid them if your back hurts (unless you’re injured). They activate the posterior chain muscles, so are important for a healthy back and shoulder release. You don’t have to do the full pose but go at least a part of the way – find your edge and breathe there.
The last tip for protecting your lower back is to engage your core – that supports your back in the best possible way, no matter what pose you’re in. And because a strong core is crucial for a pain-free back, include plank variations and opposite arm and leg lifts in your practice. Try our Core Strength and Stability practice that includes both core strengthening and shoulder opening!
Our Yoga practices, such as the Back and Shoulders mobility one, equip you with the best tools for shoulder mobility, healthy back and strong core but remember to also get up and stretch if you’re sitting for long periods of time. Even when you’re seated, you can lift your arms up and slowly let them open to the sides, just below shoulder-level, bend your upper spine back and let your head tilt back too – this is an easy counterpose to computer work and driving. Breathe there and relax. It’s the little things that make a big difference!