In a perfect world, the shoulder would be one of the most mobile regions in our bodies. It is comprised of the shoulder (or glenohumeral) joint, the space where the arm connects to the body, and the shoulder (or pectoral) girdle, which includes the collarbone, the shoulder blade and their surrounding muscles. In both of these areas, there is great opportunity for movements in all planes of motion. However, despite the possibilities available in the anatomical “best case scenario”, the majority of us suffer from a general lack of flexibility in this region. Of course, each person has individual reasons for this and they are often multifactorial. However, one of the most common factors contributing to this decreased range of motion is too much time spent in static postures or a narrow range of repetitive movements. Being hunched over isn’t necessarily “the problem” – it’s being constantly hunched over for hours and hours without switching it up. Studies have shown that what is generally considered “good posture” has very little correlation with a lack of pain in the shoulder region (or anywhere, actually). Just as standing 100% of the time is not the fix for the discomfort caused by continual sitting, throwing your shoulders back and sticking your chest out 100% of the time is not the solution for hunching. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. My clients who work at computers will inevitably spend a large part of their day with their arms in front of them, rotated inwardly, just as I will inevitably spend much of my day with my arm rotated so that I can put my forearm on a client’s body in front of me. We need to accept that SOME of these postures are unavoidable consequences of our biomechanical environment, but we have agency over how much movement we can sneak in even within limitations. If we are mindful of performing a variety of opposing movements, we can avoid some of the discomforts and range of motion issues experienced by our modern lifestyles. One simple way to focus on this is to periodically lengthen the muscles that become continually contracted through daily living. Stretching a muscle will not necessarily produce any permanent changes in muscle length, but introducing motion in a different direction can ultimately increase the range of motion. From my clinical experience, two of the main muscles that could benefit from this temporary lengthening on almost everyone are pectoralis minor and subscapularis, both in the shoulder region.
Pec minor is a small but very important muscle in the chest region. It originates on the surfaces of the third, fourth and fifth ribs and attaches to the coracoid process of the scapula, which is the little hook-like structure of the shoulder blade which sticks out on the front of the body. It pulls the shoulder blade medially, forward and down. In other words, when it contracts we end up in the “hunch” position. Click here for a 30-second video of pectoralis minor in action. Since many of us end up in this position chronically, it’s helpful to alternate our computer work / driving / massaging with short bouts of lengthening. The doorway stretch is excellent for accomplishing this and can be done any time we pass through doorway, or, for example, every time we get up to get water or on our way back from the restroom. Here is Brent Brookbush demonstrating proper form for this stretch:
Subscapularis is another muscle which can easily become chronically contracted. It is the internal muscle of the rotator cuff, originating on the interior surface of the shoulder blade (the part against the ribcage that we can’t normally touch) and attaching to the humerus of the arm. Other than the stabilizing function of the rotator cuff muscles as a group, subscapularis is responsible mainly for rotating the arm medially, or inward. Video here. Hunch posture starting to sound familiar? Performing a broomstick stretch once in a while to lengthen this muscle is an easy way to counteract that habit. I like Dr. Mandell’s version:
We may not be able to incorporate constant gentle movement into every moment of our days. If we have desk jobs, we are going to sit a lot and perhaps hunch a lot. The important thing is to try to switch it up when we can. These are but two easy ways to do that. Of course, you could also get your massage therapist to help you release these muscles too 🙂