I always knew that I had bad posture from work (sitting down and typing all day), but I didn’t realize just how bad it was and what it was blocking me from achieving anything until a couple months ago, when I started working more seriously on handstands. Turns out it’s hard to align your body correctly upside down if your overhead range of motion is even a little bit limited. Then I started noticing what other things having tight shoudlers and upper back was hindering me from, among others forearm stand and overhead grip in dancer’s pose or bow. Even in simpler poses like superman I saw a stark difference between how high I was able to raise my arms compared to others.
Here’s a simple test to see if you’re affected: stand with your back against a wall, lower back touching the wall. Feet further away from wall will make it easier. Raise your hands straight up and then try to touch the wall behind you. Can you reach it without bending the arms? I can’t fully, I need to turn my hands and have a slight bend so I can touch it with at least my thumb. But it’s been getting better.
It was a mix of passive and active flexibility, the latter often called mobility. Passive flexibility is in a sense a prerequisite to active, but it won’t be enough or safe on its own, which is why you should work on strengthening the muscles at the end of their range of motion. If you’re already used to mostly passive stretching, the simplest way to start this is by squeezing, holding and releasing muscles when you’re in the stretch. Search for PNF or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation if you want to learn more. However, I’d recommend adding in more active and strengthening poses, some of which are mentioned below.
If you want to do more reading on the topic, related issues are sometimes called Upper Crossed Syndrome. It’s pretty common in this day and age, especially if you have a desk job.
This is what I do on a regular basis (2 – 5 times a week depending on the exercise) to improve my posture, undo and reverse desk job damage, and strengthen the shoulders for advanced poses.
Warm up & dynamic
I always start with a few of these when performing upper body exercises. They’re a nice way to check in with your body and see how tight you are feeling on a particular day.
Start with extended cat cow (I think there’s a better name for this but can’t find it currently…): place your hands on a surface about hip-height or a bit higher in front of you. Stand back so that your spine is straight and arm stretched. Bend as you would in cat-cow pose in yoga, pushing your chest through, then raising it up.
The next one has a scary name, but tends to feel pretty good. It’s called shoulder dislocates, and uses bands (or a towel, stick or any other long item). Grab the prop with your hands wide and straight in front of you, then circle your arms all the way back (above your head and then behind your back) while keeping them straight. Go as narrow as your body allows while still keeping your arms straight. I do about 10 reps of these.
Last, but not least, are swimmers. Start similar to superman, with your forehead on the floor. Lift your hands, then move them to the side and then towards your back. Keep your arm straight and hands as high off the floor as possible. Then circle back up and repeat. Make sure your lower back isn’t arching too much by keeping your pelvis tucked under. I would do about 10 reps, often with pulses at start-, mid- and endpoints.
A simple, effective and extensible exercise for this is superman and its variations. Lie face down on the floor, arms stretched up in front of you. Lift your hands while keeping your head on the floor and arms straight to get into the shoulder. To get more in the upper back/chest area, lift the head too, looking forward. If you want to engage the full back body, lift the feet as well. You can make tiny circles or other movements with the arms. If these are too easy, you can add light weights. Aim towards 30 seconds.
Full wheel/upward bow (urddhva dhanurasana in yoga) is pretty much the ultimate heart opener, but it may not be achievable at the start. Try to straighten your arms and push your chest forward. People often recommend bridge as a substitute for this in yoga class, but while it will strengthen the back body, it won’t get into the shoulders at all, so if that’s your blocker you need to add in something else.
Another active shoulder strengthening pose I like to practice regularly is dolphin (downward dog with elbows on the floor), working up towards pincha mayurasana (forearm balance). If this is tough (I remember how horrible it felt when I first started yoga), work on downward dog, and slowly bending your elbows towards the floor.
More passive holds
As mentioned above, I recommend making this more active by engaging your muscles at your end range.
The main one I practice is puppy pose in yoga. Come into tabletop, then stretch your hands further out in front of you. Remain kneeling with your hips directly above knees, but try to get your chin and later chest towards the floor. To make this more active, keep your fingertips on the floor but raise your palms.
A standing variation of this is sometimes descriptively called “chest to wall“. Raise your hands up to the sky, place them on the wall, and touch the wall with your chest as well while keeping your hips away.