Rounded shoulders: causes and solutions

Man sits at desk with laptop rubbing his shoulder.Look at the average person walking through the average industrialized nation and you’ll notice something:

His shoulders are rounded inward.

Look at yourself right now reading these words and you will probably notice something:

Their the shoulders are rounded inwards.

Older kids, teens, adults, athletes, weight lifters, grandmas, moms, dads, students, baristas, just about everyone. It’s rare to see someone with neutral shoulders, shoulders that sit in their sockets as nature intended, instead of rolling and rounding inward in perpetual internal rotation.

Why is this?

The problem of rounding the shoulders

First, let’s explore why rounded shoulders are bad.

First principles tell us that what is intrinsic and natural to our skeletal structure is ideal and optimal. Our natural state is not to rest in the round-shouldered position. It is having neutral shoulders, shoulders that sit in their sockets, neither externally nor internally rotated. shoulders that just are. Young children tend to have these stable, neutral shoulder positions, mainly because they are closer to their natural state and less altered by the trappings and designs of modern society.

But let’s get more specific with the issues that stem from rounded shoulders:

  • It promotes forward tilting of the head, which creates a lot of tension in the neck, makes breathing difficult and reduces lung capacity.
  • It begins to pull the rest of your torso forward as well, hence the hunchback that is so prevalent in people who are too young to have anything to do.
  • When the shoulders are constantly rounded, the supraspinatus tendon tends to get pinched against the bony bridge that runs from the clavicle to the shoulders, especially if you’re lifting objects overhead or pressing. This can cause pain, wear, and degeneration.
  • It’s not attractive. This may seem inconsequential, but it is an important signifier. Aesthetics in many respects represents utility, form, and function.

To get an exaggerated sense of what rounded shoulders are doing to your shoulder function, try extending your shoulder blades all the way (roll your shoulders as far forward as possible by extending your shoulder blades). Now, try raising your arms straight over your head, as if you were performing an overhead press or preparing for a dead-hang chin-up. You can’t do it comfortably. Your shoulders are out of place. Do the opposite: retract and draw your shoulder blades back, then raise your arms above your head. It should be much easier. This is how the shoulders are supposed to work.

What causes rounded shoulders?

Excessive use of laptops and computers

Sitting, typing, and intensely concentrating on a screen inches below and in front of us has created a nation of drooping shoulders, protracted shoulder blades, unstable shoulder joints, and tight pecs. It gets worse when you lean on your elbows and forearms to work, because then you’re turning that round-shouldered position into a resting position, the “baseline” your body expects.

too much time on the phone

Pick up your phone and look at it. How did you do it? Did she hold it at eye level with shoulders externally rotated, or did she hold it at belly level and look down with shoulders internally rotated/rounded? Now do that for 6-8 hours a day.

You may find that one shoulder is more of a problem than the other: it leans more forward than the other, it hurts more during training, it’s stiff when you wake up. In my experience, this is almost always caused by too much time on the phone using one hand over the other.

sadness and discouragement

This is going to be controversial, but it’s true in my experience. Extreme sadness, melancholy, lack of direction, and depression cause you to “look down” and return to the round-shouldered position. And it goes both ways. Being in that position of consistently rounded shoulders promotes looking down and prevents you from seeing beauty, from looking up and forward, from moving toward your purpose. You look down and you’re going to move down, both literally and figuratively.

They support each other in a vicious circle.

Too much push and shove, not enough pull

People, especially fitness beginners, tend to focus primarily on “push” muscles with push-ups, bench presses, overhead presses, and dips. The ones you can see in the mirror. The ones you can hit with some quick push-ups whenever you feel like it. They neglect pulling exercises: pull-ups, bodyweight rows, incline rows, and all the other permutations. Pushing exercises are easy to do anywhere and are effective, but they’re also good for tightening your pecs and promoting a rounded shoulder position without enough balance from pulling exercises.

Frequent lack of movement.

Most people’s shoulders are in stasis. They are locked in position. They do not move or explore their natural range of motion.

The fact that the “locked” position is an internal rotation that takes place in front of a computer or smartphone doesn’t help, but the most important piece is immobility. If you had to move your shoulders through their range of motion throughout the day, it wouldn’t matter if you spent hours in front of a computer. You would get away with it. It’s the stasis, not necessarily the position.

Combine the lopsided push/pull ratio with the aforementioned excessive use of computers and phones, and you end up with a recipe for perpetually rounded shoulders.

How to fix rounded shoulders

Consciously pull your shoulders back

Set a reminder to check your shoulder position every hour. Are you rounding? Pull your shoulders back. Stay on top of him and he should eventually become unconscious. Now, this doesn’t mean you should overcorrect in the other direction. The ideal scapular plane in relation to your torso is about 30 degrees. That is “neutral”. Not flat, not retracted, and certainly not fully rounded forward.

dead hangs

You’ll need something to hold on to above your head, like a branch or pull-up bar. Take the bar, relax, and let the stretch build up slowly, gradually, over three seconds or so. Relax in the hang. This will stretch almost everything that interacts with the shoulder girdle (lats, pectorals, biceps, and delts) while opening up the space through which the connective tissues of the shoulders pass. Move your hands a little more than shoulder-width apart once you feel comfortable enough to increase the stretch.

If you feel a pull in your pecs, this indicates tight pecs and a bad habit of rounding your shoulders. This means that you really need to hang. Hang from the bar for at least 5 minutes a day, broken up into manageable pieces. More than 5 minutes is fine and can help even more.

More pulls than pushes

While pushes and pushes are important for strength and fitness, they also predispose you to roll your shoulders inward if you don’t balance them with pulldowns and rows. In my book, you should be doing about twice as many reps as you are pushing. If you bench press 30 total reps, do 60 total rows. If you do 20 dips, work up to doing 40 pull-ups or bodyweight rows. Keep that ratio as close to 2:1 as possible. Balance must emerge over the course of days, not within workouts.

Use a standing workstation

A standing workstation makes you stand tall. When you’re standing, you’re less likely to lean forward, lean on the table, rest on your elbows, and roll your shoulders in.

You can also adjust the height of most standing workstations so that the computer is closer to eye level so you won’t be looking down all day.

Frequent breaks from computer and device use

Part of breaking the stasis at the root of rounded shoulders is not doing the things that tilt you toward that shoulder position. At some level, if you’re using the computer or device, your shoulders will default to an awkward position. That is very difficult to escape, no matter how many times you remind yourself to keep your shoulders back.

Just stop using the devices so much and if you must use them, take frequent breaks.

Keep your phone at eye level

This is a simple solution that takes practice. It’s so easy and feels so normal to hold your phone around your waist and look down at it. You might feel a little silly holding your phone at eye level, but do so because it will prevent your shoulder from turning inward. If it prevents you from using your phone too often, all the better.

Frequent movement with a lot of shoulder activity.

Throw balls for your dog or play catch with your child. Throw stones into lakes. Practice javelin throws. Swing your arms like Chinese grandmothers walking early in the morning in the local park. Just move your body and especially move your shoulders through their full range of motion.

Follow the example of the children. Kids will run while waving their arms around in a helicopter for no reason except that it’s fun to do. It’s certainly not “efficient”. Or maybe it is?

Do shoulder dislocations every day

Take breaks from dislocating your shoulder using a flexible band, broomstick, piece of string, tape, a sedated pet snake, or even a dog leash. Hold both ends with your arms straight and locked. Starting at your hips, bring the band (or whatever you’re wearing) behind your head until it reaches your hips on the other side while keeping your arms straight. At this point, you can go back the way you came and repeat. It can be uncomfortable or “tight”. Just avoid the pain, whatever you do.

If this all sounds like a lot to take in, it really isn’t. Most of these tips to fix rounded shoulders are mutually supportive and encouraging. Do a few, and the others become much easier.

Let me know what you think below. If you have any other suggestions or fixes that worked for you, please add them to the comments section. Take care of everyone.

Mayonnaise Primal Kitchen


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is keto for life, where he discusses how he combines the ketogenic diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of many other books, including The original plancredited with fueling the growth of the primal/paleo movement in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating people on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen , a real food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you would like to add an avatar to all of your comments, click here.

Leave a Comment