The following contribution is by our Strength Coach Jessica Curl. Jessica is a facilitator of our Myo-Balance classes and Bootcamp. We are so thrilled to have her with us since her inspirational recovery from an injury resulting in multiple surgeries. She is a great example of how self care can speed up recovery far beyond expectation.
Everything in life is about balance, that perfect sweet spot between too much and too little. Sunshine is a great example. While you need 15 minutes of sunshine daily for your vitamin D levels but don’t to exceed 1-2 hours, you run the risk of skin cancer. Spend an hour a day walking, stretching and moving, but don’t push yourself so hard that you’re unable to walk the next few days. Work really hard to support yourself and your family but don’t run yourself into the ground so you don’t have time to enjoy them.
Just like life our bodies need to be in balance as well. Standing and sitting, pushing and pulling, moving and relaxing, it’s all about that sweet spot.
If we look at the world today: everything predisposes us to be forward loaded, i.e., rounding the shoulders, head leaning forward, tight chest muscles and hip flexors, weak glutes and hamstrings, poor posture and lacking upper back strength. Think of your computer, eating, cell phones, driving, breast feeding, etc all of these movements are done anteriorly (or in front of) and have a tendency to do all of the mentioned above.
It’s not that these movements are bad – we have to eat ; ) – but most of the time people are not aware of their movements, how they’re sitting and what they’re posture is like. Sitting is inevitable, even though it does things like crush your organs and shut down blood flow to your legs among other things, it cannot be avoided… but if we teach ourselves to become aware of our posture, the way we sit and how we move we can then be in these positions and not cause as much damage.
One of the biggest things I see with people who come to the clinic is rounded shoulders, head poked forward with a lot of upper back or shoulder pain and tension in their necks. This posture is pretty common for the average person and if you don’t start to do something about it now it will eventually cause pain and other issues down the track. So, what I want to give you guys is my top few reasons in detail why you need to strength and reverse upper back weakness and pain along with a few exercises to help you fix it.
- Tension Headaches
When you have rounded shoulders and a forward tilting head, what starts to happen is your pulling muscles (rhomboids, lats, external rotators) become very weak and lazy. Thinking about balance what we would ideally like to have, is equal strength between our fronts (anterior muscles) and backs (posterior muscles). What happens when we have this forward progression without the combination of working our pulling muscles is: they forget how to work and instead of your upper back muscles helping keep your head and torso upright: all the pressure to keep your 5kg head on your shoulders, goes into your neck and more specifically your trapezius.
This can often be a major cause of tension headaches. Basically your traps have to do all the work to keep your head sitting on the spine which can also tend to draw them up towards your ears creating tightness through that upper back and a lot of unwanted tension.
I find it helpful myself if I am sitting/ standing at my desk all day: to take a small break every hour and do some shoulder circles. I focus on picking my chest up to the ceiling and rolling my shoulders down and back about 10-15 times, trying to feel a nice simple stretch of movement around the shoulder joints and traps.
- Shoulder Impairment
The shoulder joint is very complex. It moves forward, back, side to side, internally, externally and 360 degrees – or it should anyway. The majority of those with poor upper back strength begin to lose some of that range of motion mentioned above. You may be thinking, “why do I need all the movements?” A mobile joint, one that moves with fluidity and pain free is a healthy joint – that’s why!
When we have weak upper back muscles our shoulders down to our finger tips start to internally rotate towards each other creating a rounded look of the upper body. Ideally we should all be walking around with shoulders down and back and a big proud chest with hands in neutral position. The internal rotation of the shoulder causes limited range of movement through the shoulder joint. Instead of being able to move 360 degrees freely it is now short changed to 180 degrees. With the shoulder being pinched inwards this means it has to be collapsing onto something, could be tendons, ligaments, tissues or even hitting bone on bone – regardless, it’s going to cause discomfort in the body.
On top of that, some of these internally rotated people go to the gym and instead of understanding what they’re limits are: throw 100kg on the bench press and train those pushing (anterior) muscles of the body to be even stronger and really exasperate this issue. It will only be a matter of time before they push that limited range of motion so much that it eventually causes pain.
A good test and also a great activation exercise to see how well your external rotation is through your shoulders is Wall Slides. In a wall slide you want to stand with your back against a wall. Heels should be touching the wall with spine flat against the wall as well. You will find this super easy if you cheat and don’t push your thoracic spine flat. Once you’re completely against the wall, your arm come up to make a Cactus position, meaning arms are at shoulder height and elbows are bent to 90 degrees. From there, while keeping your spine, head and arms as flat as you can against the wall you slide your arms up until they are above your head in a straight “Y” position, and then moving back down again. This exercise should be done slowly and controlled: really focusing on keeping everything as flat to the wall as possible, while going through the movement. I suggest doing 2 or 3 rounsd of 10 repetitions up and down.
3. Nerve Damage
We talked about tension headaches above, explaining how it comes from that rounded shoulder and tilted head position. Now another issue with that forward protruded head is the pressure put on your cervical spine. The forward head progression not only highly strains your neck but causes the cervical spine to become misaligned. Our vertebrae sit one on top of another and are made to bend and move freely in a healthy state. Through the middle of each vertebra we have our spinal cord which is the master messenger from the brain to the body. It literally controls all that we do, so it’s very important we keep it healthy and we keep what’s around it healthy and stable as well, aka your spine.
What happens in many people is their posture starts to become poor, rounding their shoulders forward and letting the head hang heavy and what starts to happen in those vertebrae is instead of sitting nicely one on top of the other, they can start to slightly shift. There are so many delicate nerves in our spinal cord that it’s easy when this shift starts to happen they may get pinched. This pinching, depending on where it is in the spine, can cause things like numbness, tingling, pain or referring of pain down limbs and restricted range of motion.
It’s not a good time for anyone and sometimes when this happens it feels like the end of the world because this pain has seemed to “come out of nowhere”. Luckily, if caught early this type of pain and damage can be alleviated quite quickly and in a non invasive way.
My favourite movement for spine health, that I think can and should be done every single day is the Jefferson Curl.
The Jefferson Curl is a great exercise for decompression of the spine, loosening up the whole posterior chain and getting a healthy range of motion and movement through the spine. You can start this exercise with just body weight but as you get better you could start to add a little weight to it. You want to start standing up tall, shoulders down and back with a proud chest. You move first by tucking your chin to your chest and begin curling the spine dropping your head to the floor. I like to think of moving vertebra by vertebra, slow and controlled with a 10 second count on both the way down and up. Focus your attention on the back of your body and being mindful of where you feel things pulling. You will keep your legs fairly straight through the whole movement and only going to whatever your range of motion is.
If done daily, over time you will become more flexible and be able to move further than when you started. I would suggest starting with 2 set of 6-10 rounds. Focus on your breathing, not rushing things and feeling whats going on in the back of your body.