Shoulders Down!

Teacher correcting student's shoulders
Keep your shoulders down

Almost everyone’s had a parent or teacher tell you to “sit/stand up straight” or “pull your shoulders down/back”. Rounded shoulders and slouching are typically viewed as a postural transgression.

If you’re like most people, this may have led you to feel self-conscious about the normal position of your shoulders or feel badly if you slouch. You might even have an internal voice that regularly reminds—or reprimands—you to pull your shoulders back.

Of course you don’t want to unnecessarily tense your muscles so that your shoulders are lifted or hunched habitually—that will lead to fatigue, pain and possible injury.

But what if I told you the benefits of pulling your shoulders back are mostly a myth? Read on to find out why pulling your shoulders back doesn’t work and what to do instead to get the results you want.

Shoulders down & back
Models perform a posture of standing straight with shoulders back

5 Common Myths About Pulling Your Shoulders Back

There are five main reasons people pull their shoulders into “proper” position. These make sense on the surface. And because they seem right, we assume they must be correct. But don’t you think something you remind yourself to do, perhaps on a daily basis, should be investigated a bit more?

Let’s look at each of these common myths and discern the truth.

1. Aesthetics

Dancer with shoulders down
Shoulders down and back is good dance technique

From models to military posture, an open chest with shoulders pulled down and back is our culture’s aesthetic ideal. This posture is also part of the technique used in many dance forms and other modalities.

Myth: The natural anatomical position of the shoulders is back and down. So if there’s any roundness in your shoulders, something is wrong and it needs to be corrected.

Truth: Shoulders are rounded naturally. This is because your shoulder blades rest on your ribcage, which is curved, and your upper arm bone connects at the front-most point of your shoulder blade.

If you want to pull your shoulders back for a particular aesthetic or when executing technique in dance, yoga or other forms of movement, that’s great—but don’t mistake that for how you should hold your shoulders the rest of the day. When you finish the activity, allow your shoulders to return to resting in your normal, neutral position!

2. Pain Relief

Slouching at Computer
I slouch a lot—that must be why my neck hurts. © IFF Archive, Robert Golden

If you have neck, shoulder or back problems, your posture and movement habits are good places to look for how to feel better.

Myth: Hunched shoulders are the source of your pain or injury, and therefore the solution is to improve your posture, which includes pulling your shoulders back.

Truth: Good posture and lasting pain relief doesn’t come from artificially positioning parts of your body. It comes from organizing your whole self organically so your skeleton supports you, leaving your muscles free for movement.

Holding or pulling your shoulders into a position requires muscular effort. Most of your back muscles are designed to contract and release to move your bones and joints, not to be statically held. Continually recruiting your back muscles for a job they weren’t meant to do is not only tiring and unsustainable, it’s also ineffective. For one, as soon as your conscious mind gets busy and is no longer reminding you, your shoulders go right back to their usual position.

Plus, if you hold tension in your upper chest, pulling your shoulders back becomes a tug of war between the muscles of your chest and back. This co-contraction only increases tension and leads to soreness and strain. Phew! No wonder your shoulders round forward as soon as you aren’t paying attention!

3. Breathing

Shoulders back
Opening my chest means better breathing, right?

Myth: “Opening” your chest and shoulders improves your breathing.

Truth: Pulling your shoulders back and down actually inhibits your full capacity for breath. Breathing is a 360-degree endeavor. You have, and want to maintain, the ability to breath not only into your front, but also into your sides, back, up into your shoulders and down toward your pelvis.

When you open your chest, you narrow your back. So while pulling your shoulders back and down does expand the space to breathe into your upper chest, it simultaneously reduces the space available for breath in back. And when you hold muscles in one area, you generally increase tension in other areas, limiting your freedom of movement and breath.
In addition, breathing only or mostly into your chest is associated with a state of stress, fear or other activation of your sympathetic nervous system. Breathing into your belly and lower ribs in back (as well as your chest) has a calming effect on the nervous system.

4. Strength and Stability

Strength & stability
Strength doesn’t come from holding your muscles

Myth: Engaging your back muscles to pull your shoulders makes you stronger and more stable.

Truth: While this muscular effort may give you a pleasant sense of strength and stability, it’s just an illusion. Strength doesn’t come from holding your muscles.

In fact, when muscles are busy holding you up, they’re not available to be recruited for lifting, pushing, pulling, etc. A muscle that is long and contracts produces far more power than a muscle which is already short and therefore can’t contract much.

Finally, engaging your upper back muscles disproportionately with the those in your chest actually creates an imbalance and unnecessary rigidity. This, in turn, reduces both your stability and mobility.

5. Heart Opening

Open Your Heart
Opening the front of your heart actually closes the back

Myth: Pulling your shoulders back widens your chest and “opens your heart,” allowing you to be open to people and life in general.

Truth: Pulling your shoulders back does create more space in the front of your heart. But as your chest widens, your back narrows. So, as you “open” the front of your heart, you simultaneously “close” the back of your heart. The back of the heart is where your pulmonary blood vessels are located that pump deoxygenated blood into the lungs and return oxygenated blood to the heart to be pumped to the rest of your body!

But Then How Do I Fix My Rounded Shoulders?

You might be thinking, “Well, if pulling my shoulders back and down is not the antidote to my posture and slouching issues, what is?”

If you have neck, shoulder or back pain—or simply don’t like the shape of your posture—it’s easy to get focused on your “rounded shoulders.” In almost all cases, your shoulders aren’t a problem and there’s nothing you need to do to “fix” them. You are one integrated system, not a collection of separate body parts. Your shoulders rest on the frame of your torso, so their position depends on the alignment of your ribs and spine, which are a reflection of what’s happening in your pelvis and all the way to your feet!

Try this 3-Minute Exploration

Use this short movement exploration to experience how making a change in one part of yourself effects your whole body. You can do this sitting in a chair or standing.

1. Notice the Alignment of Your Pelvis and Spine

Bring your attention to your spine and pelvis. Observe the angle of your pelvis and curves of your spine. You might use your hands to feel the shape of your low back. Is it flat, have an inward curve or have an outward curve? Is the top of your pelvis tilted a little forward or back?

Illustration of Exercise
Moving your pelvis changes the shape of your shoulders

2. Tilt Your Pelvis Forward and Back

Next, tilt your pelvis a small amount forward and back. You might place your hands on your hips to better feel the changing angle of your pelvis. Notice how the pelvis effects the shape of your low back. How far along your spine do you feel this movement? Then broaden your awareness and discover if there’s any response elsewhere: your breast bone, shoulders, head, etc?

3. Find Your Neutral

Lower your hands, letting your arms rest at your sides. Begin to reduce the range that your pelvis tilts. Gradually find a neutral middle place to let your pelvis rest. The following indicators can help you know you’ve found this place:

  • Muscles let go of excess effort
  • Your breathing becomes easier
  • You have a feeling of ease or spaciousness
  • Your shoulders simply rest and feel free to move
  • Your head is free to turn and look
  • You could comfortably be in this position for awhile

4. Check for Differences

Let it all go and notice the angle of your pelvis now. Is it different than when you started? What about the shape of your low back, the rest of your spine and your shoulders?

The idea here isn’t to find one correct position for your pelvis (or shoulders or any other part of you). Instead, it’s to expand your range of possibilities. That way you’re able to sit, stand and move however is needed in the moment.

Woman with Happy Shoulders
Learn how to expand your possibilities!

Interested in Learning More?

If you’re interested in other alternatives to pulling your shoulders back and ways to relieve pain, please join one of my Neck and Shoulders classes (currently via Zoom). I’ll guide you in developing healthier movement habits and finding more supported alignment for greater comfort and mobility.