Perfect Posture Series: Protracted Shoulder Girdle

Posted May 12, 2014 by

Look around you at the gym, or in any public place and you will see a common trait shared by the vast majority: forward-slumped shoulders with a closed-off chest cavity. This posture is so prevalent that people don’t even recognize it when they see it… it just looks like normal posture to them.

The issue is, of course, that it’s not a healthy position to be in for a number of reasons that I am going to outline for you today. Before I get into the reasons why I feel that this postural abnormality needs to be addressed, let me explain what exactly is going on when someone has a protracted shoulder girdle.

The natural position for your shoulders is centered on the profile midline of your body. Like forward head posture however, the stresses of modern daily life can gradually pull us out of alignment. In the case of the shoulders, this manifests itself as a shift in the position of the shoulders themselves, as well as the shoulder blades and sometimes the humerus (arm bone).

As the shoulders are pulled forward from the midline, the connected scapula end up rotating forward as well. This tends to cause the inner edge of the scapula to protrude slightly from the back (this is readily apparent if you look at the average woman wearing a shirt that reveals her shoulder blades–you can usually see the inner edges sticking out like miniature wings.

Sometimes, but not always, the upper arm will be internally rotated as well. If while your arms are relaxed at your sides, you turn the palms of your hands so that they’re facing behind you, that motion is “internal rotation.” In some people with a protracted shoulder girdle, they’re arm’s resting position is partially rotated internally, rather than perfectly neutral which is the proper position.

This might sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and you may be asking yourself why you should care about any of it, so let me explain. The biggest issue with this condition (outside of looking like a hunched-over caveman/woman) is that it greatly increases risk of injury to the shoulder joint during certain movements.

One of the most common shoulder injuries–subacromical impingement–which involves a sort of “pinching” of the soft tissues in the shoulder due to a narrowing of the openings between the boney structures, is much more likely to occur in those with protracted shoulders, simply because this position actively narrows that opening. Such a position can also make it very difficult to perform overhead-pressing types of movement such as shoulder presses or overhead squats, due to the limited range of motion and tightness in the shoulder joint.

Finally, this posture closes off the chest cavity, making it harder to breathe efficiently. This has obvious implications for reduced performance capabilities, but also may negatively affect one’s ability to manage stress (since it encourages more shallow, rapid breathing).

So why is this posture so common in our society? Take a look at the positions we spend most of the day in. Whether we’re driving in a car, sitting at a computer or hunched over our smart-phones, most of us spend a good portion of the day with our backs completely relaxed and our arms and shoulders pulled forward in front of us. When it comes to men specifically… what muscle groups do 90% of men focus on? Chest, abs and arms. All day, err day!

Like all posture problems, we need to look at the body as a whole rather than lasering in on the joint itself to the exclusion of surrounding structures.

Overly-tight muscles in the chest and anterior (front) of the shoulder, combined with weak and underactive muscles in the middle back, result in the shoulders pulling forward and the chest cavity closing off. Thus, the proper course of action to remedy the issue is to stretch the overly-tight muscles in the front of the upper body, and to strengthen the overly-weakened muscles in the back.

The doorway stretch is probably the best stretch to perform regularly for loosening up the chest and shoulders. Based on the angle of the arm, you can focus the stretch more to the chest (upper arm parallel or slightly higher than shoulder) or shoulder (elbow slightly lower than shoulder, and torso bent forward slightly). Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds per side, perhaps hitting a few variations in a row.

A great combination stretch/strengthening exercise is the wall slide, which is one that I use with my clients in their prehab warm-up routine as it simultaneously stretches the chest and shoulders, while strengthening the middle back. Perform at a slow tempo for 5-10 repetitions as part of your dynamic warm-up before your workout.

Finally, you may want to program a 2:1 ratio for back exercises to chest/shoulder exercises until you’ve resolved the problem, to prevent further imbalance. One of my favorite compound back exercises is the inverted suspension row, as it allows you to maintain good form throughout the movement (which is harder with pull-ups/chin-ups since many people lack the strength to do them properly). Think about actively squeezing your shoulder blades together and pushing your chest up and out at the top of each repetition.

In order to be effective, these exercises and stretches need to be performed on a consistent basis, along with a conscious effort being made to maintain proper posture throughout the day. The best way to do this is to remind yourself regularly to push your chest out and pull your shoulders “back, down and wide.” Progress may be slow at first, but with consistency, you will begin to see significant results after several weeks. Next time we will move down the body and focus specifically on internal rotation of the arm and proper steps to fix this postural distortion as well.

Comments on Perfect Posture Series: Protracted Shoulder Girdle »

  1. sam

    I had exactly this problem, and it resulted in a damaged shoulder as you describe, and had those stretches given to me by the sports therapist!

    I am pleased to say that I (more or less) got rid of the problem!!

    this post is a useful reminder to get up from my desk and go stretch out my shoulders and chest!!