Upper Cross Syndrome

Exercises to Correct Your Posture & Alleviate Pain

Are you concerned about your posture? Or maybe you have pain in your upper back and neck? Then you could have a common ailment known as upper cross syndrome.

The good news is, this condition is not difficult to treat or prevent. In this article, I’ll help you figure out if you have upper cross syndrome. Then show you some simple exercises and stretches to correct it.

Upper Cross Syndrome

What Is Upper Cross Syndrome?

Upper cross syndrome is an imbalance in the muscles of the neck, chest, and shoulders. Usually, this imbalance is the result of poor posture or overuse of particular muscles.

The affected muscles form a cross or “X” when viewing the upper body from the side. Which is where the term “upper cross” comes from.

With this condition, the muscles of the chest and upper trapezius (traps) are overused and tight. Whereas the muscles in the front of the neck and lower traps (rhomboids) are underused and weak.

Upper Cross Syndrome Muscles Tight And Weak

If you sit at a desk for most of the day or spend multiple hours looking at your phone, it’s common to have upper cross syndrome. Or at least some of the imbalances that are associated with it.

Another common situation arises from how you workout. For example, spending more time training chest compared to back can create imbalances.

Here are other causes as well as the symptoms associated with upper cross syndrome:

Causes
  • Looking down at your phone or computer screen
  • Slouching forward while sitting
  • Stress held in your shoulders
  • Overtraining with pressing and/or shrugging movements
  • Undertraining neck and/or pull-down movements with shoulder blades back
Symptoms
  • Neck pain
  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Tightness in chest
  • Shoulders rolled forward
  • Restricted movement in chest and shoulders
  • Difficulty or discomfort sitting

How To Diagnose Upper Cross Syndrome

You may be able to spot upper cross syndrome if your ears are well in front of your humerus bone. Or if your upper back and shoulders are rolled forward.

However, it’s best to visit your physician or chiropractor so they can do a proper evaluation. Most likely they will assess your standing posture and check for muscle tightness/weakness.

How To Fix Upper Cross Syndrome

The good news is, you can correct upper cross syndrome without any expensive medical treatments.

Through a combination of stretches and exercises, you can fix these imbalances. Then it’s just a matter of adopting some good posture habits to stay balanced.

Upper Cross Syndrome Stretches To Loosen Traps & Chest

First, it’s important to loosen the muscles of the chest and traps. This will involve some targeted stretching or soft tissue work.

Doorway Chest Stretch

Using a doorway, place your forearm flat on the frame and take a small step forward through the door. You will feel a stretch in your chest and the front of your shoulder.

You can do this with one arm or both at the same time. And play around with different angles to hit the tight areas.

Upper Cross Syndrome Stretch Chest
Upper Shoulder/Neck Stretch

To start, relax your shoulders so they hang loose at your sides. Now tilt your neck towards your left shoulder, gently pulling down with your hand to increase the stretch.

Putting your right hand behind your back increases the stretch down through your anterior delt. While rolling your head forward and back hits different parts of your neck and traps.

Hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.

Upper Cross Syndrome Trap And Neck Stretch
Upper Back/Trap Foam Rolling

Begin with the foam roller perpendicular across your back. Next, wrap your arms around your body like you’re hugging yourself. Then gently roll up and down your upper back while keeping your chin tucked.

After a minute or so in that position, stretch your arms straight over your head, extend your spine, and push your hips up. This will help you target your traps.

Upper Cross Syndrome Exercises To Strengthen Neck & Rhomboids

In addition to loosening your chest and traps, you also need to strengthen your neck flexors and rhomboids. To do that, here are a couple of at-home exercises as well as exercises you can do at the gym.

Scapular Retraction

Start by rolling your shoulders front to back to loosen them up. Then pull your shoulder blades down and back and hold for a few seconds. This movement contracts and strengthens the rhomboid muscles of your mid-back.

Upper Cross Syndrome Scapula Retraction

Another way to target your rhomboids is with a specific variation of lat pulldowns. With this variation, pull the bar down behind your head while keeping your shoulder blades back. Use a lighter weight so you can focus on squeezing your rhomboids.

Neck Retraction

For this exercise, start with your back and neck straight. Then pull your chin down while pushing your head back (not with your hand like the picture shows).

Think of it like trying to give yourself a double chin while pushing your head back into an imaginary headrest.

Hold the contraction for a few seconds and repeat 5-10 times. You can also do this exercise standing with your back against a wall or laying on the floor.

Upper Cross Syndrome Neck Retraction

If you’re lucky enough to have a neck machine at your gym, you can also train your neck flexors in the front-facing position. Or you can use a head strap connected to a weight to provide resistance.

Also, I find that foam rolling my upper back activates my neck flexors as I hold my head up. So that one is sort of a double whammy!

Practice Good Posture Throughout The Day

The upper cross syndrome stretches and exercises above will help correct the muscular imbalances. But if you continue your normal daily routine, your condition may persist or return.

Therefore, it’s also important to correct the root cause of the problem, which is usually poor posture or training techniques.

At Work or School

Make sure your desk or workspace is ergonomically correct. That means you can sit with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, and look straight or slightly down at your work.

In addition, take frequent breaks to get up and stretch. While I’m working, I like to set an alarm for 30 minutes to make sure I stand up, drink some water, and stretch a little.

Upper Cross Syndrome Correct Posture
At The Gym

In order to sustain your improved posture, try not to overtrain or undertrain any individual parts of your body.

For upper cross syndrome, make sure you balance your chest workouts with mid-back workouts. And don’t neglect the front of your neck when your traps are getting stronger.

It’s also a good idea to incorporate stretching before, during, or after your workouts to keep your muscles loose and supple.

Upper Cross Syndrome Before And After

Conclusion

Upper cross syndrome is becoming quite common as we spend more time looking at screens. But you don’t have to suffer from pain and bad posture.

When you apply the stretches, exercises, and lifestyle changes described above, you can see improvements in just a few weeks. It’s a small price to pay to stand taller and have less pain!

References
1) Starrett, Kelly. Becoming a Supple Leopard (The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance). 2nd ed., Victory Belt Publishing, 2015.
2) Karimian, Razieh, et al. “Photogrammetric Analysis of Upper Cross Syndrome among Teachers and the Effects of National Academy of Sports Medicine Exercises with Ergonomic Intervention on the Syndrome.” Journal of research in health sciences 19.3 (2019): e00450.

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