A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders
This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.
- Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.
When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.
I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.
In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.
- We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.
I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.
I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out. Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.
- When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.
When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.
Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:
- Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
- Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
- Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
- A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
- At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.
For a printable version of the sequence please click here.