To be more specific, by “shoulders” I mean your upper trapezius, and sometimes also your levator scapulae and rhomboids.  We’ll talk more about the deltoids, supraspinatus, and teres minor another time.  My gymnastics instructor said, “what most people don’t realize is that your ‘shoulders’ really extend all the way to the middle/lower part of your back!”

Why is this such a common area of pain and tension?  Life.  So much of what we do every day involved forward bending:  driving, computer work, picking up kids, and cleaning things.  When your body moves forward, it’s tempting, especially if you’re tired, to forget about your posture and slump.  When your neck slumps forward, the shoulder muscles tense up.  This is why so many people say it’s stress because, when we’re stressed we’re usually more tired and slump more.  Times of stress also usually coincide with times of increased work, when we’re also doing more of these forward-motions. 

What can we do then – just stop working?  Our bodies are designed to work and do things, so doing nothing is not a good solution either.  But we have to work smart. 


Each muscle has an opposite muscle.  When one contracts, the other relaxes.  For the muscles on top of your shoulders to relax more, it makes sense that there are muscles that need more activation.  Typically, if the tops of your shoulders have more tension, it’s the muscles that pull your shoulders down and open your chest that need more activation. There are exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles that keep the tops of your shoulders more relaxed.

This is one of my favorites.  It’s easiest to do laying off the edge of a bed. 

start with your arms draped over the edge of a bed (or stack of mats)

make a “goal post” shape with your arms; push your belly into the bed/mat; squeeze your shoulder blades together as tight as you can as your elbows move toward your side; your chest will come slightly off the bed/mat; hold for 5 seconds; release

Repeat this exercise to fatigue – until you can’t do any more.  After your shoulder tension is better, you can do this exercise once or twice a week to maintain healthy shoulders. 

You can also strengthen your lower traps hanging from a high bar with shoulder engagement or doing pull-ups. 

I’ll show you how to do it without doing a full pull-up (i.e. anyone can do this):

here I’m just hanging; my shoulders are not engaged at all.

activating the lower traps will slightly pull your body up and forward; hold a few seconds or till fatigue then release

Tired yet?  Ok – one more exericse.  This one you can (and should) do at your desk or when you’re working at least every hour. 

Shoulder rotation exercise: 

One at a time, bring each shoulder a little forward, then a little bit up, and lastly, a lot of movement going down and back. 

Feels nice, huh?