Safety / Injuries | Training Tips

Correcting Bad Posture: Your Guide to Upper Crossed Syndrome

Correcting Bad Posture: Your Guide to Upper Crossed Syndrome

Posture is something we can control, yet so many people have terrible posture! The increasingly sedentary, technology-driven lifestyles of today contribute to many health conditions. As a personal trainer, your career is built on identifying and helping to correct physical deviations as you work with clients to achieve their health and fitness goals. 

Upper crossed syndrome is one of the most common posture-related conditions you will meet with clients. Being informed enough to identify this condition and address it with corrective exercise will be key to getting and keeping clients who rely on your expertise.

What Is Upper Crossed Syndrome?

Often referred to as UCS, upper crossed syndrome occurs when there is an imbalance in the neck, upper back, chest, and shoulders. It is usually a result of poor posture or incorrect repetitive movements and, with the proper, consistent corrective exercise, it can be corrected.

The shoulders roll forward, creating a rounded upper back and forward head. The deep neck flexors, lower trapezius, and serratus anterior are weakened and lengthened while the upper trapezius, levator scapula, and pectoralis major and minor are overactive and tight. 

Causes of Upper Crossed Syndrome

Poor posture is the leading cause of upper crossed syndrome. Forward rounded shoulders are the initial postural deviation that many people exhibit. Overuse of smartphones, computers, and tablets, sitting for extended periods, and driving can lead to unconscious shoulder rounding. 

Take sitting for example. Sitting, especially with a slouched posture, reduces the engagement of the core and the glutes, shortens the hamstrings, and hip flexors, and places stress on the lower back. Many clients can minimize these effects of sitting by practicing good posture, standing or moving more during the day, and including 30 or more minutes a day of activity. Head to the ISSA blog for an informative client handout and more tips for your clients regarding the effects of sitting on your posture.

Over time, bad posture leads to the overactive and underactive muscles in the upper back, neck, chest, and shoulders that will then need to be addressed. If left undiagnosed and uncorrected, kyphosis can develop. Kyphosis is a deviation of the cervical and thoracic spine that, while it can be treated, is more challenging to address.

How to Recognize Upper Crossed Syndrome

Physically, the rounded shoulders, overactive pectoralis, and a forward head posture will not be difficult for a certified personal trainer, physician, or chiropractor to identify. The symptoms that a client may feel or relay to the trainer can include

  • Neck pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Shoulder pain
  • Low back pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Difficulty turning the neck
  • Restricted movement
  • Headaches (cervicogenic headache)

5 Corrective Exercises to Improve Upper Crossed Syndrome

Focusing in on the relief of the tight muscles of the upper back and neck can initially relieve some of the chronic pain symptoms your client may feel. Be sure to refresh your knowledge or learn more about stretches for upper back dysfunction.

Beyond simply stretching the overactive muscles, strengthening the deep neck flexors, serratus anterior, and lower trapezius will be vital for improvement.

1. Plank

Planks are so simple yet highly effective. A basic plank or the side plank variation can allow you to focus on the client’s flat back and pull shoulders back and into alignment. It is also a great total core challenge.

2. Opening the Chest

This simple stretch opens the chest while engaging the upper back and shoulder blades. Have the client stand upright and clasp their hands together behind their back. Pressing the hands down and away from their back to retract the shoulder blades, they will raise their chest and lift the chin. The deep chest stretch can be held for 15 to 30 seconds.

3. Shoulder Blade Retraction

This can be performed on its own. It will encourage the client to engage the weakened muscles of the upper back and feel what good posture should be. They will stand or sit up tall with shoulders down and packed. In 10-15 second intervals, they will squeeze their shoulder blades together as if holding a pencil between them. The shoulders will always stay away from the ears.

4. Wall Arm Angels

This encourages full range of motion while engaging the upper back with the support of a wall. Have the client stand with their entire back to the wall with their feet slightly out in front. Palms facing forward and arms against the wall at the hips, they will slowly begin to abduct from the shoulder keeping the arm against the wall. The movement continues until their arms have reached the maximum range of motion without raising the shoulders or separating the shoulder blades and upper back from the wall.

A progression of the wall angel moves the arms from overhead to dropping he elbows until the arms for a letter “w”. 

5. Pull-ups

One of the most under-performed strength movements in fitness, the pull-up is a functional way to strengthen the back and encourage proper range of motion in the shoulders and upper back. 

There are several ways to perform a pull-up:

  • Machine-assisted
  • Band-assisted
  • Unassisted
  • Band pull-down for those with grip issues

Wide grip will target the latissimus dorsi and teres the most while close underhand grip focuses on the latissimus dorsi and the biceps. 

How to Design a Corrective Exercise Program to Improve Upper Crossed Syndrome

When designing a corrective exercise program for a client with upper crossed syndrome, you can add the stretches and strengthening movements to any fitness program. With corrective exercises, especially stretching and self-myofascial release, the warm-up is a key time to ensure ideal range of motion and muscle alignment. This will prevent injury, improve posture, and work to warm up the upper back.

Teaching clients about the importance of the corrective exercises will encourage them to do them on their own as well. The more frequently they strengthen and stretch, the faster they will see the physical changes and feel the relief of any symptoms they are feeling. 

It is also important to consider that upper crossed syndrome includes a tight chest, so back and core exercises should be the focus of an effective program design. 

If you’re ready to take your personal training certification to the next level and help clients with movement and postural deviations, get started on your ISSA Corrective Exercise Certification today!