7 Strategies to Fix Rounded Shoulders and Feel Less Achy

Is "improve posture" on your 2023 to-do list? These tips can help.


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We live in an era where it’s never been easier to have bad posture. Slouching at your desk, hunching over your phone, and lounging on your couch may be your default positions, but long-term poor posture habits can lead to some painful issues, like rounded shoulders, and potentially more serious conditions. If you were always told to maintain good posture while growing up, it wasn’t just because: There’s actually science behind your parents’ reasoning.

Nowadays, many of us could stand to benefit from “unrounding” our shoulders, especially in an increasingly digital age where so many of our daily activities encourage bad posture. In addition to poor posture, rounded shoulders can also cause upper back, neck and shoulder stiffness, plus that dreaded neck hump or text/tech neck from staring down at your phone too much.

If you notice that you’re hunching forward when you stand or that your shoulders cave inwards, don’t fret, but it might be time to work on it. Rounded shoulders can be reversed with a little time, patience, stretching, and postural reset. Here’s what a physical therapist and orthopedic doctor have to say about rounded shoulders and how to get rid of them.

What causes rounded shoulders?

This refers to having shoulders that “fall forward” or a resting shoulder position that strays from your body’s natural alignment. Also known as kyphosis, or rounding of the spine, rounded shoulders have a myriad of causes that include poor posture habits, structural changes in the bones and muscles, and genetics, explains Kellie K. Middleton, M.D., MPH, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta.

“The most common cause of rounded shoulders is muscle imbalances around the shoulder joint, or tightness in certain chest muscles paired with weakened back muscles that cause the spine to hunch forward,” she says. Many of these imbalances are due to poor posture, work-related tasks, and rigorous sports training or exercise.

Text neck, or tech neck, from constantly looking down at your phone, is another culprit behind rounded shoulders. “We know things like ‘text neck’ are now part of our lexicon in healthcare,” says Denise Smith, P.T., CMPT, certified physical therapist. “More students and office workers are presenting clinically with a forward head and rounded shoulders.” 

This problem, Smith says, grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic as people worked or learned from home. “We saw record-high cases of neck and shoulder pain from people working from home in less-than-ideal makeshift offices,” she explains. “The amount of sitting that’s occurring is detrimental to our spinal health.”

How to Undo Rounded Shoulders

While heredity does play some part in rounded shoulders, Smith says most experts look at environmental factors (like phone overuse and daily sitting posture) as both the leading causes and biggest opportunities for prevention. 

“Muscle groups like your upper traps, levator scapulae, pectoralis muscles, and latissimus dorsi are key support groups that become tight due to prolonged electronic time,” she explains, adding the good news: “These muscles can be stretched out, and headaches, jaw pain, shoulder pain, and back pain can be decreased.” 

The “best way to ‘unround’ your shoulders is through stretching and strengthening exercises, and postural correction strategies,” Dr. Middleton agrees. And here are their top tips, exercises, and stretches they recommend if rounded shoulders are causing you pain, discomfort, or posture problems.

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Keep that head up.

For starters, Smith has one simple piece of advice: “Look up.” This means avoiding staring down at your phone, computer or other electronic devices for extended periods of time, and instead making an effort to keep any devices at eye level whenever possible. “To reverse the stress of looking down, look up for five seconds for five reps every 30 minutes,” she says. If practiced enough, Smith believes this can become a lasting habit you can do in short increments throughout the work or school day.

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Create an ergonomic desk set-up.

Your desk or work set-up can create an easy trap for developing rounded shoulders. Adding a little ergonomics to the mix, however, can help prevent and ease pain, Smith says. First, make sure that your computer or monitor is just about eye level, or that your gaze falls 2 to 3 inches below the top of the screen. Your monitor/device should be an arm’s length away, with your elbows bent at about a 90-degree angle. Your knees, thighs, and feet should have plenty of space below your desk (and these joints should be at roughly 90-degree angles too), and your feet rest flat on the floor or on a footrest.

To prevent or reverse rounded shoulders even further, Smith recommends incorporating some movement in your work area. “This can be standing while working, or using an exercise ball,” she says. “Exercise balls force your hips and shoulders into a better position, and they’re fun to sit on.”

Or do these upper-back and neck stretches throughout the day to loosen up and relieve tension.

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Sleep on a contoured pillow.

Posture isn’t something that exists only while you’re awake, but it continues through the night. If rounded shoulders are a concern, Smith recommends sleeping on a contoured pillow that promotes healthy neck curvature. “These pillows typically have one to two humps that support your neck to restore its natural reverse-C shape,” she says. Here are some of our all-time favorite pillows for neck pain.

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Use a foam roller.

Foam rollers are loved by athletes and the general public alike, thanks to their tension-relieving benefits. If you’re plagued by rounded shoulders, Smith advises getting yourself a foam roller and using it regularly to massage and mobilize your mid- and upper-back areas. “This not only feels good on your shoulders, neck, chest, and low back, but it helps reverse the effects of sitting,” she says.

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Strengthen your core.

Developing good core strength can significantly reverse the curse of rounded shoulders, but Smith says it’s important to understand exactly what and where your core is. “Your core is not just your abs. It’s any muscle between your shoulders and knees,” she explains. “If you're not strong in these supportive muscles, your head and shoulders won’t have a foundation to hold them up.” The result? You may become more prone to rounded shoulders.

To alleviate this risk, exercises like planks, squats, lunges, and push-ups are excellent, multi-muscle strengthening moves that build up your core. The best part about these exercises, Smith says, is that you don’t need equipment or a gym membership to try them.

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Try a doorway chest-opening stretch.

Any doorway can help you practice this daily stretch that comes highly recommended by Dr. Middleton. “Stand in a doorway while facing it and place your arms on either side of the door frame at shoulder level,” she says. “Step forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.”

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Engage your shoulder blade muscles (often!).

When your shoulders curve forward it often signals (or worsens) weakness and/or underuse of the upper back and posterior shoulder muscles—in other words, your body mechanics are out of balance. You can start to reverse this by activating and strengthening the small muscles in the upper back with very subtle exercises (including I’s, T’s, W’s, and Y’s (here’s more on that specific routine).

Dr. Middleton shares her two favorite ways to activate the shoulder blades and offset rounded shoulders. 

The first is wall angels. “Stand [with your back] against a wall with feet hip-distance apart and your head, upper back, and tailbone touching the wall,” she says. “Raise your arms up to shoulder height [like you’re making a snow angel] keeping your elbows and wrists in line with your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulder blades together [without puffing out your chest] as you bring your arms down the wall until they’re at hip level. Repeat 15 times.” Remember to keep your head, upper back, and tailbone points touching the wall the entire time.

The second is an even simpler, freestanding shoulder-blade squeeze. “Stand upright with feet hip-distance apart. Elongate through the spine and then [without arching the chest forward or splaying the ribcage out] draw your shoulder blades close together, squeezing them downward and inward, as if you were trying to make them touch,” Dr. Middleton says. “Hold for five seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times.”

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