If you spend a lot of time working at a desk, there is a high likelihood you suffer from some degree of Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS). UCS is a condition where the head, neck, and spine are excessively pulled forward into flexion. This results in weakened deep neck flexors, rhomboids, lower trapezius fibers, and abdominals, while the pectorals, serratus anterior, upper trapezius, and levator scapulae are tight and overactive. Symptoms of UCS include pain in the neck, upper back and jaw, tightness in the chest, headaches, and fatigue (1).
While many who find themselves rounding over a computer or notebook at a desk job commonly experience UCS, it is also possible to have UCS from improper posture while performing activities like doing laundry, using a dishwasher, reaching down to help or play with small children, and other activities of daily living (2).
If you feel that you are experiencing some of the aforementioned symptoms of UCS- don’t panic! Thankfully UCS is not only treatable, but can be fully reversed through strengthening the weakened muscles, stretching and lengthening the tight and overactive muscles, and having improved awareness of posture throughout the day to minimize further progression of the syndrome (3). Below are five effective exercises to combat UCS. These posture correction exercises will strengthen the weakened muscles that run along the posterior chain (back) of the body while simultaneously lengthening the tightened muscles in the chest and front of the torso (4).
Cable Face Pulls
If you have access to a gym with a cable machine, find the double-ended rope attachment and make sure it is positioned slightly above the top of your head (depending on your set up, it might be easiest to do this seated or kneeling on the floor or on a bench). Alternatively, if you have a resistance tube you can anchor it to the top of a door to perform this exercise as well.
With one hand on each side of the rope/band, begin with your arms extended diagonally in front of the center of your forehead. Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together to externally rotate your shoulders as you pull the elbows back- this should pull your elbows out to your sides in a flexed position. This exercise strengthens the mid and lower trapezius, teres minor, posterior deltoids, and rhomboids while lengthening the pectorals in the chest.
Band Pull Aparts
Using a resistance band, place both hands shoulder-width apart, and extend your arms forward holding the band at chest level. Then, simply think of pulling the band apart by pulling your shoulder blades together while keeping the shoulders pressed down and connected to your back (this is very important as it will ensure that there is not any further tightening of the upper trapezius). While performing this movement, make sure the core stays engaged, the rib cage is closed, there is a soft bend in the knees, and a slight anterior tilt of the pelvis (think of slightly sticking your hips out behind you). This exercise strengthens the mid and lower trapezius, teres minor, and posterior deltoids, while lengthening the pectorals in the chest.
Suspension Trainer Y-Raise
If you have access to a suspension trainer or TRX straps, start with a hand on each handle, then step away from the wall until there is tension in the straps at chest level. Then, pull your hands up and out on the diagonal, right at 45 degrees directly above and to the side of you. This should create a “Y” shape with your body, engaging your posterior deltoids, teres major and minor, and latissimus dorsi. As an added benefit, this exercise also focuses on lengthening the pectorals in the chest. Because of the suspension component, this movement is unstable in nature, so it is also a great core exercise as you are forced to engage your abdominals to remain stable. Be mindful that you are not excessively extending (arching) your spine or leaving the hips behind- if you are properly engaged it should feel similar to holding a plank position.
Begin laying in the prone position (face down) on the floor with your arms extended out overhead. Then, contract your gluteal muscles while lifting your chest and arms off the floor. This movement is great because it not only strengthens your back and lengthens the chest, but it also helps to lengthen the hip flexors which can often be tight from being in a seated position for too long. This exercise will strengthen your erector spinae, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and core.
Position yourself in the prone (face down) position, supporting with your weight in your hands and on your knees. Extend one arm and the opposite leg, then return to the starting position repeating the movement with the other arm and opposite leg. This movement is also great for lengthening and strengthening tight and weakened hip flexors from sitting for extended periods, as well as strengthening your posterior chain to improve posture. It is also a great alternative to the Superman exercise if laying on your stomach is uncomfortable, and/or if you are pregnant. This exercise will strengthen your transverse and rectus abdominis, erector spinae, middle and lower trapezius fibers, gluteals, hamstrings, and quadriceps.
Any or all of these exercises are a fantastic place to start working towards improved posture, and in turn, an improved quality of life. As a Certified Personal Trainer, I would recommend starting out by choosing 1 or 2 exercises and performing 8-20 repetitions at a time. Rest for 30-120 seconds between sets and complete 1-3 sets per exercise. Work until you feel challenged and are at or near the point of fatigue. From there, you can gradually increase reps, sets, and the number of exercises over time as your body adjusts to the new exercises.
You will be amazed to see how drastic the difference can be by taking just a few minutes, 4-5 times a week, to care for your body. Feel proud and empowered knowing that you are taking the initiative for your health, wellness, and longevity. Don’t hesitate to begin integrating these exercises into your routine - the steps you are taking now could potentially give you years of increased function and pain-free living.
1. Seidi, F., Bayattork, M., Minoonejad, H., Andersen, L. L., & Page, P. (2020). Comprehensive corrective exercise program improves alignment, muscle activation and movement pattern of men with upper crossed syndrome: Randomized controlled trial. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-77571-4. Accessed 28 August 2023.
2. Mujawar, J., & Sagar, J. (2019). Prevalence of Upper Cross syndrome in laundry workers. Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 23(1), 54. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoem.ijoem_169_18. Accessed 28 August 2023.
3. Gu, S.-Y., Hwangbo, G., & Lee, J.-H. (2016). Relationship between position sense and reposition errors according to the degree of Upper Crossed syndrome. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(2), 438–441. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.438. Accessed 28 August 2023.
4. Bae, W.-S., Lee, H.-O., Shin, J.-W., & Lee, K.-C. (2016). The effect of middle and lower trapezius strength exercises and levator scapulae and upper trapezius stretching exercises in upper crossed syndrome. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(5), 1636–1639. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.1636. Accessed 28 August 2023.