Bro Shoulders: The Importance of Upper-Back and Shoulder Mobility

A study done in 2004 argued that students in the United States are sitting for about 8 hours/day on average. Add that to the 6-8 hours/day that we sleep and that’s approximately 60% of our day is spent in a sedentary position. I think we all know that sedentary positions don't set us up for peak athletic performance. What does this mean for you as an athlete? It means you have a lot of ground to make up during the rest of the day.  

In his popular book, Becoming a Supple Leopardphysical therapist Dr. Kelly Starrett argues that poor mobility is a byproduct of both poor strength training methods and poor proprioception (your body’s sense of awareness in space). As a PT myself, I find all too often that my patients stand and sit with rounded shoulders and/or a forward head position. Dr. Starrett refers to this as “Douchebag Shoulders.” It’s a comical term, because it describes the “bro” at the gym that ONLY trains the chest and biceps. We’ve all seen them, and well, if we’re honest with ourselves, maybe some of us are That Guy or That Girl. My goal in this post is to show you some simple ways to combat this “bro shoulder” syndrome both in and out of the classroom, allowing you to become more mobile and more powerful for  your sport.



When it comes to sitting all day, there are two specific areas of your body that often respond the worst: your shoulders and your thoracic spine. And when you add a predominantly anterior-focused strength-training program (chest, abs, biceps) to being slouched in a chair all day, you’re just asking for “bro shoulders.” Constant bad sitting positions leads to poor mobility in both the shoulders and thoracic spine, which makes it more difficult to perform an exercise like an overhead squat. This movement is one of the main criteria when performing the FMS (Functional Movement Screen) for athletes. Very quickly, a trainer or a PT can assess poor mobility in these areas. 

Notice the difference between a score of 1 and a score of 3 on this FMS movement screening. Lack of upper-back and shoulder mobility greatly affects proper positioning in the overhead squat, and many other movements.

Notice the difference between a score of 1 and a score of 3 on this FMS movement screening. Lack of upper-back and shoulder mobility greatly affects proper positioning in the overhead squat, and many other movements.

But just because you don’t perform an overhead squat in your sport doesn’t mean mobility in these specific areas isn’t super important. For instance, anterior shoulder placement and a stiff upper-thoracic spine for a pitcher means decreased range of motion, power, velocity, speed and effectiveness. And this isn’t just for throwing athletes. Take the New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., for example. If he was burdened by “bro shoulders,” he would have never made this catch: 

My point is this: you cannot and will not be fully effective in your sport if you neglect both mobilizing and strengthening your posterior muscle groups. And lastly, don’t be That Guy or Girl in the weight room.

Here are 3 effective, concrete ways to MOBILIZE your upper back and shoulders in and out of weight room:

MOB 1: No-Resistance Seated Rows

This may seem like the most useless, but it is often the most effective. While sitting in class or work, try to bust out 20-25 unweighted rows every hour, focusing on pinching your shoulder blades together. Doing this throughout the day will keep you mobile and will get you sitting upright.  You’ll be surprised how many pops and cracks you get in your mid and upper back.

MOB 2: Lat Pull-Down

At about 60-70% of your 10RM, perform a lat pull-down towards your chest, as the weight returns focus on leaning forward with arms extended at the top before you pull down. This will decompress your spine and help mobilize the upper back.

MOB 3: Upper-Back Extension over Foam Roller or Tennis Ball

With the foam roller horizontal to your spine and hands behind your head, gradually extend your back over the roller. Start with it between your shoulder blades, and roll it down the back after about 5-10 extensions. The extensions should be small and controlled. Repeat until about ¾ way down the back. If you don’t have a foam roller, you can put two tennis balls in a sock for extension (one tennis ball on each side of your spine).

And here are 3 effective, concrete ways to STRENGTHEN your upper back and shoulders in and out of the weight room:

STRENGTH 1: Rowing

One of the all-time most underrated cardio and posterior strengthening exercises. Start or end your workout by rowing 1000m. Make sure to fully extend your knees and pull the bar to your sternum.



STRENGTH 2: Three-Position Shoulder External Rotation

The ultimate rotator cuff workout. The goal of this exercise should be fatigue at 20 repetitions at each position. 0-degree shoulder abduction, 45-degree and 90-degree. Use a pulley or band.

External rotation performed at 90 degrees of shoulder abduction. 45 degrees is halfway between the 0-degree and 90-degree positions.

External rotation performed at 90 degrees of shoulder abduction. 45 degrees is halfway between the 0-degree and 90-degree positions.

STRENGTH 3: Reverse Shoulder Fly or Plate Reverse Fly

Lie on a bench either flat or at 45 degrees, or stand with slightly bent legs and a flat back.  With a dumbbell in each hand, perform a fly and hold for 3-5 seconds. Perform this exercise to fatigue. This will work on posterior shoulder and upper-back endurance and strengthening.

Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulders, holding plates through their center holes with straight arms. With a slight bend at the knees, hinge at the hips until torso is parallel to the floor. Hold the parallel position, keep eyes up and lock the core throughout movement. Without bouncing or rocking, raise the arms out to the sides until the plates reach shoulder level, keeping arms straight. Return the arms to the original position to complete the rep. Keep the torso parallel to the floor throughout movement.

Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulders, holding plates through their center holes with straight arms. With a slight bend at the knees, hinge at the hips until torso is parallel to the floor. Hold the parallel position, keep eyes up and lock the core throughout movement. Without bouncing or rocking, raise the arms out to the sides until the plates reach shoulder level, keeping arms straight. Return the arms to the original position to complete the rep. Keep the torso parallel to the floor throughout movement.

I don't want to tell you your mom was right, but she was: posture matters. Athletes with great functional mobility will be better prepared to excel at their sport than those who don't. Unfortunately, students are often spending too much time slouching, while failing to do good strengthening and mobilization in the meantime. By incorporating both mobility work to restore correct shoulder positions, and exercises to strengthen those positions, you can help counteract the “bro shoulder” sedentary slouch. And a world with fewer dudes doing daily bicep curls while looking at themselves in the mirror is a better world for everyone.


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Dr. Adam Shildmyer, PT, DPT, OMT, is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Physical Therapist at MTI Physical Therapy, an Assistant Basketball Coach at King's High School (WA), and a former basketball player at Northwest Nazarene University.