Just Say No To Gorilla Arms

Lately I’ve been noticing more tension than usual across my chest and shoulders, which is no surprise. In addition to teaching Restorative Exercise™, I also work as a massage therapist, which can be quite the upper body workout. I also started rock climbing about six months ago after taking a 15-year break. When I used to climb in high school and college, my back and shoulder muscles were so imbalanced that I had some serious gorilla arms. The backs of my hands literally pointed forward when I stood with my arms relaxed! (FYI, your thumbs should be the ones pointing forward, which tells you just how out of whack my arms were.) I’ve been working on being mindful of this, and RE has been a huge help, but it’s still a challenge to keep my arms from returning to this state.

Me at age 17. I've got just a wee bit of tension in the shoulders! Also, apparently my hands were permanently curled into claws - looks like I could have used some hand stretching too.

Me at age 17. I've got just a wee bit of tension in the shoulders! Also, apparently my hands were permanently curled into claws - looks like I could have used some hand stretching too.

I know for a fact that I’m not alone in my struggle to keep from folding into a permanent upper-body fetal position. Sitting at computers, in cars, and on modern furniture is really not conducive to good alignment, for either the upper OR lower body, but unfortunately that’s where most of us spend a big chunk of our time. So, how do we undo all of this forward rounding of our shoulders? Restorative Exercise™ is of course a huge component - both the exercises themselves, as well as the body awareness that they create, are key to better alignment. As I’ve mentioned before, though, if you were to do even several hours of RE a day but then go back to your old habits for the other 20+ hours (yes, sleeping is included!), you’re fighting an uphill battle.

So what to do if you’ve been diligently doing your corrective exercises but haven’t seen as much change you hoped? As I've mentioned before, a great first step is to ditch the furniture. Bucket seats and cushy sofas are some of the biggest culprits for encouraging a forward slump.

Also, another habit that most of us have picked up, and maybe even explicitly been told to do by parents, teachers, or health care providers, is squeezing the shoulder blades (aka scapulas) together. While this makes you look like you have “good posture”, it actually just hides the problem. Because of the way it moves the shoulder joints, it doesn't reduce the tension across the front of the chest and shoulders. Even worse, if this position becomes habitual, over time it shortens and weakens the muscles that are needed to stabilize the upper spine, which leads to even more downward curve.

A great way to practice relaxing your scapulas is the rhomboid pushup. Starting on your hands and knees, push your hands into the ground so that your scapulas spread apart as much as possible. Then, slowly let your scapulas relax together. Relax is the key word here, as you shouldn’t be doing any work to pull them together. Rather, the ultimate goal is to release the tension in the muscles across the front of the chest and shoulders. Also keep in mind that this movement is different from a yoga cat/cow - while the spine moves up and down relative to the ground, the curve of the spine stays the same throughout.

Pushing down through my hands to get my scapulas relatively wide.

Pushing down through my hands to get my scapulas relatively wide.

Allowing my scapulas to relax together.

Allowing my scapulas to relax together.

Another thing to consider is how you sleep. Most people I know love to sleep on their sides, but the next time you lay down that way, really pay attention to what's happening in your shoulders and upper back. Even if you prop your top arm up with a pillow, there’s still a lot of forward rounding going on. Lately I’ve been experimenting with sleeping on my back for part of the night. I’ve gotten to the point where, if I spend the entire night on my side, I really notice more tension in my shoulders and chest the next morning.

Nap time! Notice how I have the pillow under my shoulders too.

Nap time! Notice how I have the pillow under my shoulders too.

To make back sleeping a little more comfortable, I prop up my head and shoulders. For those of you who've done the RE psoas release, this will probably look familiar. My theory is that a lot of people find sleeping on their backs so unpleasant because their psoas muscles are tight, and having a little support under the head and shoulders helps to mitigate this. (FYI, the psoai are massive muscles that attach to the lumbar spine, run across the front of the pelvis, and attach to the femurs. If these muscles are unduly tight - and they are in pretty much anyone who sits a lot - they can cause all sorts of issues in the upper and lower back, hips, and legs.) Also, try to have your palms facing up. If they're turned toward the ground, this just encourages the internal shoulder rotation that we want to avoid.

Noticing the tendency to squeeze your shoulder blades together (and not doing it anymore!), doing rhomboid push ups, and sleeping on your back for part of the night are just a few things you can do to prevent gorilla arms. Really, though, anything that increases your awareness of how you use your arms will help, so don't forget to check in with this very important area of your body every once in a while.