Exercises to Keep the Shoulders Pulled Back and Down

Posture often falls apart due to time spent crouched in front of a computer, cradled in a couch or confined to a chair. You have the best intentions when you work out, but hitting the gym to counter all that time spent sitting can also work against your posture. Work the muscles you see in the mirror — namely the chest, abs, biceps and fronts of the shoulders — at the expense of your upper, middle and lower back, and you'll enhance a rounded forward look.

Train your upper back and shoulders to improve your posture. (Image: Tempura/E+/GettyImages)

It's an easy fix, though — include just a few moves regularly at workouts and during your downtime to keep your shoulders pulled back and down. You'll increase chest flexibility while strengthening the posterior deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids.

Strengthen Postural Muscles

Your first order of business is to strengthen the backs of the shoulders, known as the posterior deltoids. You also want to train the large diamond-shaped upper-back muscle called the trapezius and the rhomboids, positioned at the back of the shoulder blades and responsible for scapular retraction.

Integrate several of these moves into your regular shoulder workouts or back workouts, working up to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

1. Rear Deltoid Rows

Use a barbell, dumbbells or a cable to perform rear deltoid rows. Many variations of each version exist, but the key to any of them is to keep your elbows perpendicular to the body as your row to emphasize the backs of your shoulders. This move uses the posterior deltoids primarily, as well as the rhomboids and upper/middle trapezius for assistance.

Move 1: Rear Dumbbell Rows

Lie prone, or stomach down, on a workout bench inclined to 45 degrees. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and allow your arms to hang down toward the floor. Pull your elbows back, in line with your shoulders, as you squeeze your upper back and rear shoulders together. Release to complete one rep.

Move 2: Rear Barbell Rows

Hold the barbell with a wide overhand grip and lean forward from your hips until your back is parallel to the floor. Bend your elbows to pull the barbell up toward your upper chest — elbows flaring out to the sides of the room. Extend your elbows for a complete repetition.

Move 3: Rear Cable Rows

Sit upright at a seated pulley station fixed with a bar attachment. Hold the bar with a wide grip and pull it to and from your chest as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Keep your elbows parallel to the floor and pointed to the sides of the room to best target the upper back and shoulders.

2. Rear Deltoid Flyes

A dumbbell or cable machine helps you execute this exercise. It helps you train the shoulders to remain retracted, so you stand taller and straighter.

Move 1: Rear Dumbbell Flyes

Lie face down on an incline bench set at 45 degrees. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and allow your palms to face one another. With a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms widely to squeeze the shoulder blades together. Draw the arms back together to complete one rep.

Move 2: Rear Cable Flyes

Face a dual pulley machine, feet planted hip-distance apart. Grasp the handle of the right pulley in your left hand and the handle of the left pulley in your right hand. The cables will cross. Step back slightly to feel tension in the cables. Open your arms to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Maintain straight arms with a slight softness in the elbows. Pause, and release to start.

3. Y Raise

The Y raise is also known by the formal name: prone scapular retraction. It's simple to perform with or without light dumbbells. This move can be done daily as it's about functional strength and won't overly tax your muscles.

  1. Lie on your belly on a mat. Stretch your legs behind you as your arms extend wide and above your head so you look like the letter "Y."
  2. Keep your legs and the tops of your feet connected to the floor as you slowly raise your arms, head, chest and fronts of the shoulders. Try to maintain the arms at the same height as the head by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  3. Pause for a count or two and lower back down for one repetition.

4. Flexibility Boosters

Opening up and stretching the front side of your chest undoes forward rounded posture and trains your shoulders to stay more integrated down your back. Do these moves multiple times per day to seal in the benefits.

Move 1: Chest Opening Stretch

Tight chest muscles can limit your ability to keep your shoulders back. Stretch these muscles with the chest opening stretch.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie back on a rounded pillow, stability ball or workout bench. Reach your arms out to the sides of the room and let them hang open to release the muscles of your chest. Hold light weights in each hand to increase the stretch as long as it doesn't create too intense of a sensation. Hold 20 to 30 seconds.

Move 2: Prone Cobra

The prone cobra stretches tight abdominal muscles that can limit your ability to keep your shoulders back.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie abdomen first on the floor, your legs extended behind you. Align your hands under the creases of your armpits and squeeze your elbows in against your ribs. Lift up your face, chest and fronts of the shoulders. Keep little weight in your hands — let the squeeze of your shoulders do the lifting work. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.

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