Our bodies were never truly designed to sit at desks and operate computers for hours at a time, and this is unlikely to vastly change any time soon. The trouble is, in office and cubicles around the world, the laws of physics and physiology are colliding and producing some harmful and undesirable results to our bodies.
Have you heard of the saying: For every action, there’s a reaction ? Well this principle definitely applies to your muscles. Our muscles work in pairs of ‘agonists’ and ‘antagonists.’ An agonist is when a muscle (or group of muscles) shortens to move a joint. The muscle on the opposite side of the joint stretches to allow this movement, this is called an antagonist muscle.
When the joint is moved in the opposite direction the roles switch. An example of an antagonistic pair is the relationship between the biceps and triceps. To contract, the triceps relaxes while the biceps contracts to lift the arm. In order to function optimally, these muscle pairs must be relatively equal in their strength and length. Imbalances can then develop when you use one muscle group a lot more than its opposing muscle group. This results in one muscle group lengthening and weakening, whilst the opposing muscle group is strengthening, shortening and tightening.
This scenario occurs often in our modern work world, and the muscle imbalances that result can contribute to various joint injuries, pain, and dysfunction – all of which can throw off your body’s alignment.
A common condition seen in workers is called Upper Cross Syndrome. It is a postural abnormality, where your upper body and head is being drawn forward, due to being hunched over a desk all day. This doesn’t only affect desk workers, but anyone who is doing prolonged activities that require having the arms reaching out in front, such as driving for long distances, or cyclists.
In Upper Cross Syndrome, the muscles that are overly tight tend to be muscles in the chest (Pectoralis major and minor), the anterior neck muscles (Sternocleidomastoid and Scalenes), and the upper back muscles (upper Trapezius, Rhomboids, Levator Scapula).
Remember, a good start is incorporating these simple stretches into your workplace routine. No equipment or extended lunch breaks are needed.
Interlock your hands behind your back, keeping your arms straight, raise them as high as you can until you feel a comfortable stretch through your chest and biceps. Keep your body in an upright position. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Using a doorway, place both arms against the walls on both sides of the door, shoulders and elbows both at 90 degrees. Step through the door so that your arms are drawn back, feeling a stretch through the front of your shoulders and chest.
Also try raising or lowering your elbows to focus on stretching the pectoralis muscle fibers at different angles. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Upper Trap Stretch
Sitting in a chair, upright nice and tall, shoulders back. Reach one arm behind the back. Use the other arm to gently pull your head to the opposite side as if you are trying to bring your ear to your shoulder. Keep your chin level and head back. Once you feel a comfortable stretch, hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat both side 2-3 times each.
Levator Scapula Stretch
This is a stretch more focused on the posterior side of the neck. Sitting upright nice and tall with shoulders back. Reach one arm behind your back as if you are trying to reach in between your shoulder blades.
From here, rotate your head to the opposite side, then using your free hand, place it on the back of your head and pull down as if you are looking down toward your hip. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat both sides 2-3 times each.
Obviously these are stretches to target those tight/short/strong common muscle groups. Remember additional exercises are needed to strengthen the lengthened, weak muscles. Don’t just accept that this is the way it is! Book a consultation with an Exercise Physiologist at Optimum Health Solutions or Optimum Rehab for a postural assessment, and start making a change today against those imbalances!