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Karen Voight

Keeping the Slouch Monster at Bay

April 02, 2001|KAREN VOIGHT

Look in the mirror and check your posture. Do you see early signs of a rounded upper back with a chest that caves in and shoulders that roll forward?

This will happen when you slouch all day with bad posture, sitting hunched over a desk or typing with your head craning forward and your shoulders clenched.

But even if you don't slouch, it can occur when the muscles in back of your upper body are weaker than those in the front of that section of your body. Let's say that you exercise regularly on a stationary bicycle with your arms extended in front of you and your back curved over the bike. Perhaps you also do push-ups religiously in order to strengthen your arms and chest and then finish up with some abdominal curls that again curve your spine, strengthening only the front of your body. For all your hard work, you may be neglecting an important area of your body--your upper back.

You may have developed strong, tight shoulder and chest muscles, but at the same time the underused muscles in between your shoulder blades, called the rhomboids, and the muscles below your shoulder blades, called the latissimus dorsi, are weak and overstretched. This type of muscular imbalance prevents your backbone from stacking up correctly. Over time it can lead to developing "grandma's slump," which is an exaggerated curve to the thoracic spine or upper back. You may have also heard this called kyphosis posture.

You can decrease the chance of this happening to you by incorporating this month's back strengthening move into your weight-training program. Without a lot of fuss, you'll achieve a more balanced body and you'll find your posture improving. All you'll need is a set of 5- to 8-pound dumbbells. You can perform this exercise in a standing position by bending the knees and leaning forward. But you might find it easier to support yourself on your knees by using a stability ball. In either position it's important to move very slowly and focus your attention on contracting only the muscles in your middle and upper back. You should be able to move your elbows behind you without creating any tension in your neck and shoulders.

1. Start by kneeling in front of a stability ball, leaning the front of your torso against the ball. Place your knees and the tops of your feet hip-width apart on the ground. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, wrapping your arms around the sides of the ball. Inhale as you spread your shoulder blades apart.

2. On the exhale, draw your shoulder blades toward the center of your spine and bend your elbows back. The dumbbells will be close to your hips. Check that your neck and shoulders stay relaxed while you feel a slight stretch across your chest. As you move your elbows back, you should feel your lats (the muscles below the shoulder blades) pulling down and your shoulder blades squeezing together. Make sure the tops of your shoulders move away from your ears. Do two sets of 12 repetitions, resting 30 seconds between sets.

By doing this move three times a week, you will reverse the effects of a collapsed chest and drooping shoulders. You'll stand an inch taller and receive compliments on your posture. So don't ignore the muscles of your upper back. They can make a big difference in helping you look and feel younger, stronger and more confident.


Next month: Biceps and triceps. Previous columns in this series can be found at

* Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column.

* Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest video is "Abdominals & Back." She can be reached at Her column appears the first Monday of the month.

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