Recently I have had many questions about how to improve your posture & reduce the rounded shoulders appearance in the saddle when riding especially in your dressage position. Now I am sure we’ve all heard that familiar;
“Pull your shoulders back!”
But the fact is regardless of how many times your instructor yells at you if you don’t have the physical strength to hold your upper back & shoulders in a good upright posture then you’re not going to be able to meet their demands of sitting up better.
Often when you do try to self-correct your posture you actually end up just leaning back through your spine which then puts you behind the horse's movement & can end up with your lower back being overloaded & causing lower back pain & soreness as you’re now sitting behind the movement. Equally, if you constantly struggle to sit up you are going to find that you are tipping in front of your horse's movement which will most definitely affect the way he naturally goes as your centre of mass will be pushing further forward than it should be meaning that you will push more weight onto his forehand.
The posterior chain is always the main focus when we are working to increase our strength for riding performance & the upper back & shoulder girdle make up a large proportion of the posterior chain.
The shoulder girdle is formed of two sets of bones; the scapula posteriorly & the clavicle anteriorly. Around these bones, there are many muscles that stabilise & support the joints such as the glenohumeral joint where the head of the arm bone meets the scapula. The shoulder girdle is an incredibly mobile joint that can move in many different ways including protraction, retraction, depression, elevation & rotation so making sure we strengthen & stabilise it is key to keep the shoulder girdle moving as it should & to also stay injury-free at a joint where there is so much movement available! As there is so much going on at the shoulder joint it makes it one of the most delicate & often injury-prone areas of the body so making sure we prehab & strengthen is key! The major muscles that support the function of the shoulder girdle are;
-Trapezius muscles (upper, lower & mid)
-Serratus anterior muscles
-Pectoralis minor muscles
-Levator scapulae muscle (deep neck muscle)
We want to make sure we are training these muscles to increase their strength within our upper body work as well as training the larger compound upper body movements such as rows & pulldowns that primarily work the bigger back muscles such as the latissimus dorsi. As many of us spend much of our day seated whether that be behind a screen, on a horse or in the car you will probably find that your chest muscles also become very tight.
Sitting encourages our shoulders to round & our heads to protrude forward leading to a more kyphotic posture. This means that the muscles on the back become weak & lengthened & the muscles on the front become tight & overactive so as well as strengthening the muscles on the back we must make sure we are releasing those tight muscles on the front of the body too-it is a balance front to back & often injuries can occur from imbalances! It is very common for the upper traps & neck muscles to be overactive from daily life & the way you lift or hold yourself so making sure we train all of the above muscles is important.
As you can see the posture & position of your head & neck can lead to more serious injuries & play a large role in your shoulder health. Making sure you are doing exercises like rolling the pectoral muscles on the front of your chest to release any tightness as well as strengthening the back is important.
So we now know what muscles we need to be targeting so how do we train them? As these are smaller muscles these are often classed as more “accessory” type lifts but for riders, I would argue that these should be part of our key lifts.
First of all, making sure you can control the scapulas & activate the serratus anterior are key so I would start basic & focus on getting your scapulas moving & activating these muscles. Retracting & depressing the scapulas should be something you can do relatively easily but if you’ve never tried to get your scapulas moving to start it can be rather tricky! Bringing them together like you’re squeezing a pencil then pushing the shoulder blades apart is what you want to think of doing as well as being able to pull the scapulas down. The scapula squeeze is a great movement, to begin with to control your scapulas & activate the serratus anterior as well as working on your core stability if done in a plank position. If you struggle on your knees or in a plank then start standing with your hands against the wall & just work on retracting those scapulas as you push your weight into the wall.
Once you have the ability to control the scapulas, get the shoulder muscles activated & moving then you can start to add in some strengthening exercises. The banded face pull is your bang-for-buck exercise. It works the upper back muscles including the middle trapezius muscles & the rhomboids as well as hitting the rear deltoid (shoulder muscles). The face pull can also help to improve posture by forcing you into better thoracic extension, which will help avoid injury & improve your mobility over time. Really focus on keeping your shoulders down to stop your neck & upper back muscles overactivating & focus on pulling by engaging those scapulas & making the correct mid back muscles work. Over time you can increase the sets & reps done or move onto doing the movement on a cable machine & increase the resistance used.
The pull-apart is another great exercise to really work those rear deltoid & rhomboid muscles. Again focus on keeping those shoulders down & moving by retracting the shoulder blades.
To begin with, just focus on having control of your scapula & shoulder girdle. This will get the muscles moving & activating which will hugely improve your posture. Then overtime once these muscles & joints are moving as they should you can then add in these two strengthening exercises & you should start to find that your upper back strength improves but also your overall posture improves both on & off the horse.
Rounded shoulders & weak back muscles aren’t something that just happens. It can be reversed & improved but most often it is a by-product of spending much time seated & a more sedentary lifestyle so you must make time to focus on strengthening the posterior chain & getting the back of your body working & moving as it was designed to do! In time your posture & strength will improve & your riding posture will most definitely benefit too!
If rounded shoulders are something you've struggled with then I'd love to hear how you get on trying these exercises. If you've got questions on how to improve your back strength then pop me a message in the comments below & I'll be as much help as I can!