Anyone who spends years sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car will likely have some issues related to thoracic spine mobility, forward shoulders, and forward head posture (raises hand). Combating the daily habits that produce these issues will require constant attention with soft tissue work, mobility work, and corrective/activation exercises, especially if someone has spent years in poor posture.
This type of upper crossed syndrome is characterized by tight pecs, tight anterior/lateral neck muscles, and tight upper traps, as well as weak lower traps and rhomboids. When this type of posture is the default, a whole host of issues can crop up during basic movements.
The Problem With Pullups
Pullups are an outstanding strength, mobility, and conditioning exercise for the back, shoulders, arms, and core. You can progressively load them and vary the stimulus by doing high or low reps and easily insert them into a circuit with other exercises. It’s no big surprise that they’re a bedrock movement of CrossFit and most good strength programs.
With someone who has upper cross syndrome, however, they can be not only frustrating, but downright detrimental. The fact is that the human body is very good at accomplishing tasks. If you’re trying to get your chin over a bar during a pullup, the body will figure out a way to do it, whether in a good postural position or a terrible one.
With someone prone to a head forward, shoulder forward, and flexed T spine position, an extremely common fault is a flying ribcage. Because thoracic extension is needed to set the shoulders and scapulae in a good position for vertical pulling, people will fight hard to get thoracic extension. Individuals who have poor extension through their upper back will let the ribcage fly up in order to extend. This is very tricky because it mimics the look of upper back extension, but in reality they’re just getting extension in the thoracolumbar (TL) joint rather than evenly through the entire thoracic spine.
What’s so insidious about this pattern is that it develops into a habit because many trainers don’t catch it early or ever. A flying ribcage and subsequent break in the TL joint will cause a huge amount of anterior core tightness to be lost. What’s more, pec and anterior shoulder tightness is not solved with this type of pullup because a flying ribcage compensates and still lets the individual pull vertically even with tight pecs and shoulders. The only way to correct this is to really slow down and focus on contracting the serratus anterior in order to tighten the rib cage down to the core and lock things in.
This correction is extremely challenging in a pullup position. It will involve some well placed activation and soft tissue work before the pullup session and a ton of focus during the exercise. While focusing on locking down the serratus anterior, it will be a big fight to keep the neck neutral, the shoulders back, and the thoracic spine in an extended position. Any time fatigue sets in or concentration is lost, the individual will revert to either an old pattern of flying the rib cage or they’ll keep the rib cage down, but lose everything else forward.
Enter the Inverted Row
While I’m 100% in favor of working your ass off towards a correct pullup, it’s important to always have a nice default strength building exercise that can be done safely and without a ton of thinking from day 1.
An inverted row can be done with TRX straps, rings, or a stationary bar. It’s easy to scale in that you can approach it from any angle from vertical to horizontal and even add load using chains or plates if things get too easy.
To perform, set up at the desired angle and hold the straps or bar with the arms fully extended. The whole body should be rigid similar to a pushup position except flipped upside down. Head neutral, ribcage down, abs on and glutes on keeping the lumbar neutral.
To initiate, think about externally rotating the shoulders and driving them back into the socket similar to the set up for the bench press. As the shoulders retract first, let the elbows then bend naturally and pull all the way through until the chest is even with or past the hands. Hold briefly to show control and then reverse the movement for a full rep.
For individuals who are strong at pulling but have weak or sleepy glutes, it can be effective to do the inverted row fully horizontal but allow the knees to bend to 90 degrees similar to the stance in a hip thrust. This will allow more constant glute contraction and better core stability. Otherwise, someone who keeps their legs straight but has poor glute strength will default heavily to their hamstrings, which is an inefficient way to brace the core and will also drive the femur into the anterior part of the hip socket (which is a huge problem anyway for most folks).
The inverted row solves a few issues that are present during the pullup.
- Less challenging shoulder position: Getting organized correctly in the bottom of a pullup is extremely challenging. In a pullup, the starting position puts the shoulder in 180 degrees of flexion with the arm straight overhead. Generating force from this position to start a pullup the right way involves a ton of mobility through the shoulders and thoracic spine. With an inverted row, the start position only involves about 90 degrees of flexion (arm extended straight in front of the body). It’s much easier to retract the scapulae and generate force from this position (which is why almost everyone can bench press more than they overhead press).
- It lets gravity do the work: All of the positions we’re trying to fix are unaided by gravity in the pullup but are now aided by gravity in the inverted row. First and foremost, anyone with a forward head posture will find it much easier to pull the head back into neutral during an inverted row. And never forget that head position can set the tone for the entire body. Resisting a flying ribcage is also much easier with this exercise than a pullup. Just think about letting gravity do it’s work and pretend there’s a 45 plate on top of your chest, packing it down tight into your abs.
While it’s a no brainer for well postured folks to perform this correctly, it’s always nice to have some tips and tricks for folks like myself who have a wicked upper crossed syndrome.
- Pull the ribs to the shoulder blades and vice versa: For people with upper cross and poor T spine mobility, the fight will always be between a flying ribcage and a rounded upper back no matter what exercise you’re doing. The way to win this fight is by thinking about the biomechanics of how this interaction can work correctly. As the thoracic spine extends, the serratus anterior (on the ribs) should lock on to the scapulae and set them. This is how you extend the upper back and resist rib flaring. It takes some very focused work to get the feel of it if you’ve never done it, but I’ll tell you this serratus anterior/scapulae connection is a very crucial motor skill for lifting weights and movement in general.
- Pack the neck: Packing the neck is a really cool concept that I only first learned in the past few years. When most people are told to pull their head back out of forward head posture, they simply look up. Not only does the head still stay forward, but it puts the cervical spine into wicked extension. The best way I can describe packing the neck is to look forward neutrally and then try to pull your chin back and down into your collarbone. If you have tight lateral neck muscles, you’ll feel them go on tension immediately when you do this. This tiny move is HUGELY important to that ribcage/scapula/t spine complex we were talking about. There’s something about packing the neck back into neutral that allows the ribs/scapula/t spine to talk to each other more easily.
- Let the biceps roam free: Anyone with upper cross usually has pec minors and anterior delts that are so matted down that the biceps tendon is fighting for it’s life on a daily basis amid all the tension. One of the big keys to this exercise is the initiation from the starting position. Really think about retracting the shoulder back in the socket and externally rotating the humerus. Try to feel the space between the shoulder and pec open up in order to let the biceps and the biceps tendon breathe. If form starts to go, and the shoulder stays more and more bunched up with the pec, you’ll get very hot in biceps area near the elbow. Try to feel a full retraction and use the biceps evenly from top to bottom.
- For individuals who struggle with the motor control to do pullups, inverted rows are a great option as a strength exercise while simultaneously working on the mobility and technique needed for pullups.
- The inverted row can be scaled from vertical to horizontal with additional difficulty added by elevating the feet or adding weight to the torso with chains, plates, or a weight vest.
- For proper inverted rows, think about packing the neck, keeping the ribcage down and tight to the abs, and fully retracting the shoulders to let the biceps and upper/mid back work through a full range of motion