With the Olympics here, we're all looking forward to seeing the amazing feats of strength and endurance of the world's athletes. And many of us also can't wait to witness the triangular, perfectly defined bodies of swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin in their full glory.
See also: "How to Exercise in the Water"
But what if you don't swim 10,000 meters a day? Can you still get Lochte's and Franklin's toned shoulders? Absolutely!
Step #1: Stretch Your Chest
Excessively tight chest muscles can come from sitting a desk for hours with your hands thrust forward on a keyboard, from driving in a car with your hands clutching the steering wheel, or from emotional or lifestyle stress, which tend to put us into a more hunched-over, protective position. Once those chest muscles are tight, they tend to pull you forward into a slouch. This makes your shoulders look smaller and becomes even more pronounced when combined with weak external rotators (see step two).
So to alleviate this issue, you'll need to get up and stretch for about 30-60 seconds for every hour that you're hunched over that desk. I find that a door frame stretch works quite nicely. To do this stretch, simply reach for the top of a door frame, place your hands on it and lean forward as far as you can. If you can't reach the top of a door frame, just place one hand over the other hand, and lean into a wall.
Step #2: Strengthen Your External Rotators
The external rotators will work in opposition to your chest muscles to actually pull your shoulders back and open up your posture. This helps to improve the look of your shoulder muscles. Although the most popular exercise for strengthening the external rotators is to grab an elastic band and do dozens of repetitions of external rotation, most of us don't have time to stand around doing that. Instead, it's more efficient to include larger multi-joint exercises like pull-ups and rows. These types of exercises have the added advantage of burning more calories while working your upper-body muscles. So any time you do strength training, at the gym or at home, make sure to include some variations of pull-ups or rows.
I've taken this concept one step further and installed a pull-up bar in the door of my office (it cost me about $25). I try to do three to five pull-ups every time I walk under the bar, which allows me to do around 20-40 pull-ups in a day. No matter what type of external rotating exercises you do, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades back and maintaining a tall, proud posture.
Step #3: Work the Core
There is one thing that has to happen before you begin to slouch and your shoulders begin to disappear: Your core has to get tired first.
However, if you keep your core strong, it can take a massive load off your shoulders and allow you to maintain much better posture. My favorite exercises to strengthen the core and shoulders simultaneously are planks and plank variations.
Here's a circuit you can do at your home, office, and pretty much anywhere else:
- Get into a front plank, hold for three deep breaths
- Switch to a side plank on your left side, hold for three breaths
- Switch to a side plank on your right side, hold for three breaths
- Finish by holding a full push-up position for three breaths
Try to do that entire sequence without your knees touching the ground, and see how many rounds you can do before you core "collapses." If you can get to 10 rounds (about seven to nine minutes of planking), you've got a very solid core. Otherwise, do this routine once or twice per week until you can get to 10 rounds. If you need to start with an easier version, modify the plank position by putting your knees on the ground. Just make sure that your abs are pulled tight and your spine is long throughout.
Now that you've learned the three easy steps to get shoulders like Michael Phelps, you can not only cut a more an impressive figure, but you can also get rid of that notorious slouch that plagues most people who spend a significant period of time in a sitting position.
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. He is the author of "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body - A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape."
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