Punching style & rounded shoulders

Punching style & rounded shoulders - 8 exercises & consideration in your punching style

         by Jason Armstrong PhD, 7th Dan

As just one topic related to our textbook on long-term karate side effects that are not good for health but tied to highly dedicated training, we may like boxers, develop unbalanced & hunched shoulders. Especially if you do a great deal of:
  • punching on a bag
  • push ups
  • clapping push-ups for plyometric speed development 
  • or supplemental exercises such as chest/pushing based weight training,
It is common to hear from most exercise specialists that prolonged exposure to any sport will produce sport-specific muscle imbalances. For example, look at almost any boxer with a few years training under his belt and you will see the characteristic rounded shoulders, rounded upper back and protracted shoulder on his lead or jab hand side.

Image 1: Jean Pascal vs. Bernard Hopkins weigh in. Over development of the front of deltoid muscles (anterior) and stretched upper back shoulder muscle groups.

In karate we are at risk of developing hunched/rounded shoulders which can lead to poor posture and shoulder problems (unfortunately I fall into this category & in the last few years have begun making efforts to correct the muscle & stretching imbalances shown in image 2 (which shows an extended deltoid style punch [one of two ways we deploy the deltoid while punching depending on need vs training method]). 

The argument that "correct punching won't cause this" is far from a simple statement when one is looking at generating maximal power and length in a punch i.e. practice may be divided in budo as an art, or budo as effective combat system, or a combination of both (hence boxers who are looking for impact effect, not to only practice an "art", possess this imbalance). In boxing, other variables around the practicality of impact fighting may also accentuate the issue (and for those of us that do a great deal of applied bunkai we practice these variants in bunkai execution, even though our kata form may possess these attributes). For example, boxers typically keep your head down and your shoulders rounded, as that is good defensive form. This training can add to the muscle development & posture issue in concert with punching & training to punch with power. However, as we will describe, outside the ring keeping your head down and your shoulders rounded is bad for your posture and it can in the long run also weaken your shoulder joints.

Today's lifestyle of computer texting, video games etc can add to this propensity. Karate has an amazing ability to develop muscle imbalances and flexibility extremes (producing more flexibility than most people in some ways and less flexible than an average person in other ways). The arm actions and positions of martial arts can allow muscles in the upper back and neck to strain, overstretch and overwork. Additionally, the chest muscles shorten, the small muscles between the shoulder blades weaken and the back muscles stretch and lengthen. This all contributes to a rounded back. This can then lead to smaller muscles that are not designed to be maintaining posture, having to work in a way that they were not designed. The two major variants of Sanchin kata are rounded back and straight back, where the rounded back version is optimized for receiving impact in the abdominal region (see the chapter in is link), this is another example karate training and posture which may exacerbate the problem. This position and other positions such as deep stance variants, can be in conflict with the postural argument that your heels, knees, pelvis, and neck should be directly stacked on top of each.  

Image 2: In karate we are at risk of developing hunched/rounded shoulders which can lead to poor posture and shoulder problems (unfortunately I fall into this category & in the last few years have begun making efforts to correct the muscle & stretching imbalances). Shown in this image is an extended deltoid style punch [one of two ways we deploy the deltoid while punching depending on need vs training method]). 

This can all result in a posture which can have a tremendous impact on our health. This can include muscle and ligament imbalances which can lead to chronic back, neck and shoulder pain and even such issues as headaches and irritability. If some of the above rings true for you, it is important to kick off the process by seeing a physiotherapist (physical therapist) who as a registered health professional can correctly diagnose and help any muscle imbalances, posture and spine alignment.

Slouching (rounding the upper back and shoulders) causes the head, which normally is balanced on top of the spine, to be too far forward. It doesn't take long for the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back to become strained when the burden of supporting the weight of the head is shifted to the muscles in the back of the neck (see Neck Posture below). So for martial artists earlier in their training, non-martial arts supplemental stretches and strengthening can likely prevent the development of rounded shoulders. If you have been training longer and are already down this path, the usual advice of patience and what may be a multi year journey is still a good answer. Preventative actions can include specific stretching (obtained through yoga or other stretches guided by a health care professional) and particular reciprocal muscle strengthening, will hopefully also increase shoulder flexibility and lessen the chance of shoulder injuries (Lee et al, 2015).

Some relevant muscles to be aware of:

The teres minor (LHS) is a narrow, elongated muscle of the rotator cuff and it can become overstretched due to tightness and over development of the anterior deltoids. In human anatomy, the infraspinatus muscle is a thick triangular muscle, which occupies the chief part of the infraspinatous fossa. As one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff, the main function of the infraspinatus is to externally rotate the humerus and stabilize the shoulder joint.

The serratus anterior is occasionally called the "big swing muscle" or "boxer's muscle" because it is largely responsible for the protraction of the scapula — that is, the pulling of the scapula forward and around the rib cage that occurs when someone throws a punch.

It is also known as the finger muscle (due to it’s appearance) or the boxer’s muscle (due to it’s pronounced definition in prizefighters.) Your serratus anterior originates on your ribs and inserts on the medial border of your scapulae, meaning the side closer to your spine (Brand, 2008; Platzer & Werner, 2004 ).

When in balanced health with other support structures of the upper back, the serratus protracts your shoulder, basically sucking the scapulae right up against your ribcage. When it’s not working your scapulae can pop off your back (known as winging) and are significantly less stable.

In addition to possessing a balance in flexibility & development of the anterior and posterior deltoids, the trapezius group is also highly relevant. Muscle imbalances, which can heavily affect posture and compromise shoulder health, can result if all three sections of the trapezius are not developed equally.

In human anatomy, the trapezius (/trəˈpiːzi.əs/) is a large superficial muscle that extends longitudinally from the occipital bone to the lower thoracic vertebrae and laterally to the spine of the scapula (shoulder blade). Its functions are to move the scapulae and support the arm.

The trapezius has three functional regions: the superior region (descending part), which supports the weight of the arm; the intermediate region (transverse part), which retracts the scapulae; and the inferior region (ascending part), which medially rotates and depresses the scapulae. The upper and lower trapezius fibers also work in tandem with the serratus anterior to upwardly rotate the scapulae

8 Exercises to help rounded shoulder issues:

Exercise 1: 
Shoulder External Rotation: 

Position elbow against side and forearm across belly. 

Pull cable/tube attachment away from body as far as possible by externally rotating shoulder. Return and repeat. Turn around and continue with opposite arm.

Maintain elbow against side and fixed elbow position (90° angle) throughout exercise.

Exercise 2: 
Face down deltoid, shoulder and upper back stretch:

Lie face down arms crossed and place hands palm down on the floor.

Exercise 3:
Chest stretches:

Multiple angles and heights.

Exercise 4:
Reverse Fly:

This exercise focuses mainly on the rear shoulder (posterior deltoid) and on the upper back muscles.

It can be done standing with your torso bent forward, making a 90 degree angle between your legs and upper body (careful of back considerations), or as shown on a bench. 

Grasp dumbbells in your hands at your sides, palms facing inwards. Lean over keeping your back straight, abdominals engaged, and knees slightly bent. Exhale and raise your arms to your sides, keeping your arms straight, or slightly bent, but not locking your elbows. Continue to lift until weights are at shoulder level. Hold for 2-3 seconds, inhale and slowly lower weights back to starting position. If done on bench change head from side-to-side between sets or lie with head over the end of bench.

Exercise 5:
Back bound hand pose:

Grabbing the elbows low from behind by squeezing the shoulder blades down and together (I am not pictured here as I cannot yet do this given my stage at working through all this article articulates). If too difficult, grab the wrists or forearm until you get better.

Exercise 6:
Cow Face Pose:

If you cannot grab your hands, use your karate belt or a towel to bridge the gap u ntil you get better. The chest should be lifted and the shoulders down.

Exercise 7:
Shoulder Squeeze Pose:

Attempt to raise the hands upwards at an angle

Exercise 8:
Foam rolling: 

This is another massage technique that can improve your spine and back flexibility helping to correct rounded shoulders. Lay the foam roller across the spine in the middle of your back right below your shoulder blades. Your knees should be bent, feet firmly planted against the ground, and hands comfortably behind your head. Lifting your hips off the ground, roll forward so the foam roller travels down your back an inch or so, then drop your hips to the floor. Repeat until the foam roller is hovering a couple inches below your neck, then slowly roll back down following the same pattern. If a particular area is quite stiff, hover on that position rolling back and forth on top of the area for up to 20 seconds. Like our other exercises, do 3 sets going up, down, and returning again.


  1. 20th edition of Gray's Anatomy (1918) - this article incorporates text in the public domain from the 
  2. Karate Styles: Surprising Links to Shortened Lifespan (9781304046949) by Armstrong, Dr Armstrong & Dr McLinton (2013).
  3. Street Fighting Statistics With Medical Outcomes Linked To Karate & Bunkai Selection by B.Sc.(Honours), Msc, Phd, Dr. Jason Armstrong. (Edition 2, 2011).
  4. Dalley et al. (2010). Clinically oriented anatomy (6th [International] ed.). Philadelphia [etc.]: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Wolters Kluwer. p. 700. ISBN 978-1-60547-652-0.
  5. Brand. (2008). "Origin and Comparative Anatomy of the Pectoral Limb". Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 466 (3): 531–42. doi:10.1007/s11999-007-0102-6. PMC 2505211. PMID 18264841.
  6. Griffin (2006). "Client-Centered Exercise Prescription". Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-7360-5495-9.
  7. Lee et al. (2015) "The effect of scapular posterior tilt exercise, pectoralis minor stretching, and shoulder brace on scapular alignment and muscles activity in subjects with round-shoulder posture". Journal of Electromyogr Kinesiol. Feb;25(1):107-14. Epub 2014 Oct 28. 
  8. Platzer & Werner (2004). "Color Atlas of Human Anatomy", Vol. 1: Locomotor System (5th ed.). Thieme. ISBN 3-13-533305-1.

Return to Karate Articles contents page...