How to Carry a Backpack (Rucksack) to Protect Your Back, Neck & Shoulders

(pre-note: this is a written version of a video I did on our Facebook page. If you prefer videos to reading, here’s the link to watch on our FB page. If you do watch, leave a comment & let me know if you try it!)

(2nd pre-note: this was originally written for August & holidays, but the tips here work for any time you need to wear a backpack)

It’s August!

In the U.K. this means it’s holiday time.

What do we do on holiday?

Carry a heavy backpack or pull around heavy luggage!   

This is what we hear a lot during this time of year:

I’ve just got back from holiday and I spent the last week carrying around a heavy backpack and my neck & shoulders are killing me!

Common wisdom among bodyworkers is that carrying a backpack is better than carrying a one-strapped bag.

A backpack goes on two shoulders. Two shoulders is better for your back than hoiking one shoulder up to keep a bag on, right?

Theoretically, yes.

But… if you’ve ever travelled with a heavy backpack you know it’s entirely possible to screw up your back with a backpack.  

Today I’m sharing with you what I’ve been telling clients for years.

This is how to carry a backpack – or, more accurately, the posture you should have. Done correctly, you not only protect your neck & shoulders, but also improve your postural muscles.  

What Not to Do with Your Backpack (aka what you do without thinking)

Here’s what you probably do when you put a backpack on your shoulders: you hunch your shoulders up, forward, and around. 

This is instinctive – something’s pulling you back and down so you pull against it up and forward.  

When we’re carrying a heavy load, we adjust our body so the weight of our body & the load is distributed evenly across our feet.

With a backpack on your back, this means you’ll lean forward. Usually, our shoulders round to ‘pull’ the straps.

And your head goes forward.

What happens when you’re rounding your shoulders, leaning forward, and sticking your head forward?

Tight shoulders.

Tight upper back.

Sore tops of the shoulders.

THIS is what instinctively happens. 


Now that you know what not to do, and how carrying a backpack can screw up your posture, it’s time to show you how carrying a backpack can be very good for your shoulders, neck, upper back and overall posture.

You just have to be mindful when you’re using one.

How to Carry a Backpack (Rucksack) on Your Shoulders

Now that you see why your instinctive approach to carrying a backpack is so…


what should you be doing?

If your first thought is to stand up straight – you’re right! 

But maybe not how you think.

When people try to have ‘good’ posture they yank their shoulder blades up and towards each other, jutting out their chest, rib cage and stomach.

This ‘stand up straight’ posture creates different problems (for another post at another time).

Instead of pulling your shoulders up and together, imagine the straps of the backpack/rucksack are weights gently pulling your shoulder blades down and towards each other along a ‘V’ shape.

This opens your chest gently without overworking upper back muscles.

If you’re not used to using your back to adjust your shoulder blades, you may make common mistake #2.  

Common mistake #2 is when you use your upper arm to push your shoulders back.

What does this look like?

If you’re using your upper arm to push your shoulder blades back, when your shoulder blades are ‘in position’ your upper arm or elbow will be behind you as well. Over time this will create tension in your rotator cuff, and long term can cause shoulder pain or problems. 

On the other hand, if you can hold your upper arms in front of your body and move your shoulder blades back and down, you’re using your back muscles.

Here’s how to practice:

How to Use Your Back Muscles to Put Your Shoulder Blades in Position

Hold your hands in front of your body.

Keeping your elbows/upper arms where they are, use your back muscles to move your shoulder blades down your back. 

Does it feel hard?

If yes, don’t worry, you’re not alone. **

Now that your shoulders are in the right position…

Once your shoulder blades are in the right position, you may feel your abdomen want to push forward / your back to arch.

The next step in ‘good backpack posture’ is getting your abs involved. 

Activate/contract your lower abdominal muscles (from your belly button down) about 10% to stop your lower back from arching forward. 

Using your abs this way not only supports your body carrying the backpack, it also supports your lower back, which could prevent or reduce lower back pain. 

Now, your head position.

Once you’ve got your chest open (at least, not rounded), it’s easier to keep your head over your shoulders.

When our shoulders round forward, it’s basically impossible to have our head over our shoulders.

Rounded shoulders push the head forward, and because we can’t look down with a forward head, we have to look ‘up’ and scrunch/crunch the back of our neck.

Using your backpack straps to pull your shoulders down and back makes it a lot easier to put your head over your shoulders.

The Sum-Up

If you’ve been following step by step, I bet you’re sitting pretty straight right now!

If not, why not try to follow the steps included in the article summary. 

  • When you wear a backpack, you’ll instinctively lean forward, round your shoulders forward, and jut your head out. 
  • This creates tension, and ultimately pain, in the neck, shoulder & upper back. 
  • Instead, imagine your backpack is a ‘good posture device’. 
  • Use the weight of the straps to encourage your shoulders to drop down and towards each other in a V shape (with your arms forward). 
  • Imagine the weight of the backpack is resistance for your abs as they hold your spine straight (preventing your back from arching). 
  • Finally, shift your head back over your shoulders, lengthening the back of your neck to de-scrunch your spine. 

Go ahead, take a minute to practice.

‘Wait. This feels awkward’. 

Says everyone who does this for the first time ever.

Don’t worry if you’re trying this and it feels weird. 

Going from bad posture to good posture almost always does. 

If it does feel awkward, or weird, or like I’m asking you to do some Cirque-du-Soleil level contortionism, here’s what you do:

DON’T do it. 

What? I thought I was supposed to do this position. 

Well, yes and no. You want to have good posture, but if perfect posture feels too weird, you need to do it step by step.

Get Closer to Ideal – But Still Comfortable

Instead of being exactly-perfect-everything-in-place-where-it’s-supposed-to-be-even-though-it-feels-super-weird, 

Slowly come out of ‘perfect’ until you find ‘comfortable’. 

You’re trying to find a position that’s not your natural slouchy backpack posture, one step towards ‘perfect posture’ that still feels comfortable. 

If you’re thinking, ‘why shouldn’t I just go for broke and force myself into ‘perfect’ position until it feels normal?’

The simple answer, is you create more problems than you fix. 

When you try to have perfect posture after having not have good posture, you’ll either overcompensate, which can ultimately lead to pain, or just hurt yourself depending on how tight your muscles are.

First find the step towards perfect that feels comfortable, and when that’s a habit, take another step towards perfect. 

It’s much kinder to your body this way. . 

How to Speed Up the Process/Get Help

If you’d like to make ‘perfect’ backpack posture feel more comfortable, or are  having any trouble with any of the instructions, you’re always welcome to come in for a session. 

We can show you what we’re talking about and open up any muscles that are making it harder to open your chest, line up your back or put your head over your shoulder.

You can even bring your backpack so we can check your posture, or help you find your ‘one step closer’ to good backpack posture. 

You can also try our unofficial pre- or post- travel MOT.

With a pre-trip MOT, we can check any of your regular trouble spots to reduce tension that may flare up while you’re on a long haul flight or sleeping on an unfamiliar pillow. 

Or, in a post-trip MOT we’ll target any muscles you used on holiday that may be a bit surprised from the effort you expected of them, or de-kink muscles that are recovering from the shock of being cramped in a small space for an extended period of time (like a car or plane). 

Let Your Backpack Help You

Instead of being resigned to tight neck and shoulders from carrying a heavy rucksack, let your backpack help you. 

The more you let it pull your shoulders down and back, the more you use your abs to keep your back straight, and the more you keep your head over your shoulders, the better your posture will be – even without the backpack on. 

Now, what are you waiting for?

Try this backpack posture tip and let me know in the comments – what are you feeling? What feels better? What feels weird?

And if you run into any trouble feel free to describe it below and we’ll do our best to help. 

Know someone who complains about carrying a backpack? I’d really appreciate if you share this article with them. 

Does 'good' posture feel awkward? Get our free, 7-min training

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