If you’re someone who finds themselves sitting a lot during the day (whether that be a desk job, or driving), or even prolonged periods of standing, it is likely that your shoulders are in a knot.
I remember being in university and carrying heavy loads on my shoulders day in, day out. I also remember sitting in my bed studying away, and this lead to really bad forward-head posture.
Fortunately, over the years, I have corrected this by becoming more conscious of my posture, and doing years of rigorous yoga (which my body desperately needed). I also have had plenty of deep-tissue massage work done on my shoulders, which seriously opened up a lot of tightness and constriction I held on for years.
I believe that stretching was one of the best things I could have done for relieving my upper back and neck pain. When we relieve tight and stressed muscles through stretching, we help relax them, and get them out of their scrunched position.
The neck and upper back area hold a lot of tension. The amount of time we spend in a forward head position (thanks to technology and phones) seriously stresses the shoulder muscles and dramatically weakens our chest muscles, resulting in a rounded forward slouch that doesn’t look too pretty.
The Shoulder Complex
The shoulders aren’t just an entity of themselves. There is an entire shoulder complex that includes the humerus, clavicle, thoracic region of your spine, rib cage, and your scapula (shoulder blade). If any of these areas of the body aren’t well-functioning, then we’re going to feel pain one way or another.
When any of the muscles in this area get overused, the result is limited motion and stiffness. All four shoulder joints need to be working properly in order to have pain-free, functional range of motion.
These stretches will help relax the muscles of the upper back, and help train your brain to keep your body upright. It also takes some conscious effort on yourself to be mindful of your posture throughout the day so that you can discontinue the deterioration of muscles in the upper back and chest.
With stretching, remember that you need to start somewhere to get anywhere. The whole point of stretching is to become flexible, most people aren’t just flexible on their own – you have to do some work to get there! Always remember to breathe deep, and be patient. Never go to the point of experiencing sharp pain, and if you do, ease back on the stretch and go lighter.
1. Cat And Cow
A great warm-up stretch that maintains healthy spine and prevents back pain. A good one if you do a lot of sitting!
1. Start on your hands and knees, aligning your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
2. Think of the spine as a straight line connecting the shoulders to the hips. Keep the neck long.
3. Inhale, and let your belly drop down, while you lift your gaze and tailbone to the sky – do not crank the neck, keep it in line with the spine – let your eyes do the work.
4. As you exhale, slowly tuck your chin towards the chest, lift your mid-back towards the sky and scoop your tailbone under (like a Halloween cat!).
5. Repeat 6-10 times, and rest.
2. Standing Side Stretch
This is a great stretch for really opening the rib cage and increasing the range of motion of your upper back, shoulders and core.
1. Stand tall with toes touching, knees slightly bent and core engaged to prevent arching the lower back. Relax your shoulders and raise your chest.
2. Extend your arms overhead and interlace the fingers, pointing the index fingers.
3. Reach your arms up, and as you do so, bend to one side, making sure you keep your chest open (try to avoid caving the top shoulder into the chest). Your hips will be pressing in the opposite direction.
4. Your arms should be straight, biceps by the ears and chin lifted away from the chest.
5. Hold for 30-60 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
3. Upper Trapezius Stretch
Helps to relieve tension in the upper trapezius muscles which often become stressed when sitting at a desk typing all day, or during driving.
1. Stand upright with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart.
2. Place your left arm behind your back so that you can reach your right hand back and grasp your left wrist.
3. Gently pull the wrist toward the right and tilt your head down toward your left shoulder.
4. Hold for 30-60 seconds, release, and switch arms to do the other side.
*The video above shows some variations of this exercise, with the exercise in the middle being that described above.
4. Child’s Pose
A gentle, relaxing pose that helps take stress off the upper back and shoulders. It allows the upper half of the spine to completely relax.
1. Start in a kneeling position and drop your butt toward your heels.
2. Stretch your body down and reach your arms forward.
3. Rest your arms in a relaxed position along the floor, and rest your stomach comfortably on top of your thighs. Rest your forehead on the mat.
4. Hold here for 5-6 deep breaths and slowly bring your body back to starting position.
5. Hands Clasped Chest Stretch
A great stretch to help open the chest, stretching your front, shoulders and upper arms all at once. It helps relax tight chest muscles that become shortened with poor posture.
1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hipbone-distance apart.
2. Clasp your hands behind your back. If this is too hard, hold a towel or a strap and place your hands as close together as your can.
3. Raise your arms upwards behind you, while you bend at the waist. Let your head hang lose and raise your arms as far overhead as possible. Keep the hands clasped and touch your palms together if you can.
4. Hold for 30 seconds, come back into standing position and release the hands.
6. Overhead Triceps Stretch
This stretch targets the triceps, which releases tension in the shoulders and arms.
1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and roll your shoulders down and back.
2. Reach your right arm to the ceiling, keeping your shoulder down and away from your ears.
3. Bend your right elbow, placing your right hand toward the middle of your back with your palm facing your back.
4. Reach your left hand to the ceiling and place your fingers on your right arm, just above the elbow.
5. Breathe deep and apply light pressure to deepen the stretch. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
6. Repeat on the other side.
7. Levator Scapulae Stretch
The levator scapulae is shortened by bad posture, and pain can be worsened in times of stress. This stretch helps relieve tension in this muscle.
1. Sit on a chair with your feet wide apart and your back straight and core engaged.
2. Rotate your head 45 degrees to the left and place your left hand behind your head. Gently pull it at an angle toward your knee and stretch for 5-10 seconds. Stop when you feel a slight sting in the right side of your neck. Then, relax for 5-10 seconds.
3. Resist by carefully pushing your head backward into your hand and then relax the muscle for 5-10 seconds.
4. You can deepen the stretch by pulling your head toward your chest in the direction of your knee until you reach a new end point.
5. Repeat 2-3 times and then repeat on the opposite side.
8. Chest Doorway Stretch
A great stretch for the upper chest and pectorals minor, which often become tight when our posture isn’t optimal.
1. Stand at the end of a wall or in a doorway facing perpendicular to a wall.
2. Place the inside of your bent right arm on the surface of the wall. Position your bent elbow at shoulder height (or move your elbow a little higher to stretch into the lower pec muscles).
3. Turn your body away from the positioned arm, and hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds. Repeat with the opposite arm.