Whether you’re sedentary or super-active, chances are good that the muscles on the front of your body are tight. This can lead to problems from a dull, nagging backache to poor performance in your workouts. “Chest tightness is an all too common problem because so many people sit at desks on a daily basis, which can cause rounded shoulders and a slumped-forward posture,” says Greg Justice, an exercise physiologist and owner of AYC Health and Fitness in Kansas City, Kansas. Making matters worse, emotional stress, lugging around a heavy handbag or briefcase, and looking down at your cell phone constantly can all contribute to tightness in this area, adds Alain Saint-Dic, NASM-CPT, a therapist at Stretch Relief in New York City.
All that rounding of the shoulders tends to lead to stiffness and pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. “If one muscle group is tight, then the opposite group is pulled into extension and you wind up with pain there,” says Justice. Even if you work out frequently, the moves you do might be making the situation even worse. “Often times people compound the ill effects by going to the gym and doing push-ups or bench press movements, and neglecting exercises that would bring more balance to their posture.” Plus, when it comes to your workouts, the slumped posture can make it harder to kick it through cardio, or power through strength moves because it can prevent your lungs from expanding fully.
“If one muscle group is tight, then the opposite group is pulled into extension and you wind up with pain there.”
The trick to fixing these issues is to get to the root of the problem. “People tend to treat the symptoms—where the pain is felt—instead of where it originates,” says Justice. He says that a better bet is to combat the underlying tightness, not the pain, by pairing a little self-massage (done with a foam roller and a small ball) with chest stretches. He recommends the massage portions first to loosen the muscles so that you can get deeper into (and get more relief from) the stretches. Try these—some of Justice’s and Saint-Dic’s favorite—rolls and stretches, below.
Floor Chest Roll
Lie on the floor with a large foam roller under your shoulder blades, perpendicular to your body. Roll onto your left side, then continue rolling so that the roller is under the left side of your chest. Roll your body up (so that the roller shifts down your chest slightly), then return to starting position. Continue for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Stand facing a wall to the right of a doorway. Place a massage ball, lacrosse ball, or tennis ball between the left side of your chest (just in front of your shoulder) and the wall. Reach your left arm through the door and lift and lower it so that you feel a gentle massage where the ball is touching your chest. Continue for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Stand in a doorway and extend right arm down and at a 45-degree angle from your legs. Place your arm on the doorframe and lean your body forward until you feel the stretch in front of your right shoulder. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Lie faceup on a large exercise ball. Lean back and look behind you, letting your chest puff out toward the ceiling. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
Stand facing a corner, with your left foot close to the corner and right foot stepped back. Raise your arms at the sides so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Bend elbows so that your hands point to the ceiling. Place forearms against the walls on either side of the corner. Bend your left knee and lean forward until you feel the stretch in your chest. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds (don’t forget to breathe!), then repeat with your opposite leg in front.
Pay attention to and correct lifestyle factors that may cause this muscle stress. Incorporate these stretches into your weekly routine to avoid your tight chest muscles.