When most people think of stretching, their mind goes straight to the upper body or legs. The back, particularly the upper back, tends to get left out—but it shouldn’t. This area takes on a lot of the tension that comes from our everyday movements. It supports the movement of your upper body, including your neck and arms. So, it’s best to show it some regular TLC. Fortunately, there are a number of upper back stretches that can help ease any tightness or stiffness. We spoke with April Oury, P.T. M.S., president of Body Gears Physical Therapy, to break down why targeting this area is paramount and how to properly perform upper back stretches. Keep reading for relief.
Why It’s Important
“Upper backs are stiffer, to begin with,” Oury says. She explains that this is due to the larger vertebrae with longer spinous processes and ribs on every level on each side. Meaning, because there’s so much anatomy going on in this one area, it gets tight easily. “Mobility exercises help improve fluidity and circulation there,” they note. This is crucial when it comes to working out because the upper back and shoulders are involved in nearly every form of exercise. If we forgo shoulder and upper back stretches, we risk pain, strains, and injuries that could negatively affect our workouts going forward. So, Oury recommends pre-workout warm-ups that loosen up your body and prepare your upper back for any workouts and stretches ahead.
“If we forgo shoulder and upper back stretches, we risk pain, strains, and injuries that could negatively affect our workouts going forward.”
“Without [a warm-up before a workout], it’s like leaving the lights dim. The lights might turn on, but there’s so much more potential for brightness,” she explains. “To see the difference for yourself, sit as slouched as you can and try lifting your arms overhead. Now sit up nice and tall, and try again. Notice a difference? For some people, there might be a few specific segments of their upper back that contribute to freely moving the arms overhead. A [proper warm-up] is designed to get those specific segments moving, allowing your stretches and workouts to be more effective.”
It helps you breathe.
Keeping your upper back in working condition doesn’t only have an impact on your workouts. It also heavily influences your daily life. “Something that every single person does all day every day is breathing. The expansion of our ribs is critical for getting enough air into our lungs, especially during exercise,” Oury says. “The upper ribs move with every breath relative to each other and at their connections to both the thoracic spine and sternum. Restoring motion to your upper back not only lets you move and find comfortable postures but [also] ensures your tissues get enough oxygen.”
In short, including upper back stretches in your routines (or solely focusing on them often) helps you maintain good, comfortable posture and ensures you’re able to breathe fully.
Upper Back Stretches
With the above in mind, we asked Oury to share five upper back stretches and poses. Incorporate them into your pre- and post-workout stretching routines when using your favorite stretching app, practice them in your spare time, or put them together to create a short upper-back-focused routine.
Is there anything child’s pose isn’t good for? Short answer: No. From loosening your lower back to aiding in digestion, this yoga pose is a mainstay. It’s also a great upper back stretch. To perform, start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Spread your knees wide apart but keep your big toes together. Sit up straight (avoid overarching or slumping forward) to lengthen your spine. From here, hinge at the hips and bow forward, placing your torso between your legs. Extend your arms out in front of you, palms flat against the ground. This position stretches out the muscles all along your back, ankles, thighs, hips, and neck.
Neck Rotations and Tilts
Your upper trapezius is the muscle that extends from the base of your skull to your upper spine. This area can become especially tense if you look at a computer or phone for extended periods of time (guilty). To ease any tension that’s there, perform some neck stretches. Begin by looking straight ahead with your shoulders relaxed and arms at your sides. Now, tilt your chin down so that you’re looking at the bottom of your shirt. Hold your gaze for ten to 20 seconds, and then tilt your head back to look at the ceiling. Switching between the two will stretch and contract your levator scapulae (more muscles between your neck and back).
For another neck-to-upper-back stretch, start in the same position as the previous exercise. From there, tilt your head to one side, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Make sure your chin isn’t dropping toward your shoulder and your shoulder isn’t raising. Hold this stretch for ten to 20 seconds before switching to the opposite side. This targets your upper trapezius by flexing your neck.
For a stretch that directly targets your entire upper back, try performing butterfly wings. Place your palms face down on your shoulders (left palm on left shoulder and right palm on right shoulder). Avoid pushing down and applying pressure to your shoulders and neck—this will actually cause pain or make preexisting pain worse. Keeping your hands in place, pull your elbows back as if you were trying to touch them together until you feel a deep stretch throughout your upper back. Hold for five to ten seconds, and then pull your elbows forward and touch them together in front of your body. Hold for another five to ten seconds before pulling back again. This motion not only stretches your upper back (by pulling backward) but contracts it as well (by pulling forward), which can help relieve pain.
Chair stretches are key if you’re experiencing upper-back pain while working at a desk or sitting for extended periods of time. One chair stretch you can do anywhere to release tightness is a chair rotation. Sit forward at the edge of your chair (not so far that you lose balance). Place both hands on the back of your head, elbows pointing outward, and sit up straight. Your shoulders should be directly over your hips and your feet planted on the ground. Once you’re in starting position, slowly twist your torso to one side until your upper body is facing it completely. Your hips should still be facing forward. Hold for five to ten seconds. Untwist until you’re facing forward, and repeat on the other side.
Standing Arm Slides
This upper back stretch also targets your shoulders, improving your flexibility and range of motion. To perform, stand against a wall with your ankles, butt, shoulders, elbows, and wrists pressed against it (your palms should be facing outward). Slowly slide your arms out to your sides and up as far as you can, keeping your elbows and wrists flat against the wall. Once you’re as high as you can go, hold for five seconds and slowly lower back to starting position. Repeat ten times.
This story was put together with additional help from Julia Melanson, D.P.T., of Body Gears Physical Therapy.