“The biggest cause of back pain is prolonged sitting,” says Jeff Brannigan, a co-founder of Stretch*d whose worked with Olympic athletes on stretch therapy. “When the body is stuck in a seated position the anterior, or front, chain of the body becomes extremely tight while the posterior, or rear, chain becomes increasingly tense and dysfunctional. As the head falls forward it causes the spine to curve outward which results in the muscles throughout the rear neck and upper back to compensate and attempt to hold the head upright.”
Since upper-body tension is real (and super common), keep reading to find out the best stretches for your upper back and why it’s so important to do them on the reg.
Why it’s important to stretch your upper-back muscles
Nearly everyone (8 out of 10 people to be exact) will have back pain at some point in their lives. Since back pain is such a common issue, even if you don’t currently suffer from it, it’s still a smart idea to stretch in order to prevent pain down the line.
“With consistent stretching you’ll be able to greatly reduce your risk of developing pain anywhere in the body and it only takes a few minutes a day,” says Brannigan.
5 Upper back stretches to try
The stretches below from Brannigan target the upper back and surrounding muscles to help you relieve tension and prevent upper-back pain.
1. Upper back and neck stretch
If you hold tension in your upper back, you’re probably also tense in your neck. “If you’re tight enough, you may feel this anywhere from the back of the skull all the way down the spine into the lower back,” says Brannigan.
How to do it: Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Drop the chin toward the chest, and then gently assist the head downward by placing one or both hands around back of skull and gently pressing to bring the head slightly farther than it will go on its own. Hold for two to three seconds before lifting the head back up to start position. Repeat 10 times.
2. Side neck stretch
“This stretch helps alleviate pain in a very common area, but it’ll also reset and realign the neck into proper position as the sternocleidomastoid (muscles that help the head rotate) will help to pull the head forward when it is very tight,” says Brannigan.
How to do it: Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Drop the head to the right side so your ear goes toward the right shoulder. Assist by lifting your right hand up over the top of your head to cover your left ear, and gently pull to deepen the stretch. Hold for two to three seconds before lifting the head back up to start position. Repeat 10 times on each side.
3. Trap, neck, and deltoid stretch
Your traps (the muscles between your neck and shoulder area) can hold a lot of tension. This stretch targets them and so much more, including “the rear oblique area of the neck. You may feel this in muscles like your traps, as well as the backs of your shoulders if you’re tight enough, says Brannigan.
How to do it: Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Rotate your head about 45 degrees to the left so your chin is over your left armpit. Drop your head down in that direction and assist by lifting your left hand up over the top of your head to cup the back of your skull and gently pull your head down toward the armpit. Hold for two to three seconds before lifting the head back up to start position. Repeat 10 times on each side.
4. Trap and shoulder stretch
Again, you want to release those traps so the rest of the upper back muscles can chill too. “Addressing the trapezius, this stretch will help to reduce pain while relaxing and resetting the shoulder,” says Brannigan.
How to do it: Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Bring right arm across your body and place that hand on top of left shoulder. Slowly slide that hand down the upper back between the shoulder blades and assist the movement by gently pulling on your elbow with the left hand. Hold for two to three seconds before lifting the head back up to start position. Repeat 10 times on each side.
5. Chest opener stretch
When it comes to improving your posture and nixing upper-back pain, don’t forget about the front of your body, either. “When the chest is tight, it will pull the shoulders forward and force the spine to curve outward leading to tension and pain in the upper back,” says Brannigan.
How to do it: Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Interlace your hands behind your head so your hands are resting on the back of your skull. Squeeze the shoulders blades together so your elbows go back as far as they can. Hold for two to three seconds before relesing. Repeat 10 times.
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