Free your Shoulders and Upper Back with these Stretches

Swimmers, cyclists and triathletes are prone to aches and niggles in their necks, shoulders and upper backs. There can be many causes, but two common ones are repetitive use injuries, like rotator cuff pain in swimming; and having poor upper body posture from hours hunched over your handlebars or looking up from your aerobars.

There are many ways to stretch and mobilise your upper body to release tension and mobilise stiffness in the shoulders, chest and upper back. I’ve chosen these movements because they form a sequence that’s easy to remember, and together they can help to improve your breathing function, as they actively involve your respiratory muscles.

Some of the arm positions come from traditional standing yoga poses where they form part of full body poses which also engage the torso and lower limbs. However, for the purposes of these functional stretches it’s only necessary to focus on the upper body movements.

Note: if you’re especially tight in your chest and shoulders you may find yourself taking short breaths. Focus on relaxing your torso from waist to neck, whilst keeping your spine tall and chest open, so that your ribs and diaphragm can move freely with each inhale and exhale.  

1. Arms Overhead

  1. Sit on a chair with your buttocks towards the edge, knees wide and feet firmly planted on the floor.
  2. Stretch your arms through your legs and reach your fingertips to the floor – let your neck relax and your head hang.
  3. Now swing your arms behind your back and firmly clasp your hands together with the right thumb on top – strongly draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine and press your hands away, taking your arms as far over your head as is comfortable.
  4. Hold for 30 – 60 secs, or 12 – 20 full breaths.
  5. Roll up to sitting, keeping your chin tucked in – repeat with your left thumb on top.

2. Reverse Hand Hold

  1. Begin sitting upright on a chair and lift your spine tall.
  2. Stretch your right arm out to the right and rotate your arm inward so your shoulder rolls forward and your palm faces away from you. Bring your arm behind your back and draw your shoulder back and down, while at the same time stretching your forearm and hand up your spine – you can use your left hand to help you to guide your elbow into the centre of your lower back. This movement will cause your upper back to curve and your chest to open. If possible, aim to have the back of your hand between your shoulder blades.
  3. Take your left arm straight up to the ceiling with your palm facing forward, then bend the elbow and stretch your fingers down behind your neck to meet the fingers of your right hand. If it’s not possible to clasp your hands together, use a strap and catch both ends with your fingers instead.
  4. Now lift your chest while rolling your shoulders back and down, and try to bring your hands closer. Allow each inhale to expand your ribs and open your chest.
  5. Hold for 30 – 60 secs, or 12 – 20 full breaths.
  6. Repeat the opposite way.

3. Arms Wrapping in Front

  1. Begin sitting upright on a chair and lift your spine tall.
  2. Stretch your arms straight forward & stretch both shoulder blades wide across your back as if you are drawing them forward. Cross your arms in front of you so that the right arm is above the left, then bend your elbows, keeping the right elbow nestled inside the bend of your left, and raise your forearms perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should be facing each other.
  3. Swing your left hand around to find the palm of your right hand and press them together. If possible, lift your elbows up to shoulder height.
  4. Hold for 30 – 60 secs, or 12 – 20 full breaths.
  5. Repeat the opposite way.

4. Reverse Prayer

  1. Begin sitting upright on a chair and lift your spine tall.
  2. Take your arms out to the sides, rotate your arms so that your palms face backwards – now lift and broaden your chest while drawing your shoulder blades down and in towards your spine – bend your elbows and bring your hands in towards the middle of your back, touching your little fingers together.
  3. Now press your palms firmly together from little fingers to thumbs.
  4. Hold for 30 – 60 secs, or 12 – 20 full breaths.
  5. Beginner’s variation if step 2 isn’t possible – instead reach behind yourself to take the opposite elbow, as if crossing your arms across your back. Note: if you do this variation, make sure that you swap the crossing as well.
Beginner variation – Reverse Prayer

5. Kneeling Prayer

  1. Kneel in front of the chair and place your elbows on the edge, shoulder width apart – bring your hands together into prayer position – press the palms firmly.
  2. Take your knees back until they’re under your hips – ensure that your back is straight by pulling your navel into your spine – don’t let your back sag into a curve.
  3. Rest your head on the edge of the chair so that your neck remains straight.
  4. Allow your armpits to relax and your upper back to soften.

6. Sphinx Stretch

  1. Lie on your front – tuck your elbows into the side of your chest directly under your shoulders and stretch your forearms in front of you with your palms flat. Keep your legs together.
  2. Lengthen your torso as you raise your chest by gently pulling your elbows back while extending your spine.
  3. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and allow your chest to broaden – only raise as far as is comfortable – there should be no discomfort in your lower back.
  4. Keep your eyes facing forward and your neck long – don’t tilt your head back.
  5. Hold for at least 60 secs or 20 full breaths.

7. Lying Chest Opener (passive)

  1. Place a foam roller horizontally on the floor, perpendicular to your spine – you can also use a rolled-up yoga mat or a couple of bath towels tightly rolled
  2. Clasp your hands behind your neck to cradle it and lie back over the roll – keep your knees bent and feet firmly placed on the floor. The roll should be under your shoulder blades in order to stretch your pectorals and shoulders.
  3. If your neck feels comfortable, release your hands and reach your arms out straight for maximum stretch. If your neck is tight or weak do this movement with a cushion under your head for support – then cross your arms over your head to encourage a deeper stretch.
  4. Stay in this position for at least 1 – 2 minutes, or about 20 to 50 full breaths.
  5. When coming back out of this movement make sure that you tuck in your chin and ground your feet down to help you to roll up. Alternatively you can roll off sideways.

CAUTION:

If you have any pre-existing neck, shoulder or upper back injuries then only do these movements with ease and comfort – don’t try to force your range of movement. If you feel discomfort in your spine or shoulder joint after doing these exercises it is likely that you need to reduce range and/or the time spent in these positions until your body learns how to move more freely.

5 thoughts on “Free your Shoulders and Upper Back with these Stretches

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