Feeling tightness in your chest can be uncomfortable at best and debilitating at worst. (Could it be someone else’s breathing?) This discomfort extends to your mental health as well, since it can cause anxiety — after all, your chest is where your heart is, and I’m not trying to keep the heart in trouble.
According to Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT, StretchLab’s education coordinator, distinguishing between pain and discomfort is crucial. “When we feel muscle tension from a workout, it usually feels crampy or painful to touch or move,” he explains. “When we’re tight from lack of movement, your muscles can feel tight or tight and you can experience poor posture.”
But if your pain is sharp, she says, you should talk to a medical professional.
“If it’s a new onset of chest pain, always take it seriously and consult your doctor,” adds Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, a Pilates instructor and owner of Fusion Wellness and Physical Therapy. He notes two problems that stretching can’t solve: a heart attack (symptoms: heartburn that doesn’t resolve; shortness of breath; sweating; pain radiating to your left shoulder, jaw, or back) and anxiety (symptoms: chest pain or heaviness to be).
But if your tight chest muscles are just that—that is, from a workout or lack of movement, not a health problem—this stretch can help.
6 Stretches That Can Relieve Tight Chest Muscles
You’ll notice that some of these stretches relate to your posture and shoulders in some way. Because bad posture and sitting for long periods of time can make your chest and shoulders tight.
As far as safety precautions to take with these, note your pain and medical history. “If you feel pain in a joint, you may be pushing the stretch too far,” says Dr. Jeffcoat. “If you have a history of anterior shoulder dislocation, do not perform these exercises before consulting your doctor or physical therapist.”
1. Side stretches
You can do it sitting or standing—whichever is more comfortable for you. This stretches both your lats and your chest. “Now, the lats are on the side of your body, but stretching the areas around your chest can help relieve tension felt in your chest and improve overall posture,” says Decker.
- Bring both hands above your head and grab your left wrist with your right hand.
- Pull your left wrist slightly with your right hand to the right side of your body..
- Hold for five deep breaths, then repeat twice on each side. Do this stretch throughout the day as needed, especially if you’ve been sitting for a while.
2. Passive door expansion
This stretch is “good for reducing forward tension in the neck and shoulders and allowing for a more upright posture,” says Dr. Jeffcoat. It stretches many muscles, including your pectorals, serratus anterior, subscapularis, rectus abdominis muscles, and the anterior fascial line of the body and arms.
- Standing in a doorway, place both hands on the door frame so that your arms make a “football goal post” shape.
- Step forward with your left leg until you feel a gentle stretch across your shoulders and chest.
- When stopping the stretch, switch legs and repeat with your right leg.
- Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, perform one to two times a day.
3. Lying chest opener
If you want a relaxing stretch, give it a try. “There is minimal work involved, and deep breathing is encouraged to help release tension and increase overall blood flow and oxygen to the muscles,” explains Decker.
- If you have a long foam roller or a short foam roller that hits the middle of your back and the base of your head. If you don’t have one, a roll-up towel or pillow can do the trick.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor or stretched straight out, whatever helps you maintain the best balance.
- With your arms at your sides, place a foam roller (or towel/pillow) between your spine so that your chest opens up and gravity pulls your shoulders toward the floor.
- You can also bring your arms up and over your head to lengthen your lats.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute and repeat as often as needed.
4. Expand active doors
Like the passive doorway stretch, it’s “good for reducing forward tension on the neck and shoulders and internal rotation of the head of the humerus (pulling forward on the shoulder joint) and allowing for a more upright posture,” Dr. Jeffcoat says.
- Place your hands on each side of a door.
- Step by step until you feel a gentle stretch.
- Instead of holding this position, slowly slide your hands up and down the door frame, moving your arms back from the Y to W position.
- Take three to five seconds to move from one position to another and repeat 10 to 12 times. Do it once or twice a day.
5. External shoulder rotation
It targets a posterior deltoid (the back of the shoulder), and the infraspinatus and teres minor (the muscles around the scapula), says Decker. They help rotate the shoulders and release chest tension, especially if you have round shoulders.
- Bring your right arm at a 90-degree angle with your elbow at your waist and hold the end of a wooden stick or PVC pipe in that hand with your thumb facing the ceiling.
- Grab the long end of the stick with your other hand and slowly move the stick forward and your shoulder will round back, which will stretch the front of your shoulder.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat twice on each arm as needed.
- Note: If starting this stretch without pushing the stick forward already feels like a good stretch, you don’t need to push forward. Take your time and gradually start increasing the push over time to progress.
6. Holding hands
Not only does this position reduce the tension on the front of your shoulders, it allows free reach behind your body (and stretches the shoulder muscles), Dr. Jeffcoat said.
- While standing, hug your arms behind your body.
- Slowly raise your arms up toward the sky for three seconds, then lower for three seconds (while keeping your hands clasped).
- Perform eight to 10 times once or twice a day.