Why is this happening?
Many activities integral to modern life seem like they were designed to create poor posture. Leaning forward over a steering wheel, desk, or phone stretches your neck and upper back muscles while simultaneously tightening your chest. Your thoracic spine—the part that runs from under your ribs to just below your neck—is naturally curved forward, and that forward curve can become hunched over time when you spend hours each day in a hunched position.
I’m a Pilates instructor, and although everyone’s body is different, from what I’ve seen with my clients over the years, I know that the key to “un-desking” your neck and back is to stretch what’s too loose and strengthen what’s too tight. Here are three of my favorite exercises that can help relieve upper back pain.
1. Foam roller arm circles
This is a great exercise to stretch tight chest muscles and mobilize stiff shoulders. I like to do this at the start of a workout, but it’s also a great cool-down.
- Lie on a foam roller with your entire spine (from the top of your head to your tailbone) supported, and your feet bone-distance apart.
- Draw your navel into your spine and reach your arms to the ceiling. Soften your rib cage with a foam roller, and reach behind you as far as you can without burning your rib cage.
- Circle your arms up to your hips and back up to the ceiling.
- Repeat three to five times on each side.
Change: Hold one to three pounds of weight to increase the stretch.
2. Baby snake
The goal of this exercise is not to create a shape that looks a certain way, but to strengthen your upper back and give your thoracic spine some much-needed extension. Focus on how it feels—don’t worry about how high you can go off the mat.
- Lie on your stomach and place your hands on top of each other under your forehead. Rest your head on your hands and imagine the back of your neck lengthening – if you like metaphors, imagine you’re picking up a kitten by the scruff of its neck.
- Lift your arms, head and chest off the mat and hold briefly, pulling your shoulders away from your ears and then lower to the mat.
- Repeat five times.
Variation: If you feel a lot of tension in your neck during this exercise, try placing your hands and arms on the mat and lifting your head and shoulders up a bit. If you have a small exercise ball, you can try placing it under your sternum to get a better range of motion.
3. Chest expansion
This Pilates exercise stretches your chest and strengthens your upper back and shoulder muscles. You can do this with Pilates equipment, small weights, a resistance band, or any equipment, but I think a light resistance band is a good place to start.
- Begin by kneeling on a mat.
- Hold the band with your hands about six inches apart at shoulder height. Pull slightly on the resistance band so that your hands are further away from your shoulders and you can feel some activation of the muscles in your shoulders.
- Hold tension in the band as you bring your arms down to your hips and imagine your collar bones widening.
- Holding your hands by your hips and keeping your chest open, look over your right shoulder, look over your left shoulder, and then bring your arms back to shoulder height.
- Repeat six to eight times.
Change: If you have sensitive knees, you can do this while standing.
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