4 chest stretches that will help your posture and upper back

The importance of stretching your chest

Take a moment to think about your general body position and posture over the past 24 hours.

Have you spent a lot of time at your desk, in your car or on your couch? Even if you weren’t openly slumped, were you looking down — maybe staring at the phone in your hand or the laptop on your legs?

And during all this, did you let your shoulders roll forward and your upper back slightly round?

If your answer to these questions is yes, chances are your chest could use some serious stretching. You probably don’t even realize how tight your pecs have gotten.

“Many people have shortened and weak chest muscles from sitting all day with poor posture,” says Zhana Dmitryuk, a certified fitness instructor and co-founder of Flexspace Studios, a boutique fitness studio that teaches stretching as a workout in Toronto, Canada. “This can lead to chronic physical dysfunction, discomfort and pain.”

Practically speaking, Dmitryuk says, these symptoms can present as a reduction in spinal mobility, difficulty reaching forward or upward, and pain, tingling, or numbness around the shoulders and upper back. You may also experience pain that radiates from your shoulders or upper back to your chest and arms.

Don’t confuse a heart attack with tight chest muscles

Chest pain is not immediately a serious condition, but you should still see a doctor as soon as you feel chest pain. That’s because the symptoms are so similar to those of a heart attack.

You don’t want to assume you’re dealing with tight muscles when you actually have a heart attack.

If you even think the pain in your chest may be a heart attack, call 911 immediately, especially if you also experience shortness of breath, fainting, nausea, or excessive fatigue.

Chest pain can also be mistaken for anxiety, so learn the difference.

Easy ways to stretch your chest

Assuming your tight pecs are simply the result of chronically bad posture (or way too much chest press at the gym), it’s actually pretty easy to incorporate stretching into your daily life to help ease the pain.

“There are several ways to perform a chest stretch — and they don’t have to be complicated,” says Lucile Hernandez Rodriguez, a registered yoga teacher with more than 500 hours of training.

“They can relieve tightness and pain in your chest, can be done sitting or standing, and ultimately they can help you breathe better as you open up your chest and diaphragm, giving your lungs room to expand,” she says.

Consider adding the following stretches to your daily routine as suggested by Hernandez Rodriguez and Dmitryuk.

Cat-cow series: do it when you wake up

The cat-cow stretching sequence is an easy yoga pose. It’s a great way to open up your chest and shoulders while also encouraging spinal mobility when you wake up your body first in the morning.

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Align your palms under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.

Take a deep breath. As you inhale, press through your palms and spread your chest forward, lifting your head and neck to look up.

At the same time, press your tailbone up, allowing your mid-back to relax toward the mat. You feel a curve or dip in the spine. This is the cow pose.

On your next exhale, reverse the movement: arch your upper and mid back as you pull your tailbone down. As you move, relax your head and neck between your arms. This is the cat pose.

Continue the series for one minute, performing the cow on each inhale and the cat with each exhalation.

Standing chest opener: do it at work

Since it’s so common to bend over while working at your desk, the standing chest opener is an easy way to counteract the slack.

It’s best to do this at least once an hour, so set an alarm and use it as a reminder to get up, move a little, and reset your posture.

Standing chest opener stretch

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Stand upright with your feet planted about hip-distance apart. Relax your shoulders and check your posture. Your ears should be “stacked” over your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Reach both arms behind your back and intertwine your fingers.

Inhale. As you exhale, pull your shoulder blades together, press through your palms, and blow out your chest until you feel a stretch across your chest and shoulders.

Hold the position and continue to breathe deeply for 30 seconds. With each exhale, bend back a little more to open the chest further.

Complete two sets.

(Have a headache at work? Try these exercises to relieve headaches.)

Wall-supported chest stretch: do it after an upper body workout

If you’ve just completed an upper body workout that works your pecs and shoulders, use the wall-supported chest stretch to loosen those muscles while they’re still warm.

The one-sided nature of the stretch allows you to target each side of your chest independently. And by using a wall, you can deepen the rack as needed, depending on your own level of flexibility.

Chest rack with wall support

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Stand with your right side perpendicular to a wall and place your right palm flat against the wall, fingers pointing back, arm fully extended.

Keeping your arm straight, rotate your torso away from your outstretched arm until you feel a stretch in the front of your right chest and shoulder.

Hold the position for 30 seconds and breathe deeply. Release the stretch and repeat two more times before switching sides.

(Try these chest exercises you can do at home.)

Standing Back Bend: Do it when you get up from the couch

Your desk isn’t the only place where you tend to be too lanky.

When you get home and get up from sitting on the couch, use this as a reminder to quickly stretch your chest.

Standing Backbend Stretch

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Stand up straight with your feet about hip-distance apart. Check your posture to make sure your ears are aligned with your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. Place your hands on your lower back.

The goal is to eventually have your fingers pointing up, but if this is too challenging, your fingers can tilt up, out, or even down as needed.

Pull your shoulder blades together, opening your chest, trying to straighten your elbows back.

On your next inhale, lift your chest and bend back slightly, looking up at the ceiling.

Hold for five breaths. With each inhale, let your chest open and lift a little more, deepening the back bend.

Release the pose, then repeat two more times.

Then, when your upper back hurts, try these stretching exercises for upper back pain.

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