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Best Stretches for Upper Back Tension

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With all the sitting, typing, and hunching we do all day, it's no wonder that many people experience tightness and pain in the upper back and shoulders. So let's discuss some of the best stretches for upper back tension, and how you can create more flexibility in that area.

In this article:

A woman with upper back and shoulder pain holds her hand to her shoulder and grimaces


How to best relieve tension in the upper back

Tension in the upper back and shoulder blade area is very common. One of the challenges with tension and back pain in that area is that it traps a lot of stuck energy there. This can keep everything around the area very tight, including your neck and trapezius muscles.

But what is the best way to relieve tension in the upper back?

The answer might be counterintuitive to what you might think. While my approach might surprise you, I know it works. I've used it on thousands of patients with great results.

Basically, you need to stretch your body in the opposite direction of what is tightest.

This technique is based on the principle that all muscles have an opposing muscle that works alongside it. Any time you move and a muscle contracts, the opposite muscle loosens. When one is switched on, the other is switched off.

When a muscle is tense and in a constant state of contraction, we don't need to stretch that muscle and turn it on even more. We actually need to stretch the opposite muscle to find relief.

For back pain and shoulder pain, there are a few specific motions and stretches that can help the most. I've outlined some of my favorites below.

 

10 of the best stretches for upper back tension and shoulder issues

In the video above, I demonstrate all of the best stretches for the upper back area. Watch to learn how to do them yourself, or follow the instructions below.

Having a partner is best so that they can help you with checking the range of motion and stretching your body.

For each exercise, there are two parts.

  1. First, you will check the range of motion for a specific area and type of movement. You will determine if it is more restrictive on the right or left side.
  2. Then, on the side that was tightest, you will perform the opposing motion in the opposite direction.
     

In my favorite stretches to relieve upper back pain, you will always stretch in the opposite direction of the tightness.

Panoramic shot of a man getting help with shoulder stretches from a friend.


Stretch #1

Check the range of motion:

First, we will check the rotation of the shoulder. Hold your arm out to the side, with your upper arm parallel to the ground. Bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle. Move your hand down, rotating at the shoulder. How far can you rotate? Try this again on the other side. Determine which side is hardest to do.

How to stretch it:

If your shoulder on one side won't rotate down, then we will stretch it the opposite way. Instead of rotating it down, rotate up and back, again with that bend in the elbow. Have your partner gently stretch you in that way. Hold the stretch for second or two, then release. Repeat that process about ten times.

Stretch #2

Check the range of motion:

Now, we will do the opposite of stretch #1. Check the range of motion rotating your shoulders towards the back, again with that L-shape bend in the elbow. You can lie down to do this, seeing how easy it is to reach the ground by your head on one side versus the other. Whichever side is more restrictive is the side you need to stretch.

How to stretch it:

On the tight side of your body, we will now stretch the opposite way, rotating your shoulder down. Stretch and relax, having your partner help you, about ten times.

Stretch #3

Check the range of motion:

Hold your arm straight out to the side. Raise your straight arm upwards to the sky and towards your ear as far as it can go. Repeat on the other side. Whichever side won't go up as far has tight muscles on the bottom.

How to stretch it:

Grab the tight arm behind your back with your other hand. Use your other arm to gently pull your arm, crossing it behind you and stretching out the top of your shoulder and through your neck.

Stretch #4

Check the range of motion:

Take your left hand and hold your right arm near the elbow. Pull your arm across your chest, doing a cross-body stretching movement. Repeat on the other side. Which side is tightest?

How to stretch it:

With the tight arm, stretch it the opposite way as you did when checking the range of motion. Have your partner pull your arm and elbow back behind you as far as it can go.

Stretch #5

Check the range of motion:

Now you'll test the range of motion moving your arm backwards. Hold your arm out to the side parallel to the ground. See how far it can move back behind you, with your shoulder blade rotating into your back. Do this again with the other arm.

How to stretch it:

On the tight side, stretch your arm to the front, pulling your elbow across your chest. Hold for a few seconds, then relax. And repeat several times.

Stretch #6

Check the range of motion:

Tuck your chin and hunch forward. Then, do the opposite, tilting your head back and arching back. Which movement is the hardest to do?

How to stretch it:

If it was hardest to stretch forward, then you will stretch back. Or vice versa. If you need to stretch to the back, it can be helpful to arch your upper back using a ball. Or have your partner help you. As usual, repeat the stretch several times in a row.

Stretch #7

Check the range of motion:

Shrug one shoulder up towards your ear. Then repeat on the second side. Which is most restrictive? Do the stretch on that side.

How to stretch it:

With the tight shoulder, push your shoulder down away from your ear. Stretch and release several times.

Stretch #8

Check the range of motion:

Now, shrug each of your shoulders away from your ear. Feel for which side is hardest to do.

How to stretch it:

On the tight side, stretch it out by shrugging your shoulder up towards your ear, holding the stretch and then releasing. Repeat about ten times.

Stretch #9

Check the range of motion:

Push your shoulder on one side forward. Your shoulder blade should shift forward. Do it again with the other arm. Pick the side that is tightest.

How to stretch it:

On the side that was most restrictive, you want to push the shoulder blade back. Hold your arm straight out in front of you. Have your partner push your arm back, so that your shoulder blade shifts backwards.

Stretch #10

Check the range of motion:

Move your shoulder inwards towards the midline. Your partner will need to help you with this. Try again on the other side. Which one was harder to move inwards to the middle?

How to stretch it:

On the side that was hardest, have your partner pull your shoulder and arm outwards, the opposite motion as you did when checking the range of motion.

 

Could gallbladder issues be to blame for right shoulder pain?

Did you find that for every movement above, you were always restricted on the right side? If so, then something else could be at the root of your shoulder and back pain.

Right shoulder issues can actually be linked to the gallbladder.

Gallbladder anatomy illustration, with gallbladder highlighted in red against blue body


The gallbladder is located on the right side of your body under the ribcage. It is connected to the right shoulder area by a nerve. If your gallbladder is inflamed and having issues, then that can actually refer pain up into the right shoulder.

If that is the case for you, then all the stretching in the world won't help. The gallbladder is the culprit, not tight muscles.

So what can you do to help?

For short-term relief from pain, acupressure massage can help. Watch until the end of my video above to learn how.

You'll also want to address the root of your gallbladder problems. Here are some videos with tips on fixing gallbladder issues and relieving pain.

 

The bottom line

The 10 stretches above are a great place to start for helping you feel much more free and flexible in the upper back.

In these stretches to get rid of tension in the upper back and shoulders, you will always stretch in the opposite direction of the tightness. That is how you will be able to best get rid of your shoulder and back pain.

And if you find that you always have pain and tightness on the right side, then consider taking a closer look at your gallbladder health, as it could be at the root of your problems.

Give the 10 stretches above a try. And see if they help with tension and pain relief. Leave me a comment and let me know how they work for your back pain problems.

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