Stretches For Upper Back Pain

Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board

Best Stretches For Upper Back Pain & Stiffness

Stretches for upper back pain are extremely popular.

Whether you’ve got a stiff upper back, tight upper back muscles or feel like you are hunched over a desk all day, upper back stretches can really help.

The best stretches for upper back pain combine flexion, extension and rotation of the upper and middle back and work best when combined with neck stretches and upper back strengthening exercises.

There are loads of different programs of upper back exercises out there and it can be hard to know where to start. I’ve worked with hundreds of people with upper back pain, both as a physiotherapist and as a Pilates instructor and here I share with you my favorite stretches for upper back pain, those I have found to be the most popular and beneficial.

Best Stretches For Upper Back Pain

There are lots of different causes of upper back pain and loads of options for how to stretch the upper back. Upper back stretches should target the front of the shoulders, the neck muscles and the upper back, stretching forwards, backwards and sideways.

You can do all of these upper back exercises at home, and lots of them can also be done at your desk!

1. Shoulder Rolls

It is really common to hold a lot of tension in your shoulder and upper back so shoulder rolls are a great place to start with stretches for upper back pain.

Shoulder roll stretches for upper back pain
  • Raise both shoulders and circle them back and down, then forwards and up to draw a complete circle

  • Start with small circle and gradually make them larger

  • Repeat in the opposite direction, circling forwards and down, then backwards and up

  • Spend around 1 minute doing this in each direction

2. Neck Stretches

Tight upper back muscles and neck muscles often cause neck and upper back pain as the muscles often overlap both areas so neck stretches for upper back pain can really help.

Progressive side flexion stretches for neck and upper back pain, including levator scapulae stretches
  • Sit upright on a dining chair and hold the seat with one hand

  • Bend your head towards the opposite side taking your ear towards your shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch

  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3x

  • Repeat to other side

Extra Challenge: 1. Whilst holding the stretch use your hand to gently bring your head further over to the side for a greater stretch. 

2. Whilst holding the stretch, firstly rotate your head so your nose moves towards your shoulder and from there tilt your head forwards so you are looking down at your hip.

3. Chair Twists

Chair twists are a great way to stretch a stiff upper back and tight upper back muscles while sitting at your desk.

How To Stretch Upper Back: Chair Twists For Rotation
  • Sit comfortably in an armless chair and cross your arms over your chest

  • Gently twist to the side and bend your trunk forwards feeling a stretch in your upper back

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds & repeat to other side, 3x each way

Extra Challenge: Uncross your arms and as you twist round to the right, reach down with your left hand to touch the outside of your right foot. Repeat to the other side – right hand to outside of left foot

4. Upper Back Chair Extensions

This is one of my favorite stretches for upper back pain. It is an excellent extension stretch for a stiff upper back that you can do at your desk and it also stretches the front of the chest.

Upper Back Stretches: Chair Extensions
  • Sitting in a low backed chair, cross your arms over your chest

  • Raise your elbows and lean back over the back rest of the chair

  • Hold 3-5 seconds and rest

  • Repeat 10-20 times

Top Tips: 1. Place a small folded towel between the top of the chair and your back for increased comfort
2. Stretch the front of your shoulder at the same time by placing your hands on your head and letting your elbows drop out to the side as you bend back over the chair

5. Corner Stretch

Corner stretches are a great way to stretch out the front of the shoulders whilst also encouraging upper back extension, making them great stretches for upper back pain.

  • Stand at a corner of a wall and place your forearms against the wall, elbows at shoulder height

  • Step one foot forwards into the corner and bend your front knee until you feel a stretch across the front of your chest and shoulder

  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Top Tips: 1. You can increase the stretch by standing further back from the wall and increasing the depth of the lunge
2. You can also vary the height of your forearms on the wall to change where you feel the stretch

6. Arm Press Curls

Arm press curl stretches are one of the best upper back stretches and can be done in standing or sitting so are very versatile. This is a brilliant Pilates exercise, aka Upper Back Warm Up, and is another of my favorite stretches for upper back pain.

Upper Back Warm Up Pilates Stretch for upper back pain and stiffness
  • Interlace your fingers and press your hands forwards, leading with your palms, hands at shoulder height, until your elbows are straight

  • Press forwards through your palms until you feel a strong stretch in your upper back

  • Increase the stretch by letting your chin drop down towards your chest

Extra Challenge: Keep pressing your palms forwards and let your upper back roll forwards and down to further increase the stretch

Top Tip: Don’t let your lower back bend

7. Roller Stretch

This is my absolute favorite upper back stretch suitable for anyone with a stiff upper back. It sounds too good to be true but it really is incredibly effective, and if you don't have a roller you can use a towel! 

Upper back stretch on a roller - one of the best upper back stretches
  • Lie with a foam roller running down the length of your spine

  • Bend your knees so both feet are flat on the floor

  • Bring both arms out to the side, perpendicular to your body and lie like that for 10 minutes, once or twice a day.

Top Tips: 1. If you don’t have a foam roller, use a large towel rolled up into a cylinder with a small pillow (same thickness) supporting your head 
2. If you want more of a stretch, wrap a large towel around the foam roller to increase the diameter or if you don’t have a roller, use two towels

You’ll be amazed by how effective this upper back stretch is – I’ve never had a client who hasn’t benefited from roller stretches for upper back pain

8. Arm Openings

Arm openings are really effective stretches for upper back pain that are easy to modify to increase or decrease the stretch. This is one of those upper back exercises to do at home rather than in the office – a great way to start and finish the day.

  • Lie on your side with a small pillow under your head, knees bent around 45 degrees, feet together, arms stretched out to the side, hands together

  • Roll your upper body and top shoulder backwards towards the floor behind you, following the movement with your arm and head

  • Open the arms as wide as comfortable, feeling a strong stretch through the lower, middle and upper back

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds & repeat 5 times

  • Then repeat on the other side

Extra Challenge: While holding the stretch bring your top leg in front of your bottom leg so your knee rests on the floor – this really increases the stretch.

9. Thread The Needle

If you have a stiff upper back, particularly when twisting, threading the needle is one of the best upper back stretches.

How To Stretch Upper Back Region: Thread The Needle
  • Start on all fours, hands under hips, knees under hips. 

  • Reach one arm under the opposite shoulder, allowing the upper back to rotate, and follow the movement with your head

  • Hold for 3-5 seconds and then bring the arm all the way back up towards the ceiling, twisting through your back

  • Hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat each way 10-20x

Extra Challenge: Reach further bringing your hand down towards the outside of your opposite foot, letting the shoulder drop towards the floor to stretch the upper back further

10. Cat Stretch

Cat stretches for upper back pain work by alternately bending forwards and backwards – two upper back stretches in one!

  • Kneel on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips 

  • Arch your back upwards and let your head curl forwards

  • Hold for 10 seconds

  • Then drop your upper back downwards, arching the opposite way

  • Hold for 10 seconds and repeat in both directions 5x

Top Tips: 1. As you arch up, imagine a piece of string tied to the middle of your back is pulling it up towards the ceiling
2. As you arch down, imagine a heavy weight on the middle of your back pushing down towards the floor

11. Child’s Pose

The Child's Pose is a lovely, relaxing but extremely effective stretch for upper back pain, with various modifications to increase the stretch.

  • Start on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips

  • Sit backwards onto your heels, letting your chest and head drop down towards the floor

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times

Extra Challenge: 1. Start with your hands further forwards to increase the upper back stretch
2. Bring your knees apart so you can get your chest right down to the floor
3. As you hold the stretch, take a deep breath in and feel the stretch increase in your upper and middle back region

12. Upper Back Rolls

This is one of the best upper back exercises with a roller, stretching you back into extension – particularly good if you spend most of the day sitting.

Rolling Stretches For Upper Back Pain & Stiffness
  • Place a foam roller underneath your upper back, level with the base of your shoulder blades, and place your hands behind your head

  • Slowly, lean back over the roller and hold for 1-2 minutes

  • Move the roller slightly so you stretch a different part of your upper back

Extra Challenge: Gently roll up and down over the roller to stretch the whole upper back

What Else Can Help?

All of these stretches for upper back pain work really well if you have a stiff upper back, tight upper back muscles or any pain in your upper back.

As well as doing the best upper back stretches for you, you also want to combine them with upper back strengthening exercises, otherwise the tightness and stiffness is likely to return.

You may also want to stretch out some of the other muscles around your shoulders, in which case check out:

  • Trapezius Stretches: Targeting the upper, middle and lower traps region to help reduce pain, spasm and trigger points

  • Shoulder & Arm Stretches: targeting the muscles around the shoulder including the rotator cuff, biceps and triceps. Perfect if your shoulder movement is limited

It can also really help to think about your posture, particularly if you spend long periods sat at a desk in front of a computer which can lead to tightness, stiffness and pain in the neck, shoulder and upper back - check out our top tips on improving posture.

You may also be interested in the following articles:

Page Last Updated: 17/03/2022
Next Review Due: 17/03/2024


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Medical & Scientific References

  1. Stretching and Strengthening are Key to Healing and Preventing Back Pain. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
  2. Physical Therapy Treatment of Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulder Pain: A Case Report. Physical Therapy Scholarly Projects, University Of North Dakota
  3. A Randomized Trial Comparing Yoga, Stretching, and a Self-care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain. Joint American Medical Association: Internal Medicine