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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Chair twists are a great way to stretch a stiff upper back and tight upper back muscles while sitting at your desk.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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.
If you have a stiff upper back, particularly when twisting, threading the needle is one of the best upper back stretches.
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
Cat stretches for upper back pain work by alternately bending forwards and backwards – two upper back stretches in one!
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
The Child's Pose is a lovely, relaxing but extremely effective stretch for upper back pain, with various modifications to increase the stretch.
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
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.
Extra Challenge: Gently roll up and down over the roller to stretch the whole upper back
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:
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.
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Page Last Updated: 01/17/2023
Next Review Due: 01/17/2025