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July 27, 2023 18 min read

The upper back plays a crucial role in maintaining proper posture and overall upper body strength. Whether you are an athlete or someone who spends long hours sitting at a desk, incorporating upper-back stretches into your pre-and post-workout routine is essential.

Not only can these stretching exercises help alleviate back pain caused by tension and tightness in the upper back, but they can also improve flexibility and prevent injury. In this article, we will explore the best upper-back stretches that you can incorporate into your workout routine to enhance your overall performance and maintain a healthy back. We’ll also explain the functions of the upper back muscles.

Why is it Important to Stretch and Strengthen the Muscles in Your Upper Back?

It's crucial to prioritize achieving a balance between muscle length and strength. If your muscles are too strong without proper stretching, they may become shortened and tight. On the other hand, if they are overly flexible without sufficient stability, your joints can become too loose, leading to a lack of control over your movement.

By dedicating time to working on your upper back muscles, you'll notice improvements in your ability to lift heavier weights, enhanced muscle coordination, and a reduced likelihood of sustaining unwanted injuries. Proper stretching can even be a form of pain relief for tight muscles.

Muscles to stretch before and after upper back workouts

The upper back, also known as the thoracic region, is an essential area of the back that plays a crucial role in supporting the spine, maintaining proper posture, and facilitating various movements. Several major muscles are located in the upper back, each with specific functions. Here are some of the key muscles of the upper back and their functions:

1. Trapezius:

The trapezius is a large, triangular-shaped muscle that covers much of the upper back and extends down to the middle back.

What it does:

—Upper fibers: Elevate the shoulders, allowing you to shrug.

—Middle fibers: Adduct the scapulae (bring them closer together) and aid in retracting the scapulae (pulling them back).

—Lower fibers: Depress the scapulae and assist in retracting the scapulae.

2. Rhomboids (Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor):

The rhomboids are two muscles located in the upper back between the spine and the scapulae.

What it does:

—Adduct the scapulae, bringing them closer together.

—Retract the scapulae, pulling them back toward the spine.

—Assist in the downward rotation of the scapulae.

3. Levator Scapulae:

The levator scapulae are two thin muscles located on either side of the neck and upper back.

What it does:

—Elevate the scapulae, assisting in shrugging the shoulders.

—Assist in downward rotation and tilting of the scapulae.

4. Serratus Posterior Superior:

The serratus posterior superior is a thin muscle located on the upper back and sides of the thoracic region.

Function:

—Elevate the ribs during inhalation, assisting in breathing.

5. Serratus Posterior Inferior:

—The serratus posterior inferior is a thin muscle located on the lower back and sides of the thoracic region.

What it does:

—Depress the ribs during exhalation, assisting in breathing.

The upper back also includes 12 pairs of ribs, each that have muscles positioned between them, known as intercostal muscles. These muscles can become painful with excessive amounts of coughing or being out of breath for long periods of time.

All these muscles work together to stabilize and move the scapulae (shoulder blades), which, in turn, influence the movement and positioning of the arms. They also play a significant role in maintaining proper posture and supporting the spine during various activities and movements.

It's important to note that proper strength and flexibility in the upper back muscles are essential for overall back health and posture. Regular exercise, including strength training and stretching, can help keep these muscles in good condition and prevent issues related to poor posture and muscle imbalances.

As with lower back pain, if you have any specific concerns about your upper back or back muscles, consider seeking medical advice from a qualified fitness professional, physical therapist, or healthcare provider for personalized guidance and exercises.

Dynamic and Static Stretches

Dynamic and static stretching are two common types of stretching techniques used to improve flexibility and prepare the body for physical activity. Each type has its unique characteristics and benefits.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching involves moving the muscles and joints through a full range of motion in a controlled manner. It is typically performed before a workout or physical activity to warm up the body and prepare it for more intense movements. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching involves continuous movement rather than holding a single stretch position.

Characteristics of Dynamic Stretching:

—Involves controlled and active movements.

—Mimics the movements of the activity or exercise to come.

—Increases blood flow, heart rate, and body temperature.

—Improves joint mobility and flexibility.

—Helps to activate and engage the muscles.

Static Stretching

Static stretching involves holding a stretch position for an extended period without movement. It is typically done after a workout or physical activity to cool down the body and help the muscles relax and recover. Static stretches are designed to elongate the muscles gradually and improve flexibility.

Characteristics of Static Stretching:

—Involves holding a stretch position for 20–60 seconds.

—Targets specific muscles or muscle groups.

—Helps to improve flexibility and range of motion.

—Promotes relaxation and reduces muscle tension.

When to Use Each Type:

Dynamic Stretching: Use dynamic stretching before a workout or physical activity to warm up your muscles, increase blood flow, and prepare your body for movement.

Static Stretching: Use static stretching after a workout or physical activity to help your muscles cool down, improve flexibility, and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.

It's important to note that dynamic stretching is generally more suitable before workouts, as static stretching before intense physical activity may temporarily decrease muscle strength and power. However, incorporating both types of stretching into your overall fitness routine can contribute to better flexibility, mobility, and overall muscle health.

So, let's dive in and discover the stretches that will help you prevent upper back pain and unlock the full potential of your upper back.

Best Upper Back Stretches for Before Workouts

Dynamic stretching of the upper back before a workout can help improve flexibility, reduce tension, and prevent injury. Here are five effective pre-workout stretches for the upper back:

1. Cat-Cow Stretch

The Cat-Cow stretch is a yoga pose that's said to improve posture and balance and prepares muscles for the workout. The Cat-Cow Stretch is an excellent warm-up exercise to mobilize the spine and engage the muscles of the upper back before starting your upper back workouts. Here are the steps to perform the Cat-Cow Stretch:

Starting Position:

Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Ensure that your wrists are directly under your shoulders and your knees are aligned with your hips.

Here's how to do it:

The Cow Pose (Back Extension)

—Inhale deeply and arch your back gently, lifting your head and tailbone towards the ceiling.

—Let your belly drop down towards the floor, creating a concave shape in your lower back.

—Lift your gaze upwards without straining your neck.

The Cat Pose (Back Flexion)

—Exhale slowly and round your back like a cat, tucking your chin towards your chest.

—Draw your belly button towards your spine to create a rounded shape in your upper back.

—Feel the stretch between your shoulder blades and engage your abdominal muscles.

Flow Between Cat and Cow

—Inhale as you transition back to Cow Pose, arching your back and lifting your head and tailbone.

—Exhale as you flow into Cat Pose, rounding your back and tucking your chin.

—Continue this fluid motion for about 1 minute, coordinating your breath with each movement.

—Focus on maintaining control throughout the entire movement. Move slowly and mindfully, allowing your spine to gently flex and extend.

—Take deep breaths throughout the Cat-Cow Stretch. Inhale deeply as you move into Cow Pose, and exhale fully as you transition into Cat Pose.

Perform the Cat-Cow Stretch for several repetitions, ensuring your spine feels more mobile and your upper back muscles are engaged.

2. Thread the Needle

The Thread the Needle Pose is a gentle stretch that targets the shoulders, upper back, and spine. It can be done as a dynamic warm-up stretch, or you can hold the stretched position to make it a cool-down stretch. As a dynamic stretch, the Thread the Needle Pose is a dynamic stretch that helps to warm up the upper back, shoulders, and chest before engaging in upper back workouts. Here are the steps to perform this dynamic stretch:

Starting Position:

Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Ensure that your wrists are directly under your shoulders, and your knees are aligned with your hips.

Here’s how to do it:

—Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, slide your right arm underneath your left arm, threading it through the space between your left arm and left knee.

—Lower your right shoulder and cheek to the floor, resting on the right side of your head.

—Keep your left hand firmly planted on the ground to support your upper body and maintain stability.

—Distribute your weight evenly between your hands and knees to avoid putting excessive pressure on your neck or shoulder.

—Inhale, and as you exhale, gently twist your upper back and shoulders. Reach your left arm overhead, stretching it towards the right side of the room.

—Feel the stretch along the left side of your upper back and shoulder.

—Inhale and slowly release your left arm, bringing it back to the starting position (tabletop).

—Exhale, and as you do so, slide your right arm back to the tabletop position as well.

—Repeat the same steps on the other side by sliding your left arm underneath your right arm and reaching your right arm overhead.

—Lower your left shoulder and cheek to the floor, feeling the stretch along the right side of your upper back and shoulder.

—Continue to perform the Thread the Needle Pose on each side for 2-3 repetitions, moving smoothly and synchronizing your breath with each movement.

The Thread the Needle Pose as a dynamic stretch helps to mobilize the thoracic spine, shoulders, and upper back. It opens up the chest and shoulders while improving flexibility and range of motion in the upper body. This stretch prepares your upper back for various upper body exercises and movements, making it an excellent addition to your warm-up routine before upper back workouts.

3. Shoulder Rolls

Shoulder rolls are an excellent warm-up exercise to loosen up the shoulders and upper back before engaging in upper-back workouts. Here are the steps to perform shoulder rolls:

Starting Position:

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms hanging naturally by your sides.

Take a moment to relax your shoulders and let them hang naturally without any tension.

Here's how to do it:

—Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, start rolling your shoulders in a circular motion.

—Lift your shoulders up toward your ears, then roll them back and down in a circular motion.

—Complete one full circle, moving your shoulders in a smooth and controlled manner.

—After completing one circle in the backward direction, inhale deeply again, and as you exhale, start rolling your shoulders in the forward direction.

—Lift your shoulders up and forward, then roll them down and back in a circular motion.

—Continue to perform shoulder rolls for 10–15 repetitions in each direction (forward and backward).

—You can vary the size of the shoulder circles to suit your comfort. You can make smaller circles or larger circles, depending on how your shoulders feel.

—After completing the desired number of repetitions, relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths.

Remember to perform the shoulder rolls slowly and in a controlled manner, without any sudden jerking or force.

4. The Supine Trunk Rotation

The Supine Trunk Rotation stretch is an effective warm-up exercise to mobilize the thoracic spine and prepare the upper back for workouts. Here are the steps to perform the Supine Trunk Rotation stretch:

Starting Position:

Lie down on your back on a comfortable and flat surface, such as a yoga mat or the floor.

Extend your arms straight out to the sides, forming a “T” shape with your body.

Bend your knees and plant your feet on the ground, keeping them hip-width apart.

Here's how to do it:

—Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, engage your core muscles by gently drawing your navel towards your spine. This will help stabilize your lower back during the stretch.

—Keeping your shoulders firmly planted on the ground, slowly lower both knees to one side of your body.

—Allow your knees to come as close to the ground as is comfortably possible without forcing them.

—As you do this, your upper back and shoulders will naturally rotate in the opposite direction. You can turn your head to look in the direction opposite to your knees for an extra stretch.

—Inhale and bring your knees back to the center, returning to the starting position with your arms outstretched to the sides.

—Take a moment to relax your body and breathe deeply before repeating the stretch on the other side.

—Perform the same trunk rotation stretch on the opposite side by lowering your knees to the other side of your body.

—Repeat the Supine Trunk Rotation stretch on each side for 23 repetitions, allowing your upper back to progressively loosen up and increase mobility.

(You can change the Supine Trunk Rotation stretch to a static stretch by holding the position for 20–30 seconds, feeling a gentle stretch in the thoracic spine and upper back.)

5. Thoracic Spine Extension with a Foam Roller

The Thoracic Spine Extension with a Foam Roller is an excellent dynamic stretch to warm up the upper back and thoracic spine before engaging in upper back workouts. Here are the steps to perform this dynamic stretch:

Starting Position:

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.

Place a foam roller horizontally behind you, positioning it at the level of your shoulder blades.

Support your head with your hands by clasping them behind your head, elbows pointing outward.

Here's how to do it:

—Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, engage your core muscles by gently drawing your navel towards your spine. This will help stabilize your lower back during the stretch.

—Gently lean back onto the foam roller, rolling it up along your thoracic spine towards your upper back.

—As you do this, arch your upper back over the foam roller, allowing your shoulder blades to spread apart.

—Continue rolling the foam roller up towards your upper back until it reaches the base of your neck.

—Your head and neck should still be supported by your hands, and your chest should be open, facing the ceiling.

—Slowly roll the foam roller back down your thoracic spine to return to the starting position.

—As you do this, round your upper back and bring your chin towards your chest.

—Repeat the dynamic thoracic spine extension by rolling the foam roller up and down your thoracic spine for several repetitions.

Avoid any sudden or jerky movements. Move in a controlled manner and synchronize your breath with the movement. Focus on maintaining control throughout the entire movement, ensuring that you are arching and rounding your upper back smoothly.

Avoid any sudden or jerky movements.

Best Upper Back Stretches for After Workouts

Static stretching of the upper back after a workout can help your muscles cool down, improve flexibility, and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. Here are five effective post-workout stretches for the upper back:

1. Child’s Pose

The Child's Pose is a wonderful static stretch to help cool down and relax the muscles of the upper back after completing an upper back workout. Here are the steps to perform Child's Pose as a static stretch:

Starting Position:

Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Ensure that your wrists are directly under your shoulders, and your knees are aligned with your hips.

Prepare for Child's Pose by taking a deep breath in, and as you exhale, shift your hips back toward your heels.

Extend your arms forward and lower your chest towards the floor.

Your forehead should rest on the mat or the floor. If it doesn't reach, you can place a yoga block or a folded towel under your forehead for support.

Here's how to do it:

—Allow your upper back and shoulders to relax and lengthen. Let your chest sink towards the ground, feeling a gentle stretch in your upper back and shoulders.

—Your arms should be extended in front of you, and your palms can rest flat on the floor or be slightly lifted.

—Hold the Child's Pose for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, or longer if you prefer.

—Focus on your breath, taking slow, deep breaths, and use each exhale to sink deeper into the stretch.

—To come out of the pose, inhale and slowly walk your hands back towards your body.

—Lift your chest and bring your torso back to the tabletop position.

—Sit back on your heels and take a moment to sit in a kneeling position.

—Relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths to let your body and mind unwind.

The Child's Pose is an excellent static stretch to cool down after upper back workouts as it gently stretches and releases tension in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. It helps to counteract any tightness or stiffness that may have developed during your workout and promotes relaxation and recovery.

2. Shoulder Blades Stretch (Eagle Pose)

The Shoulder Blades Stretch, also known as the Eagle pose, is an effective static stretch to target the upper back, shoulders, and shoulder blades. It can be used as a static stretch to cool down after upper back workouts. Here are the steps to perform the Eagle Pose:

Starting Position:

Stand tall with your feet together and your arms at your sides.

Here's how to do it:

—Inhale deeply, then as you exhale, bring your right arm over your left arm, crossing them at the elbows.

—Bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle, with your palms facing each other. If your palms don't meet, you can hold on to your shoulders with your hands.

—Slowly cross your right leg over your left leg, either hooking your right foot behind your left calf or wrapping it around your left ankle.

—Balance your weight evenly on both feet.

—As you inhale, lengthen your spine and lift your elbows slightly to create space between your shoulders and ears.

—As you exhale, start to lower your hips, sinking into a semi-squat position.

—Keep your chest lifted and your back straight, engaging your core for stability.

—As you settle into the squat, focus on drawing your shoulder blades away from your ears and gently squeezing them together.

—Feel the stretch and opening across your upper back and between your shoulder blades.

—Hold the Shoulder Blades Stretch (Eagle pose) for about 20–30 seconds, or longer if it feels comfortable and beneficial for you.

—Continue to breathe deeply and maintain your balance and alignment throughout the stretch.

—To release the pose, slowly unwind your arms and legs, coming back to a standing position with your feet together.

—Shake out your arms and legs to release any tension.

Performing the Shoulder Blades Stretch as a static stretch after upper back workouts can help alleviate tightness and tension in the upper back and shoulders. It also improves flexibility and promotes relaxation, making it an excellent cool-down stretch.

3. Upper Trapezius Stretch

The Upper Trapezius Stretch is an effective static stretch to target the upper trapezius muscles, which are often tense and tight after upper back workouts. Performing this stretch can help release tension and promote relaxation in the upper back and neck area. Here are the steps to do the Upper Trapezius Stretch as a static stretch during your cool-down:

Starting Position:

Sit or stand in a comfortable, upright position with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.

Here's how to do it:

—Reach your right arm over your head, placing your right hand on your left ear.

—Keep your right elbow pointing upward.

—Slowly tilt your head to the right, bringing your right ear toward your right shoulder.

—Avoid lifting or pushing your shoulder towards your ear during this stretch.

—Using your right hand, apply gentle pressure to your head, encouraging a deeper stretch on the left side of your neck and upper trapezius.

—Be sure not to force the stretch or create any discomfort.

—Hold the Upper Trapezius Stretch for 20–30 seconds, or longer if it feels comfortable and beneficial.

—Focus on breathing deeply and relaxing your muscles throughout the stretch.

—Slowly release the pressure from your head and bring your head back to an upright, neutral position.

—Lower your right arm back to your side.

—Repeat the same stretch on the other side by reaching your left arm over your head and placing your left hand on your right ear.

—Gently tilt your head to the left and apply gentle pressure with your left hand to deepen the stretch on the right side of your neck and upper trapezius.

—You can perform 2-3 repetitions of the Upper Trapezius Stretch on each side to further release tension and improve flexibility.

The Upper Trapezius Stretch is an excellent way to cool down after upper back workouts, as it specifically targets the upper trapezius muscles, which tend to become tight and stiff due to stress and poor posture. Stretching the upper trapezius can help alleviate tension headaches and neck discomfort, making it a valuable addition to your post-workout cool-down routine.

4. Levator Scapulae Stretch

The Levator Scapulae Stretch is an effective static stretch to target the levator scapulae muscles, which can become tense and tight after upper back workouts. The targeted muscle is positioned towards the back of the neck, down to the top of the shoulder. Stretching these muscles can help relieve tension and promote relaxation in the neck and upper back region. Here are the steps to do the Levator Scapulae Stretch as a static stretch during your cool-down:

Starting Position:

Sit or stand in a comfortable, upright position with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Your arms should hang naturally by your sides.

Here's how to do it:

—Turn your head about 45 degrees to look to the left.

—Without tilting your head, tuck your chin as if you are going to smell your left armpit.

—You should feel the stretch of your levator scapulae muscle in the area between the top of your shoulder blade and the side of your neck.

—Avoid lifting or pushing your shoulder towards your ear during this stretch.

—Be sure not to force the stretch or create any discomfort.

—Hold the Levator Scapulae Stretch for 20–30 seconds, or longer if it feels comfortable and beneficial.

—Focus on breathing deeply and relaxing your muscles throughout the stretch.

—Slowly release the pressure and bring your head back to an upright, neutral position.

—Repeat the same stretch on the other side, turning your head 45 degrees to the right and tucking your chin as if smelling your right armpit.

—You can perform 23 repetitions of the Levator Scapulae Stretch on each side to further release tension and improve flexibility.

The Levator Scapulae Stretch is an excellent way to cool down after upper back workouts, as it specifically targets the levator scapulae muscles, which can become tense due to stress and poor posture. Stretching the levator scapulae can help alleviate neck and shoulder discomfort, making it a valuable addition to your post-workout cool-down routine.

5. Lat Side Stretch

The Lat Side Stretch is an effective static stretch to target the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are large muscles in the back that are often engaged during upper back workouts. Performing this stretch can help release tension in the lats and promote relaxation in the upper back and shoulders. Here are the steps to do the Lat Side Stretch as a static stretch during your cool-down:

Starting Position:

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your spine straight.

Here's how to do it:

—Extend your right arm overhead and reach towards the left side.

—Your biceps should be close to your right ear, and your palm should be face down.

—Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, engage your core muscles to stabilize your body during the stretch.

—While keeping your feet planted firmly on the ground, gently lean your upper body to the left side.

—Focus on elongating the right side of your body to create a lengthening sensation in the right latissimus dorsi muscle.

—Be mindful not to let your hips or pelvis shift to the side during the stretch. The movement should come from your upper body and not your hips.

—Hold the Lat Side Stretch for 20–30 seconds or longer, depending on your comfort level.

—Breathe deeply and relax into the stretch.

—Inhale and slowly return your right arm to the overhead position.

—Lower your arm back to your side.

—Repeat the same stretch on the other side by extending your left arm overhead and reaching toward the right side.

—You can perform 2--3 repetitions of the Lat Side Stretch on each side to further release tension and improve flexibility.

The Lat Side Stretch is an excellent way to cool down after upper back workouts, as it specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, which can become tight and stiff during exercise. Stretching the lats can help alleviate tension in the upper back and promote relaxation, making it a valuable addition to your post-workout cool-down routine.

What are the Benefits of Doing Upper Back Pre- and Post-Workout Stretches?

Performing upper back pre- and post-workout stretches offers numerous benefits for your overall well-being and exercise routine. Here are some of the key advantages of incorporating these stretches into your workout routine:

Pre-Workout Stretch Benefits

1. Improved Flexibility: Stretching the upper back before a workout helps increase the flexibility of the muscles and joints in the thoracic region. This enhanced flexibility allows for a wider range of motion during exercises, reducing the risk of strain and injury.

2. Increased Blood Flow: Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles, which helps warm them up and prepares them for the upcoming physical activity. Improved blood circulation delivers essential nutrients and oxygen to the muscles, promoting better performance and reducing the chance of injury.

3. Enhanced Joint Mobility: Upper back stretches help to lubricate the joints, improving their mobility and reducing stiffness. This can be particularly beneficial if your workout involves movements that require a flexible and mobile upper back, such as overhead presses or pulling exercises.

4. Reduced Muscle Tension: Stretching before a workout can help release muscle tension and relax the upper back muscles. This can make your workout more enjoyable and comfortable, allowing you to focus on the exercises without unnecessary discomfort.

Post-Workout Stretch Benefits

1. Faster Recovery: Stretching the upper back after a workout helps promote blood flow to the muscles, which aids in the removal of metabolic waste products that accumulate during exercise. This can lead to faster recovery and reduced post-workout muscle soreness.

2. Muscle Relaxation: Post-workout stretches encourage muscle relaxation, helping to alleviate tension and tightness in the upper back muscles. This relaxation can prevent the development of muscle imbalances and reduce the risk of chronic pain or injury over time.

3. Improved Flexibility and Range of Motion: Regular post-workout stretching contributes to long-term improvements in flexibility and range of motion. This can enhance your athletic performance and make everyday movements more comfortable and efficient.

4. Reduced Risk of Injury: Post-workout stretches can help release built-up tension and stress in the muscles, which, if left untreated, could lead to overuse injuries or strains. By taking the time to stretch after exercising, you can lower the risk of injury and keep your upper back and surrounding muscles healthy.

5. Promotes Mind-Body Connection: Stretching at the end of a workout provides a great opportunity to focus on your breathing and relax both mentally and physically. This mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and promote a sense of well-being.

Remember that stretching should be done gently and mindfully. Avoid bouncing or forcing yourself into a stretch, as this can lead to injury. Instead, hold each stretch for about 20–30 seconds, breathing deeply and allowing your muscles to relax and lengthen gradually.

In a Nutshell

Overall, incorporating upper back pre- and post-workout stretches into your exercise routine can contribute to better physical performance, reduced risk of injury, and enhanced overall flexibility and mobility in the upper body. For beginners, it’s never a bad idea to reach out to a personal trainer to help design a stretch routine for before and after upper back workouts.

However, keep in mind that any exercise routine goes hand-in-hand with overall wellness and a healthy diet that includes enough protein, proper sleep, and top-quality pre-and post-workout supplements.