5 Stretches For Upper Back Pain
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about your upper back. On a good day, you are at best only marginally aware of the necessary role your upper back plays in the range of motions, movements, and non-movements you perform all the time—like steering your car, sitting up at your desk, or holding up your phone to peer into its endlessly beguiling depths.
But on a bad day, the slightest pain or discomfort can force the awesome centrality of your upper back into stark, even searing, focus. Previously innocuous actions like putting on your coat or opening a door become agonizing reminders of how easy everything was before your back decided to betray you.
So is stretching good for you and your upper back pain? Fortunately, when your upper back has you feeling down, a few quick, easy, and low-strain stretches could be all it takes to alleviate the pain, soothe your sore muscles, and hasten your trip down the road to recovery.
How Stretches Can Benefit Your Upper Back
The first thing you should know about your upper back is that it is a marvel of natural engineering. It’s a complex and interconnected network of bones, muscles, discs, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. Without these, you’d be unable to shrug, raise a toast, or even hold your head up (to say nothing of absolutely killing arm day three times a week, like you always do).
For clarity’s sake, we can define the “upper back” as the region of the body’s posterior that starts at the neck and ends at the lumbar (or the area north of your hips just below your ribcage). This region includes your neck, shoulders, and arms, in addition to your back’s uppermost quadrant, known scientifically as the thoracic spine.1
But not far beneath the skin, dozens of muscles are busy flexing and relaxing, contracting and extending, again and again and again, ad infinitum—all in service of posture, mobility, and prime movements like pulling.
The upper back is home to several essential muscles, including:2
- The four muscle sets you activate when you want to move your head.
- The seven muscle pairs you use to move your shoulders.
- The five muscle pairs that control your arms.
The upper back is also home to a few fugitives and dual citizens from the middle and lower back, plus one or two key muscles that contribute to your spinal movement. But when it comes to knowing how to stretch your upper back to relieve pain, the four most important muscles are:3
- The trapezius – You and your entire body have the “traps” muscle to thank for your ability to move. If you have good posture or enjoy doing The Wave at baseball games, you’re even more indebted.
- The latissimus dorsi – Also known by its nickname, “Lats,” you rely on this muscle whenever you raise or rotate your arms or shoulders.
- The levator scapulae – You’re enlisting the help of this muscle each time you perform an action that lifts your shoulder blades.
- The rhomboids – The rhomboids, major and minor, are like the dynamic duo of upper back muscles. Their mission? To pull the scapula or shoulder blades toward the spine.
In other words, your upper back carries a bevy of all-important tasks on its literal shoulders. So whether you’re aching from an injury, suffering a case of post-workout DOMS, or sore from poor posture, here are five stretches for upper back pain relief you can try right now.
#1 Work Out Your Rhomboids
If your upper back pain is localized to the middle of your upper back region, it could be the result of muscle tension and tightness between your shoulder blades. Fortunately, this super simple stretch targets middle back pain and may be able to take the tenacity out of that built-up tension.4
Here’s how to stretch your shoulder blades properly:
- Step 1 – With your arms at chest level in front of you, link your elbows together, beginning with right over left.
- Step 2 – Next, bring your left hand over your right arm so that they are interlinked and apply pressure.
- Step 3 – Hold or apply incrementally greater amounts of pressure for 20-30 seconds, then switch arms and repeat.
#2 Loosen Up Your Latissimus Dorsi
If you’re someone who keeps active with exercise or athletics, it’s a good idea to choose a comfortable stretch for upper back pain that’s focused on your lats.
Because not only is the latissimus dorsi the biggest muscle in your back, but it’s also one that can routinely suffer strain from a range of physical activities, from playing tennis to shoveling snow.5
That said, a few reps of classic side stretches could help loosen your lats and ease your pain.
Here’s how to perform latissimus dorsi side stretches:
- Stand with your arms above your head.
- Using your right hand, grab your left arm at the wrist.
- Gently pull your left arm toward the right side of your body for 20–30 seconds.
- Switch sides, repeating two or three times.
#3 Target Your Upper Trapezius
A decreased range of motion in your arms, tenderness in your shoulders, and stiffness in your neck can all signal a sore trapezius.6 This could result from incidents like overexerting yourself at the gym, pinching a nerve, or having bad posture. But not to worry: this upper back stretch aims straight for your tired traps—and could offer an escape from the pain.
You can target your trapezius by standing or sitting and bringing one hand over your head to grasp the opposite side. Place your free arm behind you and slowly pull your neck and head down toward the shoulder of the arm you’re pulling with. If you desire a more intense stretch, feel free to apply more pressure.
After about 30 seconds, switch to the opposite side and repeat.
#4 Target Your Lower Trapezius
The trapezius is one of those wily “don’t-fence-me-in” type muscles that refuse to be contained to only one part of your back. Instead, it stretches from the bottom of your neck to a point at the very middle of your back.<suP<6 For that reason, doing stretches for back pain that target your upper and lower traps may help expedite your healing.
To stretch your lower trapezius, stand up with your arms above your head as if in homage to the letter W. Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together while slowly lowering your elbows to about stomach level.
Hold that position for two or three seconds, then gradually lift your arms past your starting position—this time, you should aim to honor the letter “Y,” holding for another two or three seconds. Repeat the upper back stretch up to 10 times depending on the extent of your soreness.
#5 Liberate Your Levator Scapulae
Any number of rigorous workouts could potentially strain the levator scapulae. But if you have upper back pain, especially in the neck and shoulder blades, it doesn’t necessarily mean your exercise routine is to blame. The culprit could even be your smartphone.
In studies, levator scapulae pain has been linked to sustained craniovertebral angles—the downward-facing, bent-neck posture most of us assume whenever we’re absorbed in our cell phones.7 So it could be worth it to reconsider your posture when you’re scrolling away, in addition to adding a good levator scapulae stretch to your routine.
Here’s an excellent way to stretch your levator scapulae:
- When seated, use your left hand to grab the underside of your chair.
- Gradually turn your head toward the right while bringing your chin toward your chest.
- With your right hand, carefully force your head down and to the left.
- Hold for about 20 seconds.
When you’ve finished, be sure to repeat the stretch for the other side.
Bonus Stretches for Upper Back Pain
When you’re doing stretches for upper back pain, never underestimate the power of yoga. If you are questioning, “Is yoga good for you?” it is important to know that a few standard yoga poses can open things up and mollify an aching upper back. Yogis far and wide recommend the following simple poses as time-tested answers for how to stretch your upper back:8
- Balasana (Child’s Pose) to flex the spine and stretch the shoulder blades
- Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) to loosen tight muscle trigger spots
- Bitilasana (Cow Pose) to re-energize worn-out muscles
- Ustrasana (Camel Pose), a back-bend style pose to open the shoulders
New to yoga? No worries. Yoga is one of many incredible fitness classes available at Chuze, each led by one of our friendly and inspiring instructors. Signing up is as easy as searching for “Chuze gyms near me” and joining the fun.
Chuze Fitness: For a Different Gym Experience
At Chuze Fitness, we know it doesn’t take much for upper back pain to get in the way of your fitness goals. But sore, achy muscles aren’t always a reason to skip the gym—especially not when your gym is Chuze, the friendliest, biggest gym around.
Enter any Chuze location and you’ll find state-of-the-art exercise machines, workout equipment, and first-rate amenities you’d expect from the world’s fanciest gyms, like pools, hot tubs, and our exclusive iChuze app. Plus, our approachable, knowledgeable staff and supportive community of members from all fitness levels are here to make you feel like part of the family.
At Chuze, we’re all rooting for you. Isn’t it time we met?
Ani is the Vice President of Fitness at Chuze Fitness and oversees the group fitness and team training departments. She’s had a 25+ year career in club management, personal training, group exercise and instructor training. Ani lives with her husband and son in San Diego, CA and loves hot yoga, snowboarding and all things wellness.
- Cleveland Clinic. Upper Back Pain. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/22866-upper-back-pain
- Good Path. The Muscles of the Back. https://www.goodpath.com/learn/muscles-back#
- Cleveland Clinic. Back Muscles. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21632-back-muscles
- Back Intelligence. 7 Specific Upper Back Stretches For Back Pain Relief. https://backintelligence.com/upper-back-stretches/
- Healthline. Latissimus Dorsi Pain. https://www.healthline.com/health/latissimus-dorsi-pain#causes
- Cleveland Clinic. Trapezius Muscle. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21563-trapezius-muscle
- PubMed Central. Correlation among smartphone addiction, craniovertebral angle, scapular dyskinesis, and selected anthropometric variables in physiotherapy undergraduates. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6695020/
- Yoga Journal. 7 Yoga Poses to Relieve Your Upper Back Pain. https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/yoga-by-benefit/back-pain/yoga-for-upper-back-pain/