6 Upper Back Stretches That Physical Therapists Swear By

Upper back stiffness and tightness can cause discomfort. These upper back stretches and strengthening moves can ease pain and loosen things up.

Published Date: Jan 23, 2024
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Upper back pain and tightness is common, especially given the demands of our daily lives. “Many people sit in front of a computer all day or do repetitive tasks, and we’re often under a lot of stress,” says Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Our bodies aren’t designed to stay in one position for long, and, over time, this can take a toll on upper back muscles.  

You may notice stiffness, tension, or aching in your upper back and neck that makes everyday activities — whether it’s picking up your child or lugging a bag of groceries — that much more challenging.

The good news: If you struggle with upper back pain or stiffness, there's a lot you can do to feel better and prevent future bouts of discomfort. Lifestyle tweaks, including simple-but-effective stretching and strengthening exercises, can make a big difference.

Read on to learn how exercise can help upper back pain and which exercises and stretches our Hinge Health physical therapists recommend.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Aeder is a Hinge Health physical therapist and a board-certified athletic trainer.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

The upper back pain stretching exercises below are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists. “If you work on improving mobility throughout your entire back, it will decrease the stress placed on one individual area, like your upper back,” says Dr. Aeder.

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1. Open Book Rotations

1. Open Book Rotations

This stretch moves segments of your thoracic spine, which is in the upper and middle part of your back. “The rotations help to strengthen the area and increase its range of motion,” explains Dr. Aeder. 

How to Do It: 

  • On a yoga mat on the floor, lie on your side with a pillow supporting your head. Your arms are straight out and resting on the floor in front of your chest. Your legs are stacked together with your knees bent up towards your chest.

  • Reach your top arm up and behind you, as you turn toward your opposite side. Keep this arm straight while your legs and other arm remain in the starting position. Your chest will open up toward the ceiling as you rotate. 

  • Continue to reach your arm and shoulder toward the floor behind you as you stretch into this position.

  • Return your top arm and upper body back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a bit of a twist or stretch in your back, shoulders, and neck.

2. Standing Chest Stretch

2. Standing Chest Stretch

“We often sit in a forward, hunched position, which causes our upper back to tighten,” says Dr. Aeder. “This stretch helps to decrease tightness in front of your chest, which in turn will promote a more natural, upright posture.”

How to Do It:

  • Stand next to a wall, and reach your arm back to rest against it with your palm facing the wall. 

  • Rotate your body away from your arm. Try to avoid raising your shoulder up toward your ear.

  • Repeat on the other side. 

  • As you do each rep, you should feel a stretch in your chest and the front of your shoulder.

3. Seated Cat Cow

3. Seated Cat Cow

This stretch might not seem to target the upper back, but it makes sure that every segment of your spine is mobile and supple.

How to Do It:

  • To begin, sit in a chair with your hands clasped behind your head. 

  • Bend your chest and head towards your thighs to round your back. Focus on your breath as you hold this position.

  • Extend your shoulders and head towards the top of the chair, to arch the back. Remember to relax your breathing as you hold.

  • Come back to sitting. 

  • As you do each rep, you may feel a stretch in your back, neck, and core muscles.

In addition to stretching your upper back, you want to strengthen those muscles, too. Supporting these muscles helps them build tolerance and resilience, so they're less likely to experience tension during everyday activities, says Dr. Aeder. The below exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to strengthen the upper back, which will enhance upper back flexibility.

4. Shoulder Rows

4. Shoulder Rows

This exercise opens up your chest and strengthens the muscles of the upper back, says Dr. Aeder. 

How to Do It:

  • Secure a resistance band by opening a door, wrapping the band around the handle, and then closing the door. Stand on the closing side of the door when you secure the band. This will make sure the band does not accidentally pull the door open.

  • Take a few steps back from the door with the ends of the band in each hand. Your arms should be straight, and raised to about chest height, and the band should have some tension.

  • Stretch the band by pulling your hands to the side of your rib cage while your elbows bend.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you hold.

  • Relax your arms back to the starting position.  

  • As you do each rep, you should feel your upper back, shoulders, and arm muscles working.

5. Resisted Shoulder External Rotation

5. Resisted Shoulder External Rotation

“This strengthens upper back muscles to help with stability and alignment,” explains Dr. Aeder. It improves the control you have over your shoulders and spine, which will put less strain on your upper back. 

How to Do It:

  • Secure a resistance band by opening a door, wrapping one end of the band around the handle on the other side, then close the door. Stand on the closing side of the door, to make sure the band does not accidentally pull the door open.

  • With the door at your side, wrap the other end of the band around your hand that is farther from the door. Your elbow is bent to 90 degrees and your forearm is resting across your belly. 

  • Take a few side steps away from the door so that there is some tension in the band. 

  • Rotate your hand out to your side, stretching the band outward. Your elbow remains bent and at your side throughout the motion.

  • Focus on squeezing your shoulder muscles as you hold this position.

  • Relax your hand back to the starting position. 

  • Turn around so your other hand is now farther from the door and repeat on that side.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your shoulder blade muscles working.

6. Scapular Clocks

6. Scapular Clocks

These promote good range of motion through your scapula, or shoulder blades. “This activates your shoulder muscles to make sure that they have good blood flow and strength,” says Dr. Aeder. 

How to Do It:

  • Start by standing with your arms by your side and elbows bent to 90 degrees.

  • First, lift your shoulders up towards your ears and hold.

  • Lower your shoulders.

  • Next, move your shoulders and elbows forward, rounding your upper back.

  • Relax back to the starting position.

  • Now, move your shoulders and elbows down towards the floor.

  • Return to the starting position.

  • Lastly, squeeze your shoulders and elbows backward.

  • Relax your shoulders.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a stretch in your shoulder and back muscles.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Strengthening and Stretching the Upper Back

It’s common to hold tension in your upper back, says Dr. Aeder. Certain sitting and standing positions, especially when you stay in the same position for long periods of time, can put pressure on the upper back, causing muscles in the area to tighten. 

If your upper back is tight, and doesn’t have a lot of mobility, your body may try to compensate by putting stress somewhere else. “As a result, you can experience strains and aches in other places, such as your neck, shoulders, and middle and lower back,” says Dr. Aeder. 

The key to relief is gentle exercises that strengthen your upper back muscles, such as your rhomboids and traps (trapezius muscles). 

Exercises, like the ones mentioned above, help add support and stability to the upper back area, which, in turn, helps you maintain healthy back positioning so you're less prone to upper back stiffness, aches, and pains. Stretching is important too — tight upper back muscles need to be loosened in order for them to function effectively. 

Besides stretching and strengthening exercises, one of the best ways to ease upper back tightness is to make sure you don’t stay in one position for too long. That may mean that you take movement breaks frequently throughout the day, suggests Dr. Aeder. Stand up and walk around your home or office, do a yoga pose, or try one of the upper back stretches below. Your upper back will thank you for it.

What If Movement Hurts My Upper Back?

Let’s face it: When you’re in pain, doing anything that might hurt can feel scary. You want to move and know that you should, but you also don’t want to make your pain any worse. As a result, you may end up scaling back and doing less. 

“This cycle only makes the problem worse, because with inactivity, your upper back muscles weaken and get stiffer,” points out Dr. Aeder. 

But consider this: “Movement is medicine and one of the most important tools you have to reduce pain,” stresses Dr. Aeder. The key is to find the right type and amount of movement to challenge your body without causing too much pain. When you find this movement sweet spot, you’ll strengthen and loosen up your muscles, which in turn will help to ease pain. 

If you can do an activity and feel good (even a little sore) afterward, this most likely means you’ve hit your movement sweet spot. The key is to scale up a little bit each time, so that your body can build tolerance to an activity, adds Dr. Aeder. 

PT Tip: Think Full Body

“If you have tightness or tension in your upper back, make sure that you’re not only doing stretches and exercises in that area,” points out Dr. Aeder. “You want to work on strengthening and stretching your full body — from your neck to your legs. Sometimes, stiffness in your upper back is your body’s way of telling you that you’re using that area too much because of weakness or tightness in other parts of the body.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Fouquet, N., Bodin, J., Descatha, A., Petit, A., Ramond, A., Ha, C., & Roquelaure, Y. (2014). Prevalence of thoracic spine pain in a surveillance network. Occupational Medicine, 65(2), 122–125. doi:10.1093/occmed/kqu151

  2. Casiano, V., & De, N. (2023). Back Pain. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538173/ 

  3. Touma, J., May, T., & Isaacson, A. C. (2020). Cervical Myofascial Pain. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507825/ 

  4. Andersen, C. H., Andersen, L. L., Zebis, M. K., & Sjøgaard, G. (2013). Effect of Scapular Function Training on Chronic Pain in the Neck/Shoulder Region: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 24(2), 316–324. doi:10.1007/s10926-013-9441-1