• Mariah Heller

Shoulders, Upper Backs, Oh My!

RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU HAVE pain or tension in your shoulder or upper back!

***Personally raises hand, along with 90% of my clients.

If you are a human, you likely have some pain in this (these) area(s). You may have tension or pain that:

-keeps you from focusing at work

-limits your ability to move your arms or neck

-doesn't seem to go away (in any lasting sense, at least) after a massage session

-generally just sucks

Before I hop into my exercises, I just want to clear up that I recognize that saying "shoulders AND upper back" is very broad. I have grouped them together this week because many of these techniques will likely benefit the shoulder joints and help to decrease tension and pain in the upper back. The shoulder is made up of 4 joints. One of those joints is known as the "scapulothoracic" joint where your shoulder blades connect to your rib cage along your upper back. The muscles around this joint (in the upper back) often become chronically lengthened due to poor posture, excessive computer use, etc.. If we can learn to control and engage these muscles (and keep them stable during other activities) along with other proactive steps, we can often make strides in relieving our pain and tension.

Remember the rules! 1) If you feel that any of these techniques WON'T benefit you, don't do them. 2) You know your body - make the best choice for you.

Here are some ideas that require NO equipment! Pick 1-2 of each and perform them 2-4 times this week.


Scapular retraction. This movement is, essentially, squeezing your shoulder blades back and together. This can be done standing or seated (hint: it can be done at your desk!) with no resistance, from a plank position, and during movements like rows and pull-aparts. Whichever variation you choose, go for 10-20 reps 5-second hold in the contracted position.

Planks and plank unilateral exercises. Plank holds, plank shoulder taps, plank wall taps, plank body saws, plank slider exercises. The key here is to try to pull your shoulder blades together and down your back throughout these movements. Start with a regular plank, feeling that strong shoulder blade/upper back engagement for :30-:60 seconds and try different variations from there. Remember: if you can't perform a flat plank, raise your upper body; so put your hands on a wall, a chair, a bench, etc..

Shoulder rotation or isolation exercises. These generally require some equipment but there are several different options - see the video below for a few ideas.


Soft-tissue: My favorite areas to self-massage (for upper back/shoulder pain) are 1) chest muscles, 2) upper back muscles, and 3) muscles in the front, side, and back of the shoulder itself. Pick an area (and your implement, whether that is a tennis ball, your spouse's elbow, or your own fingers), and lightly massage each area for 1-2 minutes.

Stretching: My favorite stretches for this pain and tension are 1) pec stretches (opening up the chest muscles), 2) overhead shoulder stretches (like a child's pose with your hands elevated on a raised surface), 3) upper back stretches (like pulling the arm across the body and relaxing into it).

Want some ideas? Check out the video below.

Additionally - head to my store to get one of my eBooks which have LOADS of info on this topic, or head over to the Quick Fix product page to get your Upper Body Quick Fix series.

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