Stretches to Relieve a Tight Chest and Stiff Shoulders

Dec 20, 2016
by Abi Carver  
Cobra Pose Photo Credit Samuel Costin

Take a moment to think about the 3 activities you do most often.

If 2 or more of them are sitting at a desk, riding your bike or driving a car, it’s likely that you suffer from a tight chest and limited range of motion in your shoulders.

Your body is an efficiency machine. It has adapted over time to perform the activities you do most frequently with minimal effort. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t take into account whether or not these activities and body positions are healthy for you, with the result that certain muscles atrophy and your joints settle into a limited range.

Interconnected Body

As everything in the body is connected, a tight chest and inflexibility in the shoulders has a number of knock-on effects that you may have experienced, including:

- a sore neck
- pain in between the shoulder blades
- loss of shoulder range of motion
- increased risk of rotator cuff injury
- restricted breathing patterns

In this article, I’m going to show you how to stretch your chest and internal shoulder rotators and strengthen your external shoulder rotators and the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades.

If you’re consistent with these poses, you should notice that:

- your muscles are noticeably less stiff and sore
- your recovery time between rides is reduced
- you increase range of motion in your shoulders
- you move more efficiently on the bike while expending less energy
- your breathing is more comfortable and expansive
- you feel calmer and more in control

The Prescription

I’m going to break this down into 3 levels of commitment. Firstly, I’ll demonstrate 3 poses that you can do in front of the TV – the more often and the longer you can hold them the better. Secondly, you can add in a 15-minute yoga routine designed to stretch the tight muscles in the front of your body, strengthen the weak muscles in the back of your body and increase mobility in the thoracic spine and shoulders. You can do this routine 3-5 days a week, first thing in the morning, during the day or before you go to bed. Thirdly, I’ll give you some additional exercises for you to do throughout your day to further correct these issues.

Yin Poses (Long Holds)

Hold each of these poses for 3-5 minutes – more if you can bear it. The support of the cushions will allow you to go deeper into the stretch.

1. Reclining Butterfly

Reclining Butterfly Photo credit Paul Baker

Lie back on several cushions or pillows and let your arms fall out to the sides. Notice how your shoulders roll outwards in their sockets. If you also want to work on opening up your hips, you can bring your feet together in the shape of a diamond, take your knees out wide and support them on cushions. 

Stay in the pose for 5-15 minutes, allowing the weight of your arms to gently stretch your chest and the internal shoulder rotators. Breathe in and out though your nose, inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 8.

2. Puppy With Hands In Reverse Prayer


Puppy Pose Photo credit Paul Baker

Come to all fours. Bring your elbows down to rest on blocks or a pillow and your palms together behind your back in reverse prayer. Check that your hips are directly above your knees.

Stay in the pose for 3-5 minutes, drawing your hips back to feel a deep stretch in your chest, shoulders and lats.

3. Prone Twisted Scorpion

Scorpion Photo credit Paul Baker

Lie face down on your belly with your hands underneath your shoulders. Bring your right arm straight out to the side, palm facing down. Bend your left leg and press into your left hand to twist your body open to the left. Bring your left foot flat to the mat behind your right leg. Let your left knee fall open to increase the intensity of the stretch. If your neck is uncomfortable, you can rest your head on a cushion.

Hold the pose for 3-5 minutes. This stretch is super intense so when you’re ready to release the pose, unwind slowly and switch to the other side. 

15-Minute Routine

Views: 4,556    Faves: 93    Comments: 7

This short routine is designed to take you out of your habitual movement patterns, moving you through all planes of motion, loosening up tight joints, strengthening weak muscles and increasing thoracic and shoulder mobility.

- Child pose releases tension in the upper back and shoulders.
- Cat Cow increases mobility in the thoracic spine and shoulders.
- Puppy pose stretches the chest, shoulders and lats.
- Sphinx pose loosens up tight neck muscles.
- Snake pose opens up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
- Thread the Needle stretches the chest and shoulders and increases thoracic spine mobility.
- Downward Dog opens up the shoulders.
- Modified Forward Bend + Twist stretches the chest and shoulders from an inverted position.
- Kneeling Sidebends stretch the lats and shoulders.
- Bridge pose stretches the chest and shoulders and strengthens the upper back muscles that support your shoulders blades.
- Reclining Spinal Twist stretches the neck, chest and shoulders.
- Body Scan Meditation releases tension throughout the body.

Other Things You Can Do

1. Stand up straight. Try to sit and stand with good posture. When you’re standing, your ears should be over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and your hips over your knees and ankles.
2. Move as much as you can. Walking around helps to reset a healthy posture, so if you’re sitting for a long time, take short movement/stretch breaks every 20 minutes.
3. Stretch your chest. Stand in a doorway and place your right arm at shoulder height with your elbow bent at a right angle. Keep your spine straight and twist your body open to the left to feel a stretch across your stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds and switch sides.
4. Myofascial release. Work a lacrosse ball into all the muscles in the area that are tight:
- from your serratus anterior (side of your rib cage) up your lats to your armpit
- across your pecs
- into your external rotators (back of the shoulder)
- across your traps and rhomboids (upper back)

As always, you can send me an email at abi@yoga15.com if you have any questions.

You can also now subscribe to the full Yoga 15 Method which gives you access to all my videos for $20 a month. Here is the link: vimeo.com/ondemand/theyoga15method
Must Read This Week

87 Comments

  • + 75
 I utilise the reclining butterfly daily with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other. Highly recommended stretch.
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  • + 2
 Top comment, right there!
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  • + 2
 my go to stretch in the off season
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  • + 3
 Yeah I was just thinking that looks like a pose i could manage lol
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  • + 60
 am I the only one that clicks on these articles to have a laugh at the "Below Threshold" pervert comments? the white knights are pure gold as well.
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  • + 8
 chest is so tight. you're welcome.
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  • + 7
 she's hot. you're welcome 2.0
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  • + 1
 Yeah, I feel the same. It's either, "oh my gosh, I want to put my entire arm in her butthole" or, "she's so professional, and an amazing instructor, it really makes me want to become the better man I was always meant to be!". Personally I would only be able to say the more appropriate one to her in person, so that's what I would stick with.
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  • - 3
 It's a pity that nowadays there are not many comments "Below Threshold" because of negative reaction on them. As for me something that is too clean is the dirtiest. So people who try to look like a knights on a white horses with a swords in their buts while acting too aggressive on the "Below Threshold" comments are seemed to me kinda suspicious...
But anyway nowadays there is nothing interesting in this articles at all. IMHO
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  • + 3
 @ivankvkharkiv: you are taking this a bit too seriously man, just chill and you'll be happier
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  • + 15
 Thanks Abi for posting this up.

My wife and I frequently do yoga (sometimes even our 5 year old son) in the morning. Often she'll ask "does Abi have any new yoga videos up?"

Please keep up the good work, we do enjoy the yoga direction.
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  • + 11
 My pleasure! Ask your wife what she'd like to work on next month!
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  • + 13
 Excited to put these to poorly executed use. This article should be subtitled "Dammit Cody, do these stretches!" Thank you!
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  • + 1
 Let me know how you get on Cody.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: so far so good! My wife has been bugging me to try yoga, but I look goofy in her lulus so I have avoided it. No more avoidance, it works!
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  • + 1
 @VwHarman: Nice one! Hopefully that should know any aches and pains on the head and give you a lot more agility on the bike.
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  • + 9
 Somehow every time Abi has a new post it is exactly what is sore... Been doing allot of reverse planks to open up my shoulders, I would advise this to anyone with tight shoulders! Start slow.. Thanks Abi!
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  • + 4
 At first, I tend to feel like I'll break myself. But starting slow, as you advised, is the key.
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  • + 3
 @macross87: If you go to fast your rotator cuffs will go bye bye. I am on week two and am showing significant posture correction.
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  • + 5
 Reverse Plank is one of the best poses for opening up the chest whilst building strength in the upper back. These poses are a little more restorative but they'll all help to address the issues.
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  • + 4
 @macross87: and make sure your body is warmed up before you go into the stretches.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: Thank you. I always enjoy these tips as they started after my multiple surgeries.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: I have also seen some reverse plank walks, not quite there yet but getting close. I typically warm up in the sauna with some medical bands.
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  • + 2
 @bighitfsr04: Great idea to warm up in the sauna but be super careful not to overstretch.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: Thanks Abi, I try to limit my pre workout sauna to 10 min or until I break a sweat then get into my workout/climbing. I use most of my sauna time to really focus on posture as there is zero distractions.
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  • + 2
 @bighitfsr04: I'm doing the sauna and ice bath twice a week right now. I'm completely addicted. Yoga in the sauna also has lots of great health benefits.
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  • + 10
 props to Abi for these. the timing is always appreciated.
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  • + 5
 Great advice / direction as always... looking forward not only to the 15 min workout -i'm presently in denial about needing major shoulder surgery- ...as surgery often doesn't get the results bikers /climbers desire... but also to the desk / couch stretches, great new direction Abi.

I still stand by the Abi strength series; of core, upper and lower body on Vimeo is so so the best ever cash I've spent on exercise / lifestyle vids... 5 of each - the top level ones are nails, yet the easier ones guide you through. Any rider that gets pumped hands, sore backs / arms / shoulders or tight hamstrings would be a fool not to give that programme a try. Changed it all for me. (no affiliation , it just works)
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  • + 2
 Amazing. Thank you for the endorsement. Drop me an email: abi@yoga15.com. Sounds like you're ready for the Balance Challenge!
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  • + 2
 When I started getting less serious about mountain biking and more serious about powerlifting, stretching and yoga went from "eh... maybe" to something that is absolutely essential. It's great to be able to know what poses will relieve tightness in specific areas. It doesn't happen so much from riding anymore, but the day after a heavy deadlift or squat session, yoga is mandatory for me.
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  • + 1
 For sure! That's the way to do it. Just weave it into your training program.
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  • + 2
 I'm currently still out with a broken collarbone and I'm not allowed to raise my elbow higher than my shoulder. But in the crash I also overloaded the muscles behind the shoulder as I (probably) folded the shoulder too far to the front while rolling. And as pretty much all my muscles are short and stiff (from years of being quite active but never ever considering it a sport hence never really stretching). But I definitely believe it could have been better if the muscles would have been a bit looser and longer. That was the plan for the "off season" (until I got injured, that is) and it still is when I'm cleared to work on this. So I won't practice this now but don't be surprised if I suddenly post some questions months from now.

For now, thanks for sharing these great, almost essential instructions! Luckily it seems like these should be doable even for a stiff guy like me Smile .
[Reply]
  • + 2
 This is a pretty gentle routine but back off if you feel any pain. It would be great if you could work closely with a physio so that you maintain as much mobility as you can in your shoulders through your rehab.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: Yeah at this point I'm not allowed to move it this far but I'll definitely be working on this. Obviously I should have started way earlier. It's been quite a while ago that I read an article about Timo Pritzel in Dirt magazine. As a veteran dirt jumper he suffered quite a few blows which eventually stiffened him up to the point that doctors had given up on him. He started doing yoga which solved the issue. He's a yoga instructor now. You can still find the article on the Dirt website:

dirtmountainbike.com/features/timo-pritzel-injuries-finding-yoga.html

So that got me interested, but finding the right class was another one. I didn't want to end up in a class amongst a couple of skinny dudes on a mat having to watch my breath for 90 minutes straight and not move. Didn't seem like fun and probably wouldn't help me either. At least not what I was after. Luckily the image has improved and you have something exactly targeted at what were after.

So I definitely understand now that damage (both due to injury as well as through supercompensation) shortens and stiffens the system. So you actively have to fight/redirect that to avoid getting more stiff than someone who doesn't exercise anything at all. The thing is, I actually discussed this with my previous physio but he was like "Nah, it is the way it is. If you get stronger, muscles shorten and stiffen. You can't fight that". My current physio is into martial arts and has a different view on this so I'm looking forwards to working on this. My girlfriend used to do karate and is currently doing a yoga teacher course so there is no lack of inspiration and guidance anymore!
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  • + 2
 @vinay: thank you for the article. I'll take a look. In my experience it's you guys that need yoga perhaps more than anyone so the quicker that stereotype changes, the better.
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  • + 2
 @yoga15app: Yeah I think it definitely has improved over the years. Through your articles on a popular mountainbike website, through accomplished riders like Timo Pritzel and Ryan Leech who've become instructors and through top level athletes like Rachel Atherton who mentioned (I think it was in Cranked magazine, which only comes in print) that yoga works better for her than the typical strength excercises she's been doing earlier in her carreer. And pretty sure other sports like surfing are probably a bit ahead of us mountainbikers.
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  • + 2
 @vinay: I know! Surfers, skiers, snowboarders – they're all so much more progressive about yoga and I'd argue that mountain bikers almost need it the most! I know Rachel and Tahnée both incorporate my vids into their training. I reckon 2017 is the year for it!
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  • + 2
 Great stuff - much appreciated Smile
I spend my days in front of a computer, and have huge issues with tension in my Trap muscles, leading to chronic headaches and migraines, as well as huge discomfort following rides.
I'm getting more serious about looking after my body as I get older, and a recent SI joint inflammation has caused me to try to work stretches and routines in around my daily life to ease the discomfort.

Is there anything else you can suggest for, in particular, incredibly tight Trap muscle issues? Or would the above be the best place to start?
[Reply]
  • + 1
 This is a great place to start. Combine static stretches with regular 15 minute sessions of yoga and you'll start to notice a difference in a few days or weeks. Try to bring in foam rolling and sports massage and you'll be golden!
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  • + 2
 I have been doing these through the Sufferfest App for the past few weeks, they are really well done, simple to follow and I like the variations if you have the flexibilty / strength. Have really helped my recovery road riding and strength and power on the MTB.
I am sure I should probably be doing the workouts in some kind of order but atm I just do them kinda randomly but still results have been fantastic. Maybe better if I had an order? who knows... anyone who cares about performance should get onto this, Especially when they are free on Pinkbike Big Grin
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  • + 2
 Mixing up the order is totally fine - working on what you need that day. If you want to progress any particular skill, you can try subscribing to the full series: vimeo.com/ondemand/theyoga15method
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app hello, after many knee issues I can't bend my knees to a childs pose. which make this and the some of the other exercises you covered in chronic hamstring article nearly impossible or sore?

any advise on how to either get rid of the pain or do something else to accomplish the same releif?

thanks
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  • + 1
 It sounds like you should see a physio first and take it from there. You should be able to kneel comfortably. Foam rolling/lacrosse ball could really help.
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  • + 1
 @yoga15app: yeah physio have had there chance as has the knife.. using the roller does help a little.. thanks abi.
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  • + 1
 When I used to swim, they told us not to stretch our shoulders back like the prone twisted scorpion above. (This came after years of telling us it was ok). They said it would stretch out all the stuff in the joint and the joint gets loose. No idea what's what anymore.
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  • + 1
 Apparently this is backed up by research for all you physio types...

Pink MM, Tibone JE: The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North
Am 2000;31(2):247-261

Overstretching of the anterior shoulder capsule leads to permanent increased risk of instability.

So... take it easy folks and don't overdo it.

My shoulders require constant attention these days due to old injuries.
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  • + 1
 You have got to use your own common sense when it comes to all of your training. If you suffer from instability in the shoulder, long-hold stretches are not going to be suitable but if you are inflexible in the shoulders, long-hold stretches will be the most effective way to increase your range of motion and relieve related aches and pains. Ask your physio if you have any concerns and absolutely, don't over do it.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 @yoga15app hey Abi, quick question: What are your thoughts on Chiropractic adjustment for the purpose of increasing mobility and range of motion? Here's what has me intrigued: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBFSeR87Axs (particularly from 11:30 onward)
[Reply]
  • + 2
 I have nothing against chiropractic adjustments in theory. It just massively depends on the practitioner.
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  • + 1
 Thank you Abi for sharing this quality content!! I did a lot of climbing the last days and today my shoulder started to really hurt. It got worse during the day but then I found you're video here by accident. This totally helped my out. I heard some strange sounds coming out of my shoulder and chest during the exercise, but I feel so much better now...Thanks!!
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  • + 1
 Perfect timing!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 What do you have for tight neck and neck posture? Besides not slouching. Holding up a full face like a bobble-head then sitting at a desk for a few days isn't doing the neck muscles and posture any favors. Kind of ties in to chest and shoulder muscles too.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 This routine is actually targeted at tightness in the neck too. And there are some more short sequences here:

www.pinkbike.com/u/yoga15app/blog/8-quick-yoga-stretches-to-do-at-work.html
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  • + 3
 I'd like to try Puppy With Hands In Reverse Prayer, but I'm not sure how I'd explain to someone what I was doing if they walked in the room.
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  • + 2
 I usually do this while looking for small parts on the garage floor and at the same time praying to still be able to ride this same day.
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  • + 4
 Bro is catching a tasty wave in the background of the first photo.
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  • + 1
 First I see the nice light, look more closely and see that surfer too. Good picture! Kudos to the photographer.

Abi: How long did you have to hold that pose to get the surfer in it?
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  • + 1
 @captaingrumpy: I don't remember but the reef did hurt my feet!
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  • + 3
 The reclined butterfly is so easy, and it works! Been doing it for years without realising.
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  • + 2
 Simple and super effective. Just let gravity do the work!
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  • + 2
 Ironically, last time I was in the prone twisted scorpion, I was crashing.
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  • + 2
 Not many men into yoga, but gotta say she is easier in the eyes than DDP
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  • + 1
 Ryan Leech and Timo Pritzel are yoga instructors as well. Both inspiring. I'm not familiar with Timo Pritzel's instructions. I don't think he does online sessions and I don't live in Berlin. Ryan Leech is cool too. I'm on his program which includes everything between yoga, mental fitness and riding skills. His approach is more session-like and great for maintaining or improving general strength and agility for riding. Abi is great for targeting a specific area. Because I think like most riders here I'm usually carrying injuries and/or have some catching up to do in the strength/agility/balance department. I don't know who DDP is but I've got to say the friendly enthusiasm of Ryan and Timo doesn't hurt my eyes either.
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  • + 1
 @vinay: DDP is Diamond Dallas Paige former entertainment wrestler from WCW. Now has a very successful yoga thing going, fyi
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  • + 2
 Simply the best, keep on yogaing!
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  • + 1
 Abi this installment killed it again, I'm running out of stiff joints to complain about.
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  • + 4
 I'm sure you guys will think of something!
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  • + 1
 Hey @yoga15app do you have any recommended stretching for other sports like snowboarding, surfing, or climbing?
[Reply]
  • + 5
 Good question. My vids are actually designed for all action sports athletes. You can check out the complete collection here: vimeo.com/ondemand/theyoga15method
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  • + 2
 @yoga15app: thank you for sharing Smile
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  • + 2
 @Happymtbfr: my pleasure. I hope the routine helps.
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  • + 1
 if you put all those pictures in sequence looks like a tuck and roll crash
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  • - 1
 It's funny how pinkbike uses the most provocative photo on the homepage to click bait this article. Greed beats out decency any day of the week.
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  • + 3
 Clickbait seems fair enough if the writer's going to show you for free how to get rid of your aches and pains so you can be a better rider.
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  • + 0
 The opening shot... what is that...?
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  • + 7
 That's the 'i bet u want to watch it' pose
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  • + 26
 downward wallpaper
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  • - 10
 what shot? imma go with MONEY
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  • + 0
 Wasn't it a cobra or something? Or a cat? Sure must have been some animal, executed after the downward facing dog.
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