Release Tension In The Upper Back and Injury-Proof Your Shoulders - Monthly Yoga With Abi

Jun 26, 2017
by Abi Carver  
Rag doll releases tension in the neck and shoulders. Photo credit charleysmith

This month, I’m going to focus on how yoga can help with the most common issues that arise in the shoulders, upper back, and neck.

What causes the problems?

Your riding position forces you into an alignment that exacerbates the poor posture we commonly see in modern life—rounded shoulders, collapsed chest and head poking forward. Over time, this sets up a pattern of muscular imbalances in the upper body that can lead to pain and more serious issues, including rotator cuff injuries, biceps tendonitis, carpal tunnel, headaches and compromised breathing.

What is a muscular imbalance?

When we are perfectly aligned, there is a balance of muscle strength and length in opposing sets of muscles around each joint. Muscular imbalances show up when one set of muscles becomes tight from overuse and the opposing set becomes weak or inhibited (doesn’t fire correctly) from underuse. They arise from movement repetition and poor posture sustained over a long period. This stresses joints and puts strain on connected muscles that are forced to take on work designed to be performed by integrated groups of muscles. This can then be the cause of pain and sensations of tightness and restriction.

What is the particular muscular imbalance we need to address?

- Excess tension in the shoulders, upper back (upper trapezius) and neck (levator scapula, sternocleidomastoid, and scalenes).
- Tight chest (pectoralis major and minor) and fronts of the shoulders (anterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles).
- Compression in the neck.
- Stiff mid-back (thoracic spine).
- Overstretched and weak muscles that support the shoulder blades (scapulae)—lower trapezius, rhomboids, serratus anterior, posterior rotator cuff and deltoids.
- Weak front of the neck (deep neck flexors).

How can you counteract this pattern?

As a mountain biker, you’re going to have work extra hard to reverse this set of muscular imbalances, to avoid pain and more serious issues down the road. A well-designed yoga program can help you to do this by targeting three key areas.

1. Joint mobilisation to free up restrictions and increase range of motion.
2. Stretching tight, overactive muscles that are pulling joints out of their optimal position.
3. Activating and strengthening weak, overstretched muscles.

1. Mobilise: Increase Range of Motion

Focus: neck, shoulders and thoracic spine.

Timing and frequency: these exercises can be performed several times a day, at any time of day.

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2. Stretch: Restore Muscle Tissue Length and Release Tension

Focus: neck, upper back, chest, and fronts of the shoulders.

Timing and frequency: perform these poses when your muscles are warm and pliable to avoid injury. After a ride or in the evening before bed is best. You don't have to do them all at the same time.

1. Neck Stretch

Stretches muscles in the side of the neck the levator scapula sternocleidomastoid scalenes. Photo credit charleysmith

Targets: the side and back of the neck.

- Sit in a chair or on the floor with a straight spine.
- Alter the position of your head to stretch the specific areas that are tight.

2. Cat

Cat stretches the upper back and the backs of the shoulders. Photo credit charleysmith

Targets: the back of the neck, shoulders and upper back.

- Relax your head and neck.

3. Puppy

Puppy pose stretches the spine shoulders and chest. Photo credit charleysmith

Targets: the lats, shoulders, chest, and triceps.

- Position your hips directly above your knees and draw them back to deepen the stretch.

4. Snake

Snake Pose

Targets: the chest and fronts of the shoulders.

- Look down at the mat to avoid compression in your neck.

5. Cow Face

Cow face pose stretches the triceps and the fronts of the shoulders anterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles. Photo credit charleysmith

Targets: the triceps, chest and the fronts of the shoulders.

- You can kneel or sit in any position in which your spine is straight.
- If your fingers don't easily touch, you can take hold of a towel or belt with both hands.
- Try to keep your shoulders parallel with the mat.

3. Strengthen: Re-align and Activate Weak Muscles

Focus: upper/mid-back, shoulder blades, and backs of the shoulders.

Timing and frequency: you can practice these poses at any time of day. Before exercising and earlier in the day is best as they are relatively energising. You don’t have to do them all at the same time or even on the same day.

1. Bridge

Bridge Pose


- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead.
- Bring your arms by your sides and walk your heels back to your fingertips.
- Lift your hips up and roll your shoulders underneath you.
- If you can, interlace your fingers, straighten your arms and press your little fingers into the mat.
- Hold the pose for 5–10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
- Come down on an exhalation.
- You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.
- Drop both knees from one side to the other to release your lower back.

2. Locust

Locust Pose Glute strengthener


- Lie face down on the mat with your feet hip-width apart and your arms resting by your sides, palms facing down
- Inhale, lift your head, chest, arms, legs, and feet off the mat. Exhale, rotate your hands outwards, point your thumbs up to the sky and draw your shoulders back.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and look down at the mat to avoid compressing the back of your neck.
- Hold the pose for 5–10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
- Come down, rest one cheek on the mat and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back.
- You can repeat the pose 2–3 times, resting the opposite cheek on the mat each time you come down.

3. Downward Facing Dog

Downward Dog with bend legs. Photo credit charleysmith


- From all fours, walk your hands forward a few inches.
- Tuck your toes and lift your hips up. Keep your knees bent and drop your chest back towards your thighs.
- Spread your fingers and press your palms into the mat—index fingers point straight ahead.
- Straighten your elbows and rotate your arms outwards to stabilise your shoulders.
- Check that your knees and toes point straight ahead.
- Hold the pose for five deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
- Come down on an exhalation.
- You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.

4. Forearm Plank

Forearm plank strengthens the shoulders upper back and core. Photo credit charleysmith

- Support your weight between your forearms and toes and press back through your heels. Your feet should be hip-width apart.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other to stabilise your shoulders.
- Try to maintain a straight line all the way from your heels to the back of your head. Don't let your hips drop.
- Look straight down at the mat.
- Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths, or as long as you can without losing your form.
- You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.

5. Side Plank

Side Plank


- Balance your weight on your right hand and the outside of your right foot.
- Check that your right wrist is directly underneath your right shoulder and straighten your left hand up to the sky.
- Look straight ahead and try to hold the pose still.
- Your ankles, hips, shoulders, and head should all be in a straight line.
- Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths, or as long as you can without losing your form.
- Switch sides.
- You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.

Other things you can do:

Warm up: increase blood flow and activate your muscles with at least 5 minutes of dynamic movement before each ride.
Cool down: this is the best time to spend 15 minutes stretching and restoring muscle tissue length.
Stretch breaks: stop for breaks mid-ride and during your work day to stretch muscles that are tightening up from overuse.
Posture: be aware of your posture throughout the day. Try to sit and stand with your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles all in a straight line.
Massage: I know it’s a luxury but nothing beats massage to break up scar tissue, release tension and promote circulation. Self-myofascial release with a stick, lacrosse ball or foam roller can also be very effective. Focus on trigger points in the chest, shoulders, lats, upper back and neck.
Breathing: a collapsed chest can affect your breathing. Download an app like Apnea Trainer to work on your breathing efficiency for five or so minutes a day.
Balance your training: build strength in the upper back with other sports like climbing, CrossFit or traditional strength training.


I’ve put together a new series of 5 x 15-minute videos to address all the issues I've discussed in this article. You can find out more here.

If you have any other stretches, tips or techniques to address these issues, please share them in the comments and email me at if you have any questions. Stay fit and supple!

Previous Yoga with Abi:

Loosen Up Tight Hips With 3 Types Of Poses
15-Minute Post-Ride Routine Designed To Optimize Your Recovery
Three Levels of Yoga to Relieve Lower Back Pain
Stretches to Relieve a Tight Chest and Stiff Shoulders
The Most Effective Style of Yoga to Increase Your Flexibility
Easy 15-Minute Yoga Routine To Loosen Up Tight Joints
How To Release Tight Quads And Increase Your Power
How To Release Chronically Tight Hamstrings
A Challenging One-Hour Yoga Flow Class
Take Control of Your Mind and Push Your Personal Limits
Yoga To Relieve Pain In Between The Shoulder Blades
15-Minute Routine To Unlock Tight Hips
15-Minute Yoga Routine To Build Core Strength
Short Yoga Routine To Help With Lower Back Pain in Bikers
15-Minute Yoga Routine To Enhance Balance and Agilityl
15-Minute Post-Ride Yoga Routine
8 Quick Yoga Stretches To Do At Work

MENTIONS: @yoga15app


  • 20 5
 Sweet, this is exactly what I need. I've been experiencing pain in my left shoulder for quite a while now and I've been trying to avoid going to the doctor. Hopefully this fixes it and it's not actually an alien larvae that's burrowed into my muscles and will slowly take over my central nervous system and eventually my brain!
  • 23 2
 I got authentic tin foil hats for sale, only $100 each. Hmu.
  • 16 3
 best thing you can do is to avoid doctors, all of them are reptillians
  • 5 2
 @seraph - I've been to 3 doctors with my shoulder, and the one who called himself a "sport injury specialist" was the worst and possibly made my shoulder rapture even worse than it was before I came to him. Couldn't lift my arm obve chest level for 3 months, couldn't pull hard on bars for 3 more. The first one from National Healthcare gave me Voltaren gel and recommended Tiger balm or Snake Salva. No sht. Quite frankly, I may have as well been say 100 Hail Marys every day to pray the pain away.So yea, if you have a good "joint" doctor, stick to him, if you don't, you better spend lots of time doing injury prevention strengh and mobility conditioning, or change sport.

So every month I perform a magic ritual of sending 1/3 of my income to satisfy the Gods of National Rapairlandia in hope they will heal me if the hour comes. Then I can take magic card containing more of my income to other Gods in hope they will take the demons away. I may eventually end up at the temple of chiro-osteo-naprapathic rehab artist with attitude towards functional movement. Because stretching is such a scam.

The point being: do the homework like this thing Abi shows and you may not need to see any witch doctor. Bike parks are fille dwith guys sitting at the office doing nothing and then shredding the gnar on weekends. talking sht about Q-Factors or low cadence hurting knees, snapped ACLs. fkd up shoulders etc. Can you touch your toes mate, can you do a deep squat, hold stick with two hands and swing it over your head with straight arms? Nah I'm too old.
  • 5 1
 @therealtylerdurden: Do they have mips? Will my goggles fit comfortably still?
This is a bike website remember, Enduro those things up and sell them for $165
  • 7 1
 @blazekelly: Enduro tin sombrero, 29" in diameter
  • 1 0
 I wrecked pretty bad and had less than 30% range of motion in my shoulder. Instead of going to a doctor, a buddy recommended I try hanging from a bar - like a monkey. Grip the bar with both hands and gently start to hang by my hands. At first, it was very painful and I could not even let my feet off the ground but after a few times I noticed improvement.

Here is the video where this is from ->
  • 2 1
 @scoon: did the same asfter hearing about hanging on Joe Rogan podcast. Pain in shoulder disappeared almost completely within 2 months, got almost full range of motion in the arm. Doing caliesthenics now and I'm sure I'll get 100% back.
  • 1 0
 Mark my words: the Aliens live inside and travel between our mobile devices. The truth the Gov't doesn't want us to know is that......hold on someone is knocking at my door -BRB
  • 2 0
 Take it very easy and don't do anything that causes you pain. You should go to a physical therapist to diagnose your issue if you can. There's a number of things that could be going on. I'm not sure these poses work on alien larvae.
  • 1 1
 I had massive pain in my left shoulder for about a year after slamming into a tree. 3 sessions with Airrosti and I have been pain free for almost 3 years.
  • 1 0
 @blazekelly: naw, we tried mips and we tried making them comfortable but it compromised the tin foils' effectiveness.
  • 17 7
 I've just released so much tension...
  • 5 4
 Do you feel pain in your hand now?
  • 7 3
 @LukaszStachowiak: Bit of cramp, it'll soon pass.
  • 1 0
 I just started physical therapy for a slightly torn rotator cuff. I damaged it while moving a fallen tree and didn't realize it for a few days. Its now been 60 days and its still just as sore. Poor posture, imbalanced muscles and under stretched muscles led to this injury. (just as Abi said)
@yoga15app some of these exercises range from mildly painful to very painful. Should I continue trying to increase my flexibility and work through them? I took a month off of riding but I'm having a hard time NOT getting on my bike. Riding isn't painful. Its the small movements throughout the day that are. Driving, using a mouse and keyboard, sleeping on my side.
  • 1 0
 @ vandall I had a very similar injury about 9 months ago and I'm still working to get strength back. It has been a multi-stage process and I probably wouldn't have made any progress if I hadn't gone to physio. A doctor though will be able to do some tests and at least shine some light on what part of the rotator cuff you have damaged and that can inform your rehab. I stopped sleeping on my right side entirely for a few months. Either way, in my case my shoulder blade had become unstable so that was actually a major focus alongside the rotator cuff itself. It might be worth researching that a little bit. Good luck!
  • 1 0
 See a doctor, my Mother in law dammaged hers wind surfing, she did nothing about it for over a year, when she finally saw a physician it was much to late and she underwent surgery followed by months of Physio
  • 2 0
 Definitely do not do movements/stretches that exacerbate the pain. Find the movements you can do to stay mobile and check in with a physical therapist to get the all clear as to when you can progress.
  • 4 3
 Excellent! Just the exercises I have been looking for to target that area the last week or so!
  • 2 0
 Those planks are no joke.....don't believe me give it a try
  • 1 0
 I can feel my shoulder popping out with the puppy...
  • 10 0
 Are you sure it's a shoulder?
  • 1 0
 i got the same problem
  • 4 4
 Tension released - yoga pants still too tight though
  • 4 5
 Amy can you do a vídeo on chairyoga?
  • 2 3
 I see what you did there.
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