Do you suffer from pain in between your shoulder blades and tightness in your upper back, neck and shoulders? Hours on the bike with your arms permanently extended in front of you, combined with working at a desk and life stress, creates the perfect storm for soreness in the upper back, neck and shoulders. And it's nowhere near as much fun riding when you're in constant pain.
What causes the pain?
Upper back pain is caused by poor posture, where overworked muscles tighten up and shorten and the opposing muscles lengthen and become weak.
When the upper back and shoulders are chronically hunched forward, the shoulder blades start to slide away from the spine. This over-stretches and weakens the muscles that connect the spine to the shoulder blades, upper back (rhomboids and traps), neck (levator scapulae) and shoulders (deltoids). Muscles spasm from the fatigued muscles cause pain along the edges of the shoulder blades and up the neck.
How can you fix it?
Counter-intuitively, stretching out the upper back will only temporarily ease the pain and can sometimes make things worse. You need to focus on releasing tension in the front of the body as rounding the upper back leads to tightness in the chest, which pulls the shoulders forward. Essentially, you need to reverse the hunched over position – stretching the chest and the front of the shoulders and strengthening the muscles of the upper back and neck – to restore your shoulders to a healthy and stable position.
Three poses to open up your chest
- Warm up your body for five minutes with dynamic stretches and mobility exercises before you do the poses. - Practice each pose twice, three or four times a week. - Take it super slow and pay close attention to how the pose feels. - Back off if you feel anything more than mild discomfort. - Be patient and consistent – I hope you experience some level of relief immediately but it may take a couple of weeks before the pain goes away entirely.
- Lie face down on the mat with your feet hip-width apart and your arms resting by your sides, palms facing up. - Interlace your hands behind your back and press the tops of your feet into the mat. - Inhale, lift your chest. Exhale, draw your shoulders back. - Look down at the mat and be careful not to compress the back of your neck. Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Keep pressing your feet into the mat. - To come out of the pose, unclasp your hands, rest your right cheek on the mat and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead. Rest your arms by your sides, palms face down. Walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels. - Press into your feet and lift your hips all the way up. Check that your knees point straight ahead and do not fall out to the sides or in towards each other. Roll your shoulder blades underneath you. Come up to your edge and hold the pose for - 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - To come out of the pose, take a deep breath in, and lower down to the mat on an exhalation. - Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest. Walk your feet to the edges of the mat and drop both knees slowly to the right and to the left. Windscreen wiping your knees a few times to release your lower back.
- Sit on the mat with your legs straight out in front of you. - Slide your hands 6-12 inches behind you. Try to point your fingertips forward. Lift your hips all the way up. - Tuck your chin to your chest or look up at the ceiling without letting your head drop right back. - Keep pressing into your palms and be careful not to let your hips drop. - Stay in the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Come down carefully on your last exhalation.
Lack of flexibility in the shoulders
As well as pain, you may experience tightness in the shoulders, especially if you have sustained an injury to the shoulders and/or collarbones. This 15-minute routine of gentle stretches is designed to increase flexibility and range of motion in the neck, shoulders and upper back. The short breathing exercise at the beginning and the body scan meditation at the end will also help to relax the entire musculature supporting the rib cage.
Practice this routine as often as you need to and combine it with foam rolling and massage – both of the chest/collarbone area and the upper back and shoulders – for the best results. You can download the full Neck And Shoulders video here and my brand new Pose Guide For Mountain Bikers: Level One here.
Please let me know how you get on in the comments below. And if you need more motivation and tips to relieve pain and level up your performance, follow me on Instagram @yoga15abi.