Neck and upper back tension is about as common paying taxes. It seems to affect everyone.
And like taxes, if you ignore it for too long, the consequences are the opposite of fun.
There’s a reason why that little bit of upper back tightness manifests into a cranky shoulder and then turns into neck pain. If you ignore an underlying restriction, the areas around it have to compensate, which leads to increasing discomfort.
It’s why people sometimes experience a cascade effect of aches and pains. They’re not falling apart, but they have possibly ignored poor body usage and muscle imbalances for too long.
And I don’t say that to be a Debbie Downer, because it’s not a crisis and you have the power to fix it. However, it does pay to be proactive (i.e. before all your joints are yelling at you), so #doitnow
With this in mind, what are the typical cause of neck and upper back tension?
Mostly, it’s repetitive stress and poor posturing.
A big part of modern life is spent in sitting. And while I don’t think sitting is the devil (they gave workers chairs for a reason. You also hurt when you stand too much), if you do it for too long, then you aren’t doing something else…moving!
Now moving doesn’t mean you have to run a daily marathon or go all beast mode during your off hours.
It just means that some part of your days is spent getting up, walking around and moving your spine, because:
- Most chairs are bucket shaped, or high in the front and low in the back, which displaces our pelvis, destabilizes our spine and creates excess stress on the neck and shoulders and…
- When you sit for too long, your upper body is pretty much locked into one position, so your nervous system sort of “forgets” all the other great movements it could be going, like twisting, side bending, extending and reaching overhead.
When your upper back gets stiff, then all the surrounding joints lose functional movement in attempt to make up for the loss of range, which means potential strain, pain and muscle tension not just through the immobile segmement, but also through the rest of the body.
So knowing that, the fix for shoulder and upper back tension should be obvious.
Wait for it…yep…it’s moving more.
Now me saying “move more” to fix your tension is about as useful as telling someone who wants to lose weight to eat less. Specifics help.
So if what I’ve said rings true for you, here are some simple things you can do to target upper body tightness.
- Move your upper back in different directions (side bending, twisting, extension)
- Allow the arms to explore full, pain free ranges of motion unweighted.
- Wake up the stabilizers of the shoulders and spine
And if you wanted something a little more specific, here’s a super easy, short routine that you can do to improve your upper body mobility.
For the sake of brevity, I didn’t go into stabilization exercises, but if you need some ideas for those, check out this blog post.
I’m demoing these exercises on a BOSU, but they can also be done on a Pilates arc or by stacking some pillows #buildafort
Shoulder mobility exercises for tight shoulders
3 to 5 reps gentle rotation
8 overhead presses
8 chest presses
8 shoulder taps
*Repeat sequence on second side