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Top 3 Upper Back Exercises for Pain Relief

If your upper back exercises have been worsening your back symptoms, then let me show YOU the safest and most effective ways to strengthen and train with the following back exercises for pain relief.

The first thing you need to understand about back exercises for pain relief is that most of the standard, popular weightlifting strategies aimed at strengthening your back muscles are probably causing more harm than good! 

There are two major problems:

  1. Most of these exercises focus on isolating the action of only a couple specific muscles, rather than attempting to train “whole body”, natural movement patterns using the coordinated activity of groups of muscles.
  2. Most of these exercises train resisted artificial movements of the arms, rather than training mobility and control of the upper back through support and stabilization of the upper extremities.

 While most of the traditional weightlifting exercises for the upper back and extremities are not inherently bad, if that is ALL you are doing, you are missing out on a whole other category of training that is vital for upper back mobility, strength, and injury prevention…and that is STABILIZATION!

Stabilization exercises for the upper back are concerned with controlling the posture and movement of your upper back as you generally move your body.  So, we are going establish some general guidelines regarding upper quarter posture and movement, which includes not only the upper back, but also the head, neck and shoulders.

  • When viewed from the back, just prior to performing an exercise, your shoulders ought to be relatively broad and wide, and even slightly depressed (or lowered) towards the ground, while your head, neck, and spine ought to be elongated, or said in another way, “make yourself tall” without sticking your chin out…while some attention may be required to achieve this posture, it should not require any significant straining or effort
  • When viewed from the side, similar to the description above, your focus should be on maintaining a “tall, elongated” spine, where no spinal curves are accentuated, and your shoulders are neither rounded too far forward, nor squeezed backwards…you do NOT want to squeeze your shoulders down and back!

So now that you understand the principles that you can use to guide your upper back exercises, let’s discuss how to apply them to some specific exercises:

  1. Prone Head Raise
  • Begin by lying face down on a mat, legs and feet resting shoulder width apart
  • Position both arms above your head so that your hands rest in the same plane as your shoulders, with your elbows bent, resting in the same plane as your ears
  • Resting face down, focus on normal breathing into your belly, followed by a small, slight abdominal wall muscle bracing activity by pushing your belly muscles “out” against the floor…this action should slightly tilt your pelvis backward, straightening your spine, bringing the front of your pelvis into contact with the mat
  • Continuing to focus on your breathing and bracing into your belly, lift your head/neck/chest from the floor (approximately 6-8 inches), above the level of your shoulders, making sure to keep your neck relatively straight so that you will be continually looking down towards the floor and not in front of you, while also moving into the broadened, wide, depressed shoulder position we had discussed previously…maintain this upright position while breathing and bracing
  • While in the upright position, the majority of your weight should be borne through your elbows and the front of your pelvis…you should not be resting on your rib cage

While this basic stabilization exercise for the upper quarter should not be extremely difficult, it should take some focus and effort to do it with quality while breathing, and is used as the “foundation” for proper posture and activation for all other upper quarter movements.

  1. Oblique Sit
  • Begin by resting on your side, with your downside elbow directly underneath your shoulder, and your downside hip and knee flexed and bent out (to approximately 90°) in front of you…the “top-side” upper and lower extremities are resting on the body
  • Prior to the exercise, you must prepare for the movement by “uprighting” your body against gravity—this is accomplished by pressing down through your elbow/forearm to “raise” your chest, head, and neck “up and away” from the floor so that no part of your body/spine is “sagging”
  • Next, slightly rotate your upper body/chest forward so that your “top-side” shoulder is a bit “in front of” your downside shoulder…your head and neck will be straight, but turned slightly downwards, looking to the floor
  • From this “active, upright” position, you are now ready to move…reach with your topside arm obliquely forward and in front of you, turning your hand upwards as you reach—this will cause your upper body/chest to rotate further forward, shifting weight from your downside elbow into more of your forearm—hold this new “reaching” position, while paying attention to your ability to belly breathe and maintain a quality, spinal posture with no sagging or significant curvature

This is an example of an exercise that utilizes the entire body, but we choose to focus on the upper quarter.  Specifically, you are simultaneously training both the stability and control function of the downside shoulder and arm, while also training the movement and strength function of the topside upper extremity.  Resistance can be added to that topside arm, as well as varying the direction of the “reach”.  This exercise can also be performed using support through the downside extended arm and hand, rather than the elbow, and can be made more difficult by adding in lower quarter function.

  1. “All Fours” Rotation
  • Begin from the “hands and knees” position on the ground (or yoga mat), taking care that your spine is relatively relaxed and straight, shoulders broad, wide, and depressed.
  • Lift one hand from the mat, reach across your chest and place it on the front of your opposite shoulder
  • Now, rotate your chest, thorax, and shoulder up towards the ceiling which creates a “twisting” or “rotational” stretch across your upper back…your upper body will be supported on one outstretched arm and hand
  • Take care to keep your low back and pelvis relatively straight and neutral, or else you will be stretching your low back and NOT your upper back
  • Remember to perform this exercise on both sides!

The general recommendation would be to add these types of upper back exercises to your general routine, so that you are taking some time to train stabilization, endurance, and control.

A final piece of advice: if after attempting these upper back exercises your symptoms actually WORSEN, then these specific strategies may not be for you, so take a break and allow your symptoms to calm down. If they persist, you can try either ice or heat for relief.

If you have been experiencing significant upper back pain and stiffness, and would like a professional evaluation and expert treatment that comes directly to your home or place of business, then schedule your house call appointment now with Dr. Bill: