Many of the things we do every day, like sitting at a desk and using our smartphones, lead to chest tightness. Loosening up your chest goes a long way towards maintaining good posture and health. Here’s what to do.
Why pay attention to the chest? Tightness in one muscle group can affect the functionality of another muscle group, so tending to your chest tightness may unlock potential in the rest of your body.
You can get this tightness from spending long hours at a desk, carrying heavy boxes, staring down at your cellphone, or doing too many front-of-body exercises. These activities can lead to muscular imbalance in your upper body and chest muscles that are tight enough to pull your shoulders and posture forward.
The main muscles here are the pectoralis major and minor. When these muscles tighten, the shoulders are often pulled forward, resulting in a “rounded shoulder” or “hunched shoulder” look. This is exacerbated if your upper back is weak, or if your shoulder mobility is inhibited.
We recommend doing dedicated chest stretches two to three times a week. Adding in a yoga class will help you achieve better results since many yoga stretches are designed to open up the chest area (we’ve included our favorites below).
Remember to always consult a physician or physical therapist before beginning a new exercise regime if you have any health concerns. Then, follow these tips to get the most out of your stretching routine:
- Warm up first: Don’t just jump into stretching those tight muscles. Ideally, you can set aside some stretching time after your regular cardio workout. If not, then allow 10 minutes to do some low-intensity cardio to warm up your muscles.
- Take deep breaths: Make sure to use your breath while moving in and out of poses. Never hold your breath; this will only make your chest muscles tighten more!
- Repeat every exercise: Sometimes everything is so tight you can’t sink into a pose. Always take a break, then try it again. Aim to do each stretch or pose three to five times. This allows your body enough time to relax and open up.
This classic yoga move has many benefits. It’ll help loosen up the back and chest muscles, preparing you for the more intense stretches to come.
Position yourself on your hands and knees, as if you’re in a crawling position. Hands should be shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart. Take a deep inhale and push your back up to the ceiling, dropping your head down to look at the ground (cat position).
Then exhale slowly, pushing your belly to the ground and lifting your head toward the ceiling (cow position). Repeat five times.
Stand tall, with your legs hip distance apart. Interlace your fingers behind your head, with your elbows pointing out to the sides. Slowly squeeze your shoulder blades back, pushing your elbows out and back, with your chest pushing forward.
Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, continuing to breathe. Release, wait about 10 seconds, then repeat two to three more times.
Stand tall, with your legs hip distance apart. Interlace your hands behind your back, straightening your arms. Push your hands down to the ground, gently squeezing your shoulder blades together. Make sure to push your chest forward. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Release, pause, then repeat two to three more times.
Another variation is to reach your arms back until each hand grabs the opposite elbow. From here you can push the chest out, bringing your shoulder blades together. This variation can be done sitting, kneeling, or standing. It’s an easy stretch to do at your office desk (just move slowly if you haven’t done a proper warmup).
This is a great yoga pose for opening up the chest muscles. This excellent video includes a warmup leading up to the camel pose and is a great place to start.
Start by sitting on your knees, with a gap of about two fists between your knees. Place your hands on your lower back, with your fingers pointing down. Pull your belly in, lift through your chest, and lean back. Make sure your tailbone stays pointed down—this will help protect your lower back. Look up at the ceiling, making sure to keep your neck long and extended. Hold for five breaths.
For the advanced version, keep leaning back until your hands can rest on your heels. You can tuck your toes under if you wish.
Bridge pose is another great option for opening up those chest muscles. Most yoga classes will incorporate this move, but here’s a quick rundown so you can try it at home (and a helpful video too, of course.
Lay flat on your back, bend your knees with your feet firmly on the ground and slowly lift your hips to the ceiling. Push your forearms into the ground, interlocking your hands under your body. Don’t push your chin towards your chest; this will put pressure on your neck. Instead keep your neck elongated, pushing your shoulders down. Hold for five breaths. Take a break, then repeat several times.
If you’re familiar with yoga, you can also do several backbends. This is a more advanced move for opening up your chest. You’ll notice if you search for backbend tutorials on YouTube all the videos are pretty lengthy. Backbends are something you work up to with a longer video and take it slow and easy.
Many great stretches utilize an open doorway. These stretches are especially handy if you work in an office (and your motivation for keeping your chest stretched out is time at your desk). Every time you get up from your desk to do something around the office, you can use a nearby doorframe to fit in a few stretches. Here are our favorites:
- Arms out: Stand in the center of an open doorway, feet positioned hip distance apart. Extend your arms fully, making sure your palms push against each side of the wall. Step one leg forward a few inches and lean into the door opening, keeping your shoulders engaged downwards and your neck elongated. You should feel the stretch in your chest. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Shake it out, resume the position, but now step the other leg forward. Aim to do four sets in total.
- Arms in a V-position: Follow the instructions for the “arms out” exercise above, but push the arms up higher into a V-position. Make sure the palms are still pushing into the wall on each side of the doorway.
- Arms bent: This is another variation to the “arms out” exercise. Bend each arm at the elbow, so your arm makes a right angle. Remember to push the chest forward—this is what helps open up those tight muscles. You can also do this one arm at a time, looking over your opposite shoulder to get a deeper stretch.
- Using a small ball: Stand to the right side of the doorway, facing the wall. Place a firm exercise or lacrosse ball between your chest and the wall, positioning it on the left side of your chest. Push your left arm through the doorway, lifting the arm up and down. Continue for 30 seconds, pausing before switching to the other side.
While you might not have the time or space at the office to get down and do some yoga moves, sturdy doorframes are a great way to sneak in stretches.
Spending time opening up your chest muscles should help alleviate tension in other areas of your body. Remember to stand tall, keep your shoulders pulled back and down, and avoid too overdoing chest exercises without balancing them out with back and shoulder exercises. Lift your cellphone up to eye level when you need to write a text, instead of hunching forward. Over time, you should notice a significant change in your posture and mobility.