5 Mobility Exercises to Improve Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain often stems from poor posture and prolonged sitting. Improve mobility and relieve discomfort with these 5 effective exercises focusing on the upper back.

By URLife Team
10 Jul 2024

Most of us have uttered these words at one point or another, "My shoulders hurt", "My upper back is so tight", or "I need a massage." Upper back pain is a common complaint. Whether from carrying heavy loads or sitting hunched over a desk for hours, the discomfort often centres around the muscles and connective tissues in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. Unlike lower back pain, which can sometimes signal more serious issues, upper back pain typically arises from muscle strain and inflammation due to poor posture or overuse. 

While incorporating regular breaks from prolonged sitting and adopting ergonomic adjustments in your workspace can provide relief from upper-back issues, it is essential to incorporate mobility in the upper back to release tension, stiffness and pain. To correct posture and alleviate upper back pain, practising targeted exercises is essential. Strengthening the muscles of the upper back and shoulders can alleviate pain, inflammation, and stiffness caused by poor posture or overuse. 


Related story: 6 Moves To Ease Back Pain


We spoke to Dr. Vinay Aindala (specialist in physical therapy and rehabilitation), who is currently the Senior Manager at UR.Life, Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad. With over 11 years of extensive expertise in the field, he shares a range of highly effective exercises to release tightness in the upper back, alleviate pain and improve flexibility. These upper back mobility exercises are suitable for individuals of all ages


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5 Exercises for Upper Back Pain


1. Cat and Cow Pose

Step 1: Get on your hands and knees, ensuring your wrists are directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. This is your tabletop position.

Step 2: As you exhale, round your spine towards the ceiling, like a cat stretching its back. Tuck your chin towards your chest and imagine you're pulling your belly button towards your spine. Hold this position for a few seconds.

Step 3: As you inhale, arch your back, lowering your belly towards the floor. Lift your head and tailbone upwards, creating a concave curve in your back. Hold this position for a few seconds.

Step 4: Alternate between cat pose and cow pose in a smooth, flowing motion. Move slowly and gently with your breath, syncing each movement with an inhale or exhale.

Repeat this sequence for about 10-15 cycles, or as feels comfortable. Focus on the quality of movement and the stretch rather than speed. Coordinate your breath with each movement. Inhale for cow pose (arching the back), and exhale for cat pose (rounding the back). Also, stand or sit comfortably with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. 


Related story: 10 Minutes Yoga Asanas For Back Pain


2. Thread the Needle 

Step 1: Begin on all fours with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Your spine should be in a neutral position, neither arched nor rounded.
Step 2: Engage your core muscles to stabilise your spine and pelvis throughout the exercise.
Step 3: Inhale and lift your right arm off the floor. Keep your hips squared to the ground.
Step 4: Exhale and slowly thread your right arm under your left arm and torso. Your right shoulder should lower toward the ground.
Step 5: Rest your right shoulder and the right side of your head on the floor/mat. Your left arm should remain extended with your left hand on the ground for support.
Step 6: Hold this position for about 30 seconds while maintaining steady breathing. Focus on feeling a stretch through your upper back and shoulder.
Step 7: Inhale and slowly unwind by reversing the movement. Extend your right arm back up towards the ceiling, returning to the starting position on all fours.
Step 8: Repeat the entire sequence with your left arm. Lift your left arm off the floor, thread it under your right arm and torso, and rest your left shoulder on the ground. Hold for 30 seconds.

Perform one to two sets of four to five repetitions on each side, alternating between right and left arms. Throughout the exercise, ensure your hips remain squared and your spine stays neutral to avoid twisting or excessive movement


Related story: Rehabilitation Therapies At UR.Life to Ease Lower Back Pain


3. Scapular Squeeze 

Step 1: Squeeze your shoulder blades together as if you're trying to hold a pencil between them. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades down and back towards your spine.

Step 2: Hold the squeeze for about 5-10 seconds while keeping your neck and jaw relaxed. You should feel a contraction between your shoulder blades.

Step 3: Release the squeeze and relax your shoulders back to the starting position.

Step 4: Repeat the scapular squeeze for about 10-15 repetitions. Aim for controlled movements and focus on the quality of the squeeze rather than speed.

You can perform scapular squeezes multiple times a day, especially if you spend long hours sitting or working at a desk. 


Related story: 5 Fun Workouts To Try At UR.Life Studios


4. Prone Cobra

Step 1: Lie face down on an exercise mat or comfortable surface. Extend your legs straight behind you with your toes pointed.

Step 2: Place your hands on the ground directly under your shoulders, palms facing down. Your elbows should be close to your body.

Step 3: Engage your abdominal muscles and gently press your pubic bone into the floor. This helps stabilise your lower back during the exercise.

Step 4: Inhale deeply and, as you exhale, gently lift your chest off the floor. Keep your gaze forward or slightly upward to maintain a neutral neck position. Your arms should remain straight but not locked.

Step 5: As you lift your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together. This action helps activate the muscles of your upper back and improves posture.

Step 6: Hold the lifted position for a few seconds, aiming to keep your chest lifted and your shoulder blades squeezed. Then, slowly lower back down to the starting position while maintaining control.

Repeat the prone cobra exercise for 10-15 repetitions, depending on your comfort level and strength. 

Avoid overarching your lower back or lifting your shoulders towards your ears. Keep your movements controlled and your neck in a neutral position. If you find the exercise too challenging initially, you can start by lifting just your chest slightly off the ground and gradually increase the range of motion as you build strength.


Related story: 10 Minutes Standing Abs Workout


5. Wall Angle for Upper Back Pain

Step 1: Stand with your back against a flat wall. Your feet should be a few inches away from the wall.

Step 2: Ensure your head, upper back, and buttocks are touching the wall. Your lower back might have a small gap, which is normal.

Step 3: Start with your arms bent at the elbows, with your upper arms at shoulder height and your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Your palms should face forward and touch the wall.

Step 4: Slowly slide your arms upward along the wall, straightening them as much as possible without lifting them off the wall. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed together as you move.

Step 5: Aim to raise your arms until they are fully extended above your head while keeping in contact with the wall. Your biceps should ideally be near your ears.

Step 6: Slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position, maintaining contact with the wall throughout the movement.

Perform 10-15 repetitions, focusing on controlled movements and maintaining good form. If you find it difficult to keep your arms against the wall throughout the movement, reduce the range of motion until you build more flexibility and strength.


Related story: What Should your Post-Workout Routine Look Like?


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