Is your back stiff? It doesn’t need to be

Upper back stiffness is one of the common complaints that I hear from clients, along with ‘look at my forward shoulders.’The most common triggers people state: sitting in front of a computer, cooking or doing dishes, breastfeeding, writing, carrying luggage or kids.

I read somewhere that sitting makes us uncomfortable because we are not strong enough to sit. I am going to take that a step further and say maybe we are not made to sit with our hips flexed at 90 degrees and our arms in front of us (picture computer typing posture). At the very least we are not made to sit in that position for the bulk of our active day. And it’s not just sitting…

I was recently chopping a large amount of veggies on our counter and at about minute 10 my upper back started feeling uncomfortable. I took the cutting board to the kitchen floor and  kept chopping there. Such a relief! What changed? My position in space, the relationships between working and resting muscles, my breathing. Most of all I was not ”stuck” in a specific position, I had changed positions – something that our kids, pets and distant less westernized cousins do a lot!

and I cut my veggies kind of like this…even though this woman seems to do it like that all the time and not out of choice, it is merely her culture, this great photo from:

And here comes rule number one: if your back gets stiff, change positions often. Go from sitting to standing to walking to stretching, to breathing, to sitting, to walking again, to fidgeting – whatever it is that gets you out of your current position – do it. Most of my clients inhabit their space in quite the same manner – kitchen table, couch, office chair, car, then bed. There are many other options. One easy way to get an idea of the options available to you is to decline the use of furniture for a week and explore your floor – you can use pillows and stools to make your area more friendly to the transition or you can ask a small child to hang out with you for an afternoon and you can just copy them.

Or, you can check out this amazingly cool graphic of natural positions from around the world, from an anthropological study circa 1950. Cool huh? I keep a poster of those in my classes as a reminder to my students of the many available positions they can take while listening to me talk.

and while you are at it, read the whole article on sitting from Katy Bowman, just click the pic above!

Is there a rule number two: yes – you need to repair the damage. Chances are, if you are getting stiff in your upper back, your ability to move well through your thoracic spine (that’s the fancy way to say top part of your spine) and your breathing are probably compromised.

So here is how to take a good shot at fixing this mess:

Foam roll

You can get a foam roller here and get to work. This thick piece of foam will save you hundreds in massage appointments and will soon become your best friend.

Get on your back and place the roller across your body under your shoulder blades.  Lift your hips off the floor and slowly and carefully roll up and down, working on exhaling, relaxing and releasing the area between your mid back and the base of your neck. You can hang out there for a minute or a few minutes, depending on how it feels. Cracks and pops welcome.

keep your eyes on the ceiling – unlike our model 😉


Move your spine

Your upper back should be pretty free to move, especially through naturally occurring throwing, carrying, bending, twisting, climbing and hanging, but unless your occupation involves those, you are probably pretty stiff. One cool way to know how you are doing with upper back mobility is to measure the palm of your hand from the base of your wrist to the top of your middle finger. Say it’s 8 inches. Make fists and try to meet your arms behind your back like this. If your fists have more than 8 inches in between or one side does better than the other then you have work to do.

Get on all fours with hands directly under your shoulders and knees under the hips. Place one hand behind your neck. Exhale and roll your body down slowly, moving from the upper back. Inhale and rotate up using the hand on the ground to push hard for stability. Do not use your lower back. Do 8-10 of these each side.

rotate from your upper back, making sure your low back stays still – go as low as comfortable


Restore your breathing

When your upper back gets tight you can bet your breathing pattern is off. That may be caused by stress, position, habit or tens of reasons, and once you have restored some mobility in your upper back, breathing should also be addressed.

My favorite positions for this are crocodile and rainbow breathing and you can try to do both and see which you like better. Take at least 10 or 15 deep breaths filling the back and side of your ribcage and visualizing it expanding and growing. My clients sometimes call this ”side” and ”backstage” breathing, and it makes them feel like they are using areas of their lungs and ribcage they have never accessed before. This simple routine will allow you to tap into using breathing muscles that you should be using and will give your tired neck, chest and back muscles a break from doing something which is not their job.

For crocodile breathing just lay face down and imagine your lower ribcage and the sides of your torso fill with air. You can spend as long as you like in this position as well as the one to the right – rainbow breathing.

For this one, get in child’s pose. You can choose to have your arms at your sides or stretched in front. Take deep breaths.

Voila! You now have a pretty full upper back relaxation routine. It comes in handy when you are feeling tight, after a long workout or stressful day! Don’t be selfish – share these with others in your office or family – spread the love. We would also love to know how you feel after trying this routine, so please drop us a line!

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