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10 upper back stretches to soothe sore, achy muscles

Prevent and reduce upper back pain with these simple stretches you can do anywhere.
An anonymous woman holding the child's pose while doing yoga on a mat.
Child's pose is a simple yoga stretch that relieves tension in the back and shoulders.Getty Images

When it comes to back pain, discomfort in the low back tends to be the most common complaint. But upper back pain can be just as uncomfortable and persistent.

Upper back pain can be a result of tightness, especially in the larger muscles, like the latissimus dorsi and trapezius, but also in the smaller muscles like the infraspinatus and the multifidi that connect to the shoulders and spine. This can be caused by stress, poor posture or even sleeping wrong.

The right upper back stretches can help relieve tension in all of these areas and prevent pain from creeping up.

When performing each stretch, breathe in and out slowly for three breaths. You can perform them once daily or pick your favorites and rotate through them a few times a day. (I recommend doing them first thing in the morning or taking a 5-minute stretch break during the work day to do a few.)

downward dog

Downward facing dog

Start in a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists. Pull your naval in toward your spine and reach your butt up toward the ceiling. Form a “V” with your body with your heels reaching down toward the ground. (It’s OK if they are off of the ground.) Press down through your toes and your fingers to stretch the legs and the underarms. Bend one knee and then the other knee. Hold the stretch for 3 breaths.

Modified downward facing dog

Modified downward facing dog

Place your palms flat on the wall in front of you. Back your feet away from the wall and bend slightly at the knees. Keep your back in line with your palms so that your upper body forms a straight line. Engage the core to keep your spine straight. Hold for 3 slow breaths.

Modified downward facing dog

Child’s pose

Kneel down on the floor so that your shins and tops of your feet are on the ground. Bend at your hips, moving your hands forward and your butt back. Inch your hands out in front of you until your stomach is resting on your thighs and your arms are stretched straight out in front of you, palms on the floor. Hold for 3 deep breaths.

Cat cow stretch


Start on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Breathe in while lifting your head up toward the ceiling. Arch your back as you breathe in, moving your stomach toward the ground. Exhale while pulling your chin to your chest and pulling your abs in so that you arch your back toward the ceiling. Continue alternating back and forth 10 times.

Thread the needle stretch

Thread the needle

Start in tabletop position with hands directly below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Lift your right hand up off the ground, following it with your gaze, as you thread it beneath your left arm. Gently rest your head on the ground, looking toward your hand. Hold for 3 breaths and then switch sides.

Cross body shoulder stretch

Cross body shoulder stretch

In a standing position, extend your left arm across your chest toward the right side of the room. Use your right arm to draw your left arm closer to your body for a deeper stretch. Hold for 3 breaths. Repeat on the other arm.

Chin to chest stretch

Chin to chest stretch

Place your hands behind your head and gently press your head forward and down so that your chin reaches toward your chest. Feel a stretch behind your upper back and neck. Hold for 2-4 breaths and then release. 

Standing side reach

Standing side reach

Standing with your feet together, lift your right arm straight up into the air. Keep your left arm at your side or on your hip. Bend at the waist toward your left so that you feel a stretch in the right side of your waist. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. 

Standing forward fold

Standing forward fold

Stand up straight with your feet together. Hinge forward at the hips and bring your chest toward your knees. Reach your fingertips toward your toes (or your knees or shins, depending on your flexibility). Hold for at least 10 seconds.

cobra stretch


While this is more of a strengthening exercise than a stretch, pain in upper back can come from weak muscles as well. So cobra is part stretch, part strength, and that’s why we’ve included it here. To start, place your hands alongside your chest and push an imaginary marble forward with your nose to lift up your head, neck and chest. Press down firmly through your hands and hug your elbows in toward your sides. Pull your navel in toward your spine and press your thighs down into the ground. Bring the shoulders back and lift the chin up. Take a deep breath in, and then rest.