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3 Pilates Exercises To Decrease Upper Back Tension

By Nikki NaabLevy
Updated September 21, 2015

There’s a good chance that you’ve experienced that upper back and neck stiffness that comes from sitting at a desk or in the car for too long. And while you’ve probably heard that sitting isn’t great for your posture or health, it’s also sometimes unavoidable. I mean, where’s the last place you’ve been that didn’t have a chair?

The good news is that this is fixable. The next time you catch tension creeping into your back, try these 3 moves to keep your spine mobile and your upper back happy!

1. Tail Wags

I know these look a little funny, but bear with me.

Tail wags are a great exercise for upper back tension, because they create space in the ribs, which become stiff when we hold a static posture for an extended period of time.

To perform:

  1. Come onto your hands and knees with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
  2. Lengthen through your spine from tail to head. Your core should be gently engaged and you should have a small low back curve present (also called neutral spine).
  3. Keeping your knees on the ground, lift your right foot off the floor. Spin your foot to the right and look over your right shoulder, so you create length in the left side of your body.
  4. Pause for a breath and then swing your foot to the left, looking over your left shoulder. Complete 8 reps and then repeat on second leg.


2. Side Lying Arm Circles

In additional to losing range in side bending, we also can become limited in upper back rotation, when we face a screen (or the road) for a long period of time.

Side lying arm circles are a way create movement in the upper spine and the shoulder blades, which can become “glued” to our ribs, contributing to upper body tension.

To perform:

  1. Lie on your side with your knees bent in at a 90-degree angle and your hips and shoulders stacked.
  2. In a circular motion, take your top arm towards your head, up towards the ceiling and then behind you. As you do this, let your ribs and your gaze follow the motion. Try to keep your hips still and level as you do this.
  3. Do 3 circles one way before switching and doing 3 in the other direction. Repeat second side.


3. Swan Prep

The final spinal movement that you want to do after sitting is upper back extension, since when you do desk work; it’s easy to end up in a bit of a forward slump. It’s not your fault that this happens. Gravity works!

To combat this, I love swan preps. However, since many of us find extension of the upper back challenging, it helps to prepare for it by doing side bending and rotation first, as I’ve outlined above.

To perform:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs extended hip width apart and your hands planted in line with your shoulders.
  2. Gently roll your shoulders back, so your collarbones go wide and tuck your pelvis, so your lower back curve decreases and you find a subtle engagement in the glutes.
  3. Lift your head to a neutral position, so your head is in line with your shoulders.
  4. Maintaining the pelvic tuck, increase your extension by letting your breastbone glide forward to go up. Pause when you feel your bottom ribs want to leave the ground. Your chins should be slightly lifted.
  5. Return to the start position and do up to 8 repetitions.


00750-3-Pilates-Exercises-To-Decrease-Upper-Back-Tension-pin*Note, you should feel the work in this one primarily between the shoulder blades. If you feel tension in your lower back, check that you haven’t lost your little pelvic tuck. If you feel it in your neck, check that you haven’t craned your neck to come off the ground.

Try these moves at least once in the next 24 hours and feel the benefits.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Anne Photography

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Katherine Hurst
By Nikki NaabLevy
Nikki Naab-Levy holds a B.S. Exercise Science, is a Pilates teacher, MELT instructor & massage therapist for people who haaaa-ate slowing down & making time for self-care, but deep down know they need to find the time to take a moment and breathe. Through her awesome blog posts, videos and fitness classes, Nikki teaches people how to move better and to get more fit with less pain—while making it a fun session. When she's not super busy teaching these classes, you can find her hiking , catching up on business podcasts and chain drinking cups of coffee!

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