Experiencing a tightness in your chest can be uncomfortable at best, and debilitating at worst. (Does it take anyone else’s breath away?) That discomfort extends to your mental health, too, since it can lead to anxiety—after all, your chest is where your heart is, and I’m *not* trying to have a heart problem.
According to Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT, the education coordinator for StretchLab, distinguishing between pain and discomfort is crucial. “When we experience muscle tightness from a workout, typically it can feel crampy or sore to touch or move,” she explains. “When we are tight from lack of movement, your muscles can feel tight or stiff and you can experience poor posture.”
But if your pain is sharp, she says, you should talk to a medical professional.
“If it’s a new onset of chest pain, always take it seriously and consult your doctor,” adds Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, a Pilates instructor and owner of Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy. She notes two issues that can’t be resolved with stretching: a heart attack (signs: a feeling of heartburn that doesn’t resolve; shortness of breath; sweating; radiating pain to your left shoulder, jaw, or back) and anxiety (signs: chest pain or heaviness).
But if your tight chest muscles are just that—meaning, from a workout or lack of movement, not a health problem—these stretches can help.
6 stretches that can relieve tight chest muscles
You’ll notice several of these stretches have to do with your posture and shoulders in some way. That's because your chest and shoulders can become tight from poor posture and sitting for long periods.
As far as safety precautions to take with these, note your pain and medical history. “If you feel any joint pain, you may be pushing too far into the stretch,” Dr. Jeffcoat says. “If you have a history of an anterior shoulder dislocation, do not do these exercises before consulting with your doctor or physical therapist.”
1. Side stretch
You can do this one seated or while standing—whatever is more comfortable for you. It stretches both your lats and your chest. “Now, the lats are on the side of your body, but expanding areas around your chest can help release tension felt in your chest and improve overall posture,” Decker says.
- Bring both arms over your head and grab your left wrist with your right hand.
- Slightly pull your left wrist with your right hand toward the right side of your body..
- Hold for five deep breaths, then repeat on each side twice. Perform this stretch throughout the day as needed, especially if you’ve been sitting a while.
2. Passive doorway stretch
This stretch is “good for reducing forward pull on the neck and shoulders, and allowing for more upright posture,” says Dr. Jeffcoat. It stretches many muscles, including your pectorals, serratus anterior, subscapularis, rectus abdominis muscles, and anterior fascial line of the body and arms.
- Standing in a doorway, place both forearms on the door frame so that your arms are making a “football goal post” shape.
- Step through with your left leg until you feel a gentle stretch across your shoulders and chest.
- While easing off the stretch, switch legs and repeat with your right leg.
- Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, performing one to two times a day.
3. Lying chest opener
If you want a relaxed stretch, check this one out. “There is minimal work involved, and it is encouraged to take deep breaths to help release tension and increase overall blood flow and oxygen to the muscles,” Decker explains.
- Grab a long foam roller if you have one, or a short foam roller that hits the middle of your back and the base of your head. If you don’t have either, a rolled-up towel or pillows can do the trick.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor or extend them straight, whatever helps you balance best.
- With your arms out to the sides, put the foam roller (or towel/pillow) under the center of your spine so your chest opens up and gravity pulls your shoulders toward the ground.
- You can bring your arms up and over your head to lengthen your lats as well.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, and repeat as often as needed.
4. Active doorway stretch
Similar to the passive doorway stretch, this one is “good for reducing forward pull on the neck and shoulders, and reducing internal rotation of the head of the humerus (pulling forward at the shoulder joint), and allowing for more upright posture,” Dr. Jeffcoat says.
- Place your hands on each side of a doorway.
- Step through until you feel a gentle stretch.
- Instead of holding this position, slowly slide your hands up and down the door frame, going back and forth from a Y to W position with your arms.
- Take three to five seconds to move from one position to another, and repeat 10 to 12 times. Perform one to two times a day.
5. External shoulder rotation
This one targets the posterior deltoid (back of the shoulder), and the infraspinatus and teres minor (the muscles around the scapula), Decker says. These help with shoulder rotation and release chest tension, especially if your shoulders are rounded.
- Bring your right arm to a 90-degree angle, with your elbow at your waist, and hold the edge of a wooden stick or PVC pipe in that hand with your thumb facing the ceiling.
- Grab the longer end of the stick with your other hand, and push the stick forward slowly, and your shoulder will round backwards, which will stretch the front of your shoulder.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat on each arm twice, as needed.
- Note: If starting this stretch without pushing the stick forward already feels like a good stretch, you don’t even need to push forward. Take your time and slowly start to increase the push over time to progress.
6. The hand hold
Not only does this position reduce that forward pull of your shoulders, but it also allows for unrestricted reach behind your body (and stretches the shoulder muscles), Dr. Jeffcoat says.
- While standing, clasp your hands behind your body.
- Slowly lift your hands up toward the sky for three seconds, then lower for three seconds (while still clasping your hands).
- Perform eight to 10 times, once or twice a day.
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