Have Chest Muscle Tightness? These Moves Will Offer You Instant Relief

Photo: Getty Images/ Brooke Schaal Photography
Standing or sitting for long periods, hunching over the computer, failing to warm up or cool down after a workout—a lot of things can contribute to tight chest muscles, which can lead to unwanted aches and pains in other places.

Experts In This Article

As a result of pent-up chest muscle tension, “your shoulders might hurt, your neck might become tight, or you might experience stiffness in the back,” says Carrie Lamb, PT, DPT, OCS, board-certified orthopedic physical therapist and Balanced Body master instructor of Connect Physical Therapy and Pilates.

How to relieve tight chest muscles

Thankfully, relieving chest muscle tightness can be as simple as incorporating stretches in your daily routine.

The benefits

For one, stretching helps you maintain flexibility and strength through your body. “Our bodies need to meet a certain threshold of flexibility to support an adequate range of motion in the joints, and without regular stretching, muscles have a tendency to shorten and become tight,” says Nick Topel, ISSA-certified personal trainer and co-founder and CEO of Model Trainers.

Stretching won’t just keep your chest and upper torso limber, it can also combat postural issues that come from sitting or standing for long periods. “When the chest and shoulder muscles become tight from sitting or standing for long periods of time with poor posture or from an intense workout session, these muscles will relax into a ‘shortened’ position, meaning the shoulders will round forward into a slouching or slumped position,” says Topel, making chest stretches ideal for both office workers and individuals who are constantly on their feet.

All that is to say: Whether you want to relieve chest muscle tightness or you want to avoid it altogether, it’s worth trying out chest stretches. Just keep in mind that when you’re just starting out with a chest stretch routine, Topel suggests skipping out on any weighted move as your risk of injury dramatically increases when you attempt to stretch a muscle that is utilizing weighted tension.

Indulging in mindful movement practices like a Pilates or yoga flow routine are another way to help relieve chest muscle tightness, as they focus on strengthening and stretching. “Mind-body practices allow for movements that you don’t normally do during the course of your day,” says Lamb, so you can offer attention to areas of the body that might often go neglected. What’s more, these practices allow you to tune into your body as you move—hence the mindful aspect of this practice. “Most folks with this daily practice can pick up on stuff and say, ‘Oh yeah, that shoulder’s a little tight. I should do something about it,’ and give it a little love or spend more time in that area,” she says.

Stretches to relieve tight chest muscles

To help keep your chest limber, Topel and Lamb, plus personal trainer Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT and doctors of physical therapy Heather Jeffcoat, DPT and Shawn Kato, DPT share their favorite chest stretches. These seven weight-free moves offer A-plus relief to chest stretchers of any level.

Doorway stretch

This stretch is “good for reducing forward pull on the neck and shoulders, and allowing for more upright posture,” says Dr. Jeffcoat, and it also comes with the recommendation of Lamb and Kato. It stretches many muscles, including your pectorals, serratus anterior, subscapularis, rectus abdominis muscles, and anterior fascial line of the body and arms.

What’s needed: A door frame
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, neck, shoulders, arms

  1. Stand tall inside a door frame, with your back straight and core engaged.
  2. Bring your arms up and out to the side to create a 90-degree angle with your elbows, planting your forearms flat against the door frame.
  3. With your arms against the doorframe, step your leg forward until you feel a gentle stretch across your shoulders.
  4. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds. (“Don’t forget to breathe!” says Kato.) Repeat with your right leg, performing the exercise up to two times a day.

Side stretch

You can perform this exercise seated or while standing—whatever is more comfortable for you. It stretches both the chest and your lats. “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,” says Decker. You can do this stretch through the day as needed.

What’s needed: None
Muscles targeted: Chest, lats

  1. Bring both arms over your head, with elbows slightly bent.
  2. Grab your left wrist with your right hand.
  3. Gently pull your left wrist with your right hand toward the right side of your body.
  4. Hold for five deep breaths, then repeat on each side twice.

Lying chest opener

If you want a relaxing stretch, check this one out which comes recommended by both Lamb and Decker. “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,” says Decker.

What’s needed: Foam roller
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, neck, shoulders

  1. Place on a foam roller directly underneath the length of your spine. The end of the roller should be at the base of your head for support.
  2. Extend your legs or place your feet flat on the floor, then splay your arms out the side and let gravity pull your shoulders towards the ground.
  3. You can bring your arms up and over your head to stretch your lats as well.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, and repeat as often as needed.

Mysofacial release with a tennis ball

To add a little pressure into your chest stretches—which helps with myofascial release—all you need is a tennis ball.

What’s needed: Tennis ball
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, neck, shoulders

  1. Place a tennis ball between your chest and the wall, and lean into it gently.
  2. Roll your muscles over the ball slowly, “searching for the spot that needs to relax the most,” says Kato. “You’ll know when you find it.”
  3. Once you’ve hit that trigger point, relax into it, and cycle through 10 to 15 breaths in through your nose with deep exhales out through the mouth, relaxing more with each breath.
  4. If you have more than one sore spot, move the ball around to find other trigger points, and repeat the process all over.

Floor or wall angels

Consider this the grown-up version of the snow angels you used to do as a kid, which requires just a floor or a wall.

What’s needed: wall or floor
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, shoulders, arms

  1. Lie on your back with your arms out to your sides, your elbows at a 90-degree angle, and your palms facing up. Be sure to keep your elbows and back glued to the floor (especially your lower back, which will want to lift)
  2. Slowly pivot your forearms over your elbows until your palms face the floor.
  3. Extend as far as your body allows, hold each rep for five seconds, then slowly return to the starting point.
  4. Repeat for three sets of 10 reps.

Hands behind the back

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), says Dr. Jeffcoat. It’s also a great choice when your chest needs a little pick-me-up after you’ve been hunched over your laptop for the better part of the day.

What’s needed: Hand towel (optional)
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, shoulders

  1. Standing tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, interlock your fingers or hold a towel behind your back.
  2. Straighten your arms as you pull your shoulder blades together and puff out your chest.
  3. Keeping your shoulder blades pinched and your chest up, lift your arms behind your back as high up as you can.
  4. Hold each rep for between 10 and 15 seconds, and repeat five times.

Camel pose

Borrow this yoga stretch for the sake of opening up your chest on a regular basis.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, abdomen, hips, quadriceps

  1. Kneel on the floor with knees hip-width apart and your hands on your waist and tuck your toes or place them flat against the floor.
  2. Slowly reach back and place one hand on each heel.
  3. Keep your chest lifted and shoulders back as you engage your core, and slowly push your hips forward.
  4. Hold the pose for 15 to 20 seconds and repeat three times.

Also consider chest exercises in addition to your chest stretch routine

Just as you want to ensure you’re stretching regularly, you also want to strengthen your upper torso. One way to do that is to perform chest exercises. “Working all the muscles in the torso—chest, back, abdominals—is important to build and maintain great posture, reduce likelihood of neck and back injuries, and help improve breathing,” says Kara Hiller, director of pilates at Flex Studios, and thus counteract many of the things might arise from tight chest muscles. (When performing chest exercises, just don’t forget to stretch before and after your workout.)

If you want to strengthen your chest and upper torso and improve your posture, Hiller, Cassey Ho of Blogilates, and Lanae Rhodes, fitness instructor at SLT, share some chest exercises that you can try below.

Chest exercises to improve posture and strength the upper torso


Plain and simple, Rhodes loves push-ups because you can literally do them anywhere. And if you can’t do a full push-up, you can use the pilates magic circle to make them easier. Bonus: since a push-up is just a moving plank, Rhodes adds that it doubles as a core workout.

What’s needed: Mat,Pilates ring (optional)
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Get down on all fours and position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
  2. Straighten your arms and legs and keep your core engaged.
  3. Keeping your head and neck in line with your back, lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor.
  4. Pause, then push yourself back up. Repeat.

Cobra chest press

This exercise is a combination of the classic cobra pose in yoga and a push-up, allowing you to not only lengthen your chest muscles but strengthen them too.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Begin by lying on your belly, with your legs long behind you and your arms bent in front of you at a 45-degree angle.
  2. Instead of keeping your arms parallel, your fingers should be slightly facing inwards.
  3. Press up though your palms with your elbows out, until your arms are slightly straight. (Ho adds that you should keep your arms bent the whole time, so make sure not to lock out your elbows.)
  4. Come back down, and repeat.

Serve a tray

You can perform this exercise kneeling down on a mat, and much like its name implies, it mimics the movement of serving a tray.

What’s needed: Mat, weights
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Kneel on the floor with your elbows bent in at your sides and your palms facing up.
  2. With weights in both hands, exhale as you push your arms straight forward in line with your shoulders.
  3. Inhale as you bend your elbows back in by your sides and repeat. (Hiller says you should make sure to keep your navel pulled into your spine and your glutes engaged to maintain good posture and protect your back.)

Hear no evils

This exercise comes recommended by Ho, and it requires nothing more than a mat.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, back, shoulders

  1. Sit upright on your knees with your spine tall.
  2. Keeping your gaze locked forward, place both hands behind your head and then touch your elbows together in front of your nose.
  3. Bring your elbows back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.

Elbow clampers

This movement is similar to the previous one, except it requires you to have your elbows clasped above your head.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders

  1. Sit upright on your knees with your spine tall and your shoulders down.
  2. Clasp your hands above your head with your elbows slightly bent.
  3. Squeeze the elbows together, and then open.
  4. Repeat as needed.

Hug a tree

While the name might evoke something of a gentle nature, it can be made more challenging with weights if this is available to you.

What’s needed: Mat, weights (optional)
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Sit upright on your knees with your spine tall.
  2. Hold out your arms with your hands slightly in front of your shoulders, say Hiller, like you’re about to give someone a big hug.
  3. Keeping your shoulders relaxed down your back, exhale as you bring your arms together until your fingertips touch.
  4. Inhale as you slowly open your arms back to the starting position and repeat.

3-2-1 push-up

Think of this like your classic push-up movement, except with a countdown to add a little more spice to the exercise.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Begin in a plank position on your knees with hands on the edge of your mat.
  2. Align your hip with your spine and keep your spine long.
  3. Lower yourself down for 1, hold, push lower for 2, hold, and push down even lower for 3, hold, and then push back up.
  4. Repeat.

Low-impact burpee

This burpee variation will take you through all the motions of the movement, but eliminates the jump to make it suitable for those who are seeking a low-impact alternative to the exercise.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, arms, core

  1. Begin standing, and nod your chin to your chest and start to roll down through your spine.
  2. Bend at the knees and walk your hands forwards until you’re in a plank position, with your hands under your shoulders, legs straight, and hips in line with your spine.
  3. Perform a push-up, opening your elbows wide as you lower and lift your entire body.
  4. Walk your hands back towards your feet, bend your knees, roll back up to stand.

Prayer pulse

This move might seem simple, but it can actually help strengthen multiple areas of your upper torso, including your pectoral muscles, shoulders, and biceps.

What’s needed: Mat
Muscles targeted: Chest, shoulders, biceps

  1. Bring your elbows together and palms together in front of you.
  2. Your elbows should be about chin height.
  3. Keeping your elbows tight together the whole time, pulse your elbows up towards your nose.
  4. Repeat.

Safety and precautions

When performing any new stretch or exercise, it’s important to do it safely while taking note of your pain and medical history. “If you feel any joint pain, you may be pushing too far into the stretch,” says Dr. Jeffcoat, adding, “If you have a history of anterior shoulder dislocation, do not do these exercises before consulting with your doctor or physical therapist.”

Decker also adds that when dealing with tightness in the chest 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 says. “When we are tight from lack of movement, your muscles can feel tight or stiff and you can experience poor posture.” However, if your pain is sharp or gets progressively worse, 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,” says Dr. Jeffcoat. She notes two issues that can’t be resolved with stretching—a heart attack, which can often come with symptoms like a feeling of heartburn that doesn’t resolve; shortness of breath; sweating; and radiating pain to your left shoulder, jaw, or back, and pent-up anxiety in the chest, which can include pain or heaviness.

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