Get Rid of Shoulder Tension: Back Mobility Exercises

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This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Heels Down Magazine.

Riders often come to me complaining of pain and fatigue between the shoulder blades. This is an especially important area for equestrians as the shoulders are the core of our arms, in a sense. It makes sense that they are a common area of complaint, just as the low back is a common area of discomfort when our core muscles aren’t working at their best. I’ve covered lots of strengthening exercises for the shoulders in previous articles (think wall slides, retractions, and rows), so this month let’s talk about mobility for the upper back.

Humans are designed to have a mobile upper spine and a stable lower spine and pelvis. In today’s society, this pattern often gets reversed. We end up having very stiff upper backs, and too much movement in our lower back and pelvis. Stiff upper spines result in changed breathing patterns (in athletes especially, this is not good!). Proper breathing mechanics are an excellent way to help loosen the upper spine. Here are two more exercises to add to your mobility practice.

Cat-Cow Stretch: Start on all fours in a neutral spine position. With an INHALE, let your chest drop towards the floor (think about dropping between the shoulder blades) as you look upwards. Try not to hinge too much in the lower back – focus this motion to the upper back.

As you EXHALE, round up through the shoulders and press your upper spine towards the sky, letting the head drop towards the ground and look towards your navel. Exhale completely and hold the exhale and this rounded stretch for a few seconds. Then, relax to neutral and start the process again, dropping between the shoulder blades to rounding towards the sky (like a halloween cat).

Side-lying Twist: Start by laying on your side with your arms straight in front of you and stacked on each other (crocodile arms). Keeping the arm straight, twist open to the opposite side with your INHALE. Stay open for your EXHALE and then twist back to the start position. Make sure you’re practicing good breathing technique, breathing deep through the sides and bottom of the rib cage, using your diaphragm, not your neck muscles.

A few other tips to avoid undue muscle tension anywhere in the body:

Make sure you’re hydrating enough, regardless of the environment you are in this winter. Whether you’re in hot or cold temperatures, our entire body depends on proper hydration to function. Mentally and physically we perform our best with at least 3-4 liters of water a day, and that’s before physical activity.

Eating properly, of course, is also integral to physical and mental performance. And, if you’re competing or performing in high temperatures, make sure you’re supplementing electrolytes to prevent undue dehydration, swelling, and fatigue. Electrolytes are found in drinks like gatorade or powerade, but if you want to avoid the sugar you can find electrolyte tablets that dissolve in your water at most sport stores and pharmacies.

As always, check with your primary health care professional before starting any new supplements or exercise routines, or if you’re dealing with a new injury.

Kathlyn Hossack

A long time equestrian, holder of a BSc. in Kinesiology, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, I specialise in helping riders (and all sorts of athletes) understand their bodies and improve their movement potential.

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