Fix your sore upper back now!

Your sore upper back and shoulders.

It's all connected. It's all supposed to work together. You have a sore upper back or shoulders or neck because you've let it get out of balance. Either you already knew this, in which case (like us, here at the site) you kinda deserve what's happened to you, and it's time to do some minimal catch-up/make-up, or you didn't know it and it's time to learn a little... and do some minimal make-up work to fix things.

Look at an athlete, especially in the area of the top of their torso. You should notice that - aside from all those well-developed muscles, there's a certain overall shape that might not match yours. As you might have already guessed, you should have a shape more like the athlete's. Well, duh! But surely we're not telling you that a middle-aged (or older?) non-athletic man is supposed to have muscles and distribution like a high-end athlete?

Nah. Too much work - even for a sore upper back.

But looking at the shape of the athlete tells you what the basic structure should kinda look like if it's not obscured by all your/our flab.

Are We Done Being Vaguely Insulting?

Our idea is to impart a basic notion of what you are aiming for, then provide some simple, easy exercises to get you there (no more sore upper back), without you having to devote your life to it. You don't need the athlete's upper back, and all the endless hours of work it would take to achieve that - you need the basic geometry and alignment, which is not really all that far from what you've got. Yours just needs some tweaking to work properly and stop hurting you.

We figure that a life with lots of exercise is fine, if you like, but a life devoted to exercise is kinda pointless, unless you spend the majority of your time helping/guiding other people to exercise. So, for a coach or personal trainer, it pays to do a whole bunch of exercise, because, among other things, your body is your advertisement.

For the rest of us, we need to do just enough exercise to keep our systems working reasonably well, then we need to do something else that's more fun or more lucrative with the majority of our time.

So here and there on this site, we identify some simple exercises that target some important, but usually neglected areas of the body, and get you back from the crippled-up hulk you are becoming.

So, top of the body. you should have a relatively flat upper back across the shoulder area. Nice if you have massive muscles there, too, but even so they should form a relatively flat plane across the upper back when you stand or sit up straight. If you were to lean against a wall, your shoulders and most of the area between them would touch that wall.

Your mother, your teacher, or the military would say, "straighten up! shoulders back and down". Well, actually they might not think about the down part, but it belongs there. We don't want you with your shoulders hunched up to your ears. We do want your shoulders back - and they should remain that way without you thinking about 'em.

Bad Posture Does What?

Where were we?

Oh yes. at the front of the upper torso, the upper part of your chest should round out a bit. More, if you've got detectable pectoral muscles (pecs). But even so, your ribcage and sternum should protrude a little, regardless of how thin and flaccid you've allowed your pecs to become. (Bear with us, we get back to your sore upper back in a minute.)

What should not be apparent is your shoulders and arms hanging a bit forward, rounding your upper back and cupping your chest like Scrooge's bookkeeper.

Now why would it? If you aren't too far gone, you can straighten yourself up, pull your shoulders back, and look half-decent in the mirror side-view. But... why is it an effort, and why do you slump back to that shoulders-forward, rounded, chest-cupping position as soon as you forget to focus on pulling back?

Probably because you have a job where you sit all day, with your hands forward on a keyboard, or hands forward on a desk, holding some reading or writing material. Or you have job where you stand all day, with your arms forward, manipulating tools, controls, or other objects. Or you indulge in a sport that involves throwing or swinging (baseball/softball, golf, tennis, etc.), which over-strengthen the muscles on the front.

Or, maybe you're a doofus exerciser who only ever views himself from the front, and so really exaggerates the bench-presses, at the expense of back and shoulder exercise. But that's the minority. The majority are in the previous three categories.

What, Really, Is the Problem?

Because you spend so much time in that arms-forward posture, your upper body and shoulder areas take a set. It requires a little effort to hold the arms ahead of the body, even if they are supported. That means that the muscles of the front of the shoulders and of the upper chest are constantly engaged at a low level. They tighten and they lose their full range of motion because they are almost never moved through that full range of motion.

Meanwhile, the muscles of the upper back are building a hump as they spend a great deal of time clenched to keep your head from falling forward, but never relaxing to allow your head to move in various directions. The muscles at the sides and backs of your shoulders just weaken and shrink from disuse. Congratulations. You have a sore upper back.

Pushing Back the Round

If you've ever been a regular at a chiropractor, you would have seen that a frequent part of many people's adjustment session (if not most of your own sessions) is to have the patient lie supine (on their back) with the upper back draped across a foam block, head hanging back. The patient's arms are extended out to either side, palms up. The chiro then stands at the head of the table, and pushes down on both shoulders, to slowly stretch the muscles in the frontal area and allow the shoulders to move more toward the person's back (ventrally).

Take a lesson. If you can get your spouse/partner or larger child, or maybe a workout buddy to stand in for the chiro, then try to do that stretch frequently and regularly. Lie on a bench, with a rolled up towel under your shoulder-blades. Or drape yourself over a big exercise ball, arms out to the sides, palms up, and get stretched.

If you haven't got that kind of assistance when you need it, the next best thing is to do it yourself.

  1. Pick up a pair of light-to-medium dumbbells, and lie back on the bench or ball.
  2. Spread your arms out wide (and high - at least straight out from your shoulders, if not slightly higher, so maybe your hands would be about level with your ears... no more than that; and they'll tend to move "down" toward your sides as soon as you forget them anyway). If you focus on keeping your palms toward the ceiling, that tends to keep your arms extended out to either side, rather than slowly swinging closer along-side your body.
  3. Allow the small hand-weights to pull your arms toward the floor, but try to keep those arms extended and away from the sides of your body. The idea is to do the least possible work, allowing the muscles around your shoulders to relax and stretch under the small weight.

Give it a minute or so. Your chiro gave it less time than that, while s/he was pushing down, trying to get your office-rounded shoulders to spread back out, but your chiropractor is on a schedule and has only a few minutes with you, before the next patient must be seen.

The above little stretch will help to ease your sore upper back.


Reduce the Headaches, Reduce the Hump

Something really simple and easy to do during the day (for that sore upper back), every half hour or so, is this:

  1. Push back from your desk and stand.
  2. Clasp your hands behind your butt, palms up.
  3. Spread your shoulders back.
  4. Tip your chin up toward the ceiling, and simultaneously pull those cupped hands down toward the floor behind you. This helps to get the shoulders back, open up the chest (if you've been sitting all that time, your breathing has been shallow), work the upper-back muscles that have been keeping your head from toppling forward.
  5. Relax.
  6. Do it again. Head back. Clasp the hands behind you and try to pull the shoulders together in back while pulling the clasped hands down toward the floor.
  7. Do it a third time if you are ambitious, or if you were starting to feel a headache coming on.




Click Here To Download This Video


A bit of shoulder-rolling would help that sore upper back (and neck) too, if you can spare another thirty seconds.

Twist and [Don't] Shout

  1. While seated erect or standing, extend both arms out to the sides, horizontally, with your palms down. Reach, as though you were trying to span your cubicle or office and touch both walls at the same time.
  2. With the arms still extended, roll them forward. That is, twist the arms (still extended out to the sides like a cross) so that your palms face backward. Keep going until they face up toward the ceiling, as much as you can manage. Your shoulders will try to ride up toward your ears while you do this, so try to keep the shoulders down.
  3. Don't hurt yourself, just give it a good squeeze like you were wringing out each arm.
  4. Now, with your posture still erect, and your arms still extended out horizontally, allow your palms and arms to untwist, until the palms are once more facing the floor... and keep going. Keep rotating to face the palms forward, Keep rotating to face the palms up - as though you were cupping a ball in each hand with your arms outstretched to the sides. Keep rotating if you can and try to get the palms to face backwards.
  5. Relax, and drop your arms if you need to.
  6. Then repeat that arms-extended twisting.




Click Here To Download This Video

No single joint allows your palms to rotate almost 360 degrees, but working together, your wrists, forearms, and shoulders should just about manage the trick, without hurting you. Much. The first few times you try it, might be a bit of an ordeal, so don't overdo. Watch the doofus video, if the instructions weren't clear.

If one joint gives you pain - as opposed to just some nagging reluctance or stiffness from all the other parts - then consider seeing a physiotherapist. They are great at figuring out what's wrong in/around a joint and then manipulating your parts and giving you specific exercises that correct the problem within weeks. Most insurance plans still cover physio-therapy, though your plan might require that you get a referral from your medical doctor (well, any medical doctor).

For a sore upper back, the above little movements are also very good to do just before you enter a meeting. Or just after a tense or annoying phone call. Hell, if you've got a headset or speakerphone, you can do them during an annoying phone call.

Quick Links to all our back-related pages

Here's the handy selection of our back-pain related pages on this Men's Health Tips (MHT) site:

The MHT pageWhat the page is about

About Backache Relief

How and why your back hurts, and generally what you can do about it

Painful Lower Back

Simple stuff you can do to alleviate pain in your lower back area, as well as in your butt cheek(s) and down your leg(s)

Sore Upper Back (this page)
Upper backs hurt too, and here are some things that should help

Dislocated Rib
Mid-to-upper backs hurt too, and here are some things that should help


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