Chest stretches and opening exercises are useful in improving the breathing pattern, correct muscle imbalance, and boost proper posture. Moreover, chest stretches also help relieve stress and help relax the body. Stretching exercises are usually pleasant if done correctly following expert guidelines. Lengthening a shortened or tightened muscle also relieves muscle tension and reduces pain.
I talked about cervical (neck) exercises and stretches in my previous article. Many times, we, physical therapists, like to stretch chest and shoulder muscles with neck exercises regime. This is to reduce stress from these overused and overworked muscles. You can perform chest stretches to correct your posture, improve breathing pattern, or just as part of warm-up during upper body strengthening exercise sessions. Since this article is meant to also help non-medical field audience, I will try to refrain from talking too much about anatomical details. Let’s see how I do at the end!
Indications of Chest Stretches:
- Round shoulder posture
- Pulmonary disorders like COPD, Bronchitis
- Cervical muscle sprain or stress
- Chest tightness that is only related to chest muscles
- Exercise warm-up or cool down regime
- T 4 Syndrome
- A weakness of scapular or shoulder girdle muscles
Contraindications of Chest Stretches:
- Recent open heart surgery (less than 6 weeks post)
- Sternal precautions
- Recent shoulder replacement surgery (less than 4 weeks post)
- Recent rib fracture.
- An open wound on the chest area or on the sternum
- Any other conditions that require limited movement of chest or neck area.
Exercises and Stretches for Chest muscles:
There are several different ways to perform breathing exercises. Here, we are only going to talk about regular breathing exercise. This exercise is done while sitting or lying comfortably, breath in through nose and breath out through the mouth. An easy way to remember is to think of it as “smell the roses and blow out the birthday candle” in a slow and gradual manner.
The key point is your concentration should be on inhalation and exhalation. So turn off your brain, stop worrying about saving the world and pay attention to fresh air going in through your nose, down to trachea, lung, alveoli, etc.. Feel the little alveolus (balloon-like structure at the base of the lung) expanding and stretching.
If you can, hold your breath here for 3 to 5 seconds (if you can hold longer, that’s great), and slowly relax. Remember SLOWLY… Repeat this for 7 to 10 breaths.
Just a sidebar, if you are practicing meditation, you can perform these exercises for 5 to 10 minutes. Every time your brain starts going on a vacation or wanders around, realize that and bring it back. Yes, the most important thing is to realize that your brain is not with you and in a different world (probably on a different planet). 🙂
Opening the Chest/Pec stretch:
This exercise can be done in many ways and in many positions. A slight difference in the angle of arms or hand may stretch different fibers of muscles or different muscle altogether. So, no matter what you are doing, you are going to feel some stretch!!
I will show this exercise in a few different pictures.
If you perform this exercise just stretching both of your arms or one arm at a time, you are going to feel stretch. This is your Pectoralis Major muscle stretch. You can have someone hold your hands and pull it outwards and hold that position (the stretch should be bearable for you and in pain-free range). for 15 to 20 seconds. repeat 3 times. You can do the same exact exercise while sitting as well.
The picture below shows another method of stretching Pec Major muscles. If you raise your arms slightly up and then push it outwards, as shown in the picture below, you are stretching different fibers of the same Pec major muscle.
You can hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds and repeat it 3 times.
Below is the position that you will see me many times. Yes, it is doable anywhere, at any time and is super easy. This is also a good stretch if you have a rounded shoulder (T4 Syndrome or scapular muscle weakness).
To perform this exercise, clasp both of your hands and rest it behind your neck. Try to bring both elbows out to the sides. You should be feeling some stretch on the chest area. If needed, you can ask another person to hold on to both elbows and pull it outwards gently. Hold it where you feel the bearable stretch for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat it 3 times.
Chest Side stretch:
With this stretch, you are stretching few fibers of latissimus dorsi muscles and Serratus anterior(SA) muscles. These two are very important muscles to concentrate. SA is an accessory muscle for breathing, one of the stabilizers for scapula (shoulder blade) and important muscle for correct shoulder position. Lat Dorsi is one of the longest back muscles that is also an accessory breathing muscle that is important for back movement and crucial for a correct posture.
The key that makes this stretching important is both of these muscles are deep muscles. Because of the positioning of these two muscles, it is difficult to directly get to them and stretch them. Don’t worry about this if it does not make sense. It is a little technical. The important thing is you need to feel stretch on the side of the chest. Depending on flexibility, you may need to go a little deeper into the position.
Below is a diagram showing how you can self-stretch these muscles on both sides. Hold the stretch for few seconds in the pain-free range.
The other way to stretch Lat Dorsi muscles is going into an active child pose. This figure demonstrates the active child pose where you can directly stretch Lat Dorsi muscle.
I do want to stress that these are only self-stretches for these very important muscles. A therapist can stretch these muscles in a few different ways.
The figure below demonstrates how to stretch triceps and some fibers of the deltoid.
This helps to relax the muscles and relieves the stress.
All of the stretches and exercises above can be used as postural correction exercises. For therapists, this is an important topic, as these exercises and stretches have many benefits and can be utilized in many different diagnoses. Read on for scapula or shoulder blade stretches and exercises to complete this series.