Exercises for Upper Back Pain

According to research, nearly 1 in 4 people experience upper back pain each year.  At some point most of us have felt pain between our shoulder blades or across the back of our shoulders.  Upper back pain can be coming from your spinal joints, discs, or muscles.  A rounded shoulder posture is a common contributor to upper back pain.  This article shows you 6 postural exercises for upper back pain.

Rounded shoulder posture
Forces through your neck and back increase when looking down.

A rounded shoulder posture is common in people who sit for prolonged periods.  This is especially the case for people who work on a laptop or tablet.  Holding your head down when you work exacerbates a rounded shoulder posture.  Also, many people with this posture have trouble holding their head up when they walk.  Exercise is most effective when combined with frequent postural changes throughout the day.  Move it or lose it!

Exercise is Proven to Help Poor Posture

A large research paper out of Canada, investigated the benefits of exercise for improving upper back posture.  Researchers looked at 13 different studies.  They were interested in how exercise influences age-related hyper-kyphosis.  Kyphosis refers to the normal natural curvature in your upper back.  With age-related changes and a sedentary lifestyle this curvature worsens.  Increased kyphosis is linked to upper back pain.

Most studies showed a benefit to exercise for reducing the angle of kyphosis.  In other words, exercise improves rounded shoulder posture.  Spinal extension exercises and various forms of yoga are most beneficial for improving posture.  This article shows 3 simple stretches you can perform in your own home.  More importantly, the 3 strengthening exercises performed regularly will result in the greatest improvements in pain.

Stretching Exercises for Upper Back Pain

Have you ever noticed how often you look down during the day?  You look down when you work on your computer.  You look down when wash your dishes.  And you probably look down most of the time when you walk.  Your upper back is going to follow the lead of your head.  When your head drops, your shoulders round, and your upper back flexes.  Stretching exercises will help.

It is important to improve the flexibility of your thoracic spine and the muscles of your chest and shoulders.  In particular, you will benefit from performing thoracic spine extension exercises.  A foam roll is helpful for these stretches.  An exercise ball or chair is helpful for stretching your lats.  All you need to stretch your pec muscles is a wall or door frame.  Tightness in your lats and pecs pull your shoulders forward.  Stretch these muscles daily.  Perform 2 to 3 stretches each time.  Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.

Strengthening Exercises for Upper Back Pain

Stretch the muscles that pull your shoulders forward.  And strengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders and spine back.  These muscles are found along your spine and between your shoulder blades.  It is best to perform exercises in a face down position.  This works your muscles against gravity.  It also keeps your spine in an extended position.  Remember, we want to improve your spine extension strength and pull your shoulders back.

These exercises can be performed daily.  We recommend a minimum of 3 days per week. They are intended to be performed without any weights.  But if they are feeling easy you can hold light dumbbells in your hands.  Proper form and building endurance is more important than adding weights.  Start with 2 sets of 10 to 15 reps.  Work towards 20 to 30 reps per set.

Include Abdominal Strengthening Exercises

Believe it or not, the function of your abdominal muscles plays a role in your upper back posture.  Weak abdominals result in postural changes at your pelvis and lumbar spine.  To compensate for these changes down below, your upper back must round.  Strengthening only your upper back muscles will result in only partial pain relief.  Try working in a couple of the abdominal exercises included here.

 How to Get Started with Exercises for Upper Back Pain

These 6 exercises are proven to ways to ease your upper back pain.  They are a sample of many effective options.  You will also benefit from receiving manual therapy performed by your physical therapist.  As always, your unique presentation and goals dictates the approach that is best for you.  Improvements will be small at first but stick with it.  Commit to these exercises for at least 6 weeks.  If you would like help getting started, call our office to schedule an initial evaluation with your physical therapist.

Osteoporosis: 5 Back Strengthening Exercises

Osteoporosis refers to a reduction in bone mass resulting in an increased susceptibility to fracture.  It is the most common bone disease in women over 50.  Osteoporosis affects more than 40 million women in the United States.  This is approximately half of the population 50 and older.  More than one million fractures related to osteoporosis occur each year.   The majority of these fractures occur in the hips, pelvis, or spine.  Hip and pelvic fractures commonly occur as a result of falls.  However, spine fractures related to osteoporosis often occur without any form of trauma.


Spine fractures are a common result of poorly managed osteoporosis.  These fractures lead to ongoing pain, breathing difficulties, poor posture, muscle loss, and deterioration in quality of life.  Medical management with medications is controversial.  These drugs may address the specific bone deficits.  However, the majority do not directly affect the pain, muscle weakness, and loss of function that accompany spine fractures.

Exercises for Osteoporosis

Back strengthening exercises decrease the risk of fractures due to osteoporosis.  Exercise has also been shown to improve pain and physical function following fractures.  A 2010 study from Canada found decreased pain, improved function, and improved standing ability in women who performed 10 weeks of back strengthening exercises after a spine fracture.  These back exercises can be learned through a few visits of physical therapy.  They can also be performed regularly as part of a home program several times per week.  The following 5 exercises are examples but any program should be tailored to meet your individual needs.

Supine Bridge

The bridge is a great exercise to strengthen your hips, hamstrings, and low back. Begin by lying on your back with your hips flexed and your feet lined up with your shoulders.  Perform the bridge by lifting both your hips from the floor.  A common mistake is to excessively arch your low back.  Hold the bridge position for 2 seconds then return to the starting position.  Lower the body back down in a slow and controlled manner.

Be sure to achieve the bridge position by extending through your hips.  If you lack mobility in your hip joints or hip flexor muscles this may lead to compensation through your low back.  This can be corrected with manual therapy and mobility exercises.  You can also try bringing your fleet slightly closer together and the knees slightly wider apart.  This will allow you to achieve greater hip extension range of motion.

Bird Dog

This exercise targets your hip and low back muscles.  Begin on your hands and knees with the back flat.   Your shoulders are directly over your hands and hips directly over your knees.  Slowly raise your left arm and right leg until horizontal with your trunk.  Maintain a straight line with your trunk, upper extremity, and lower extremity.  It is important to avoid trunk rotation and not allow your back to sag or arch.  Hold this position for 2 to 3 seconds.  Then repeat with the right arm & left leg, alternating sides with each repetition.  To increase the challenges of the exercise increase the hold time to 10 seconds. Perform 10 to 12 repetitions on each side for multiple sets.

Prone Back Extension

This exercise targets your erector spinae muscles of your middle and upper back.   Begin lying face down with 1 or 2 pillows placed under your stomach.  Place your arms, with palms down, along the sides of your body not touching the floor.  Lift your shoulders and chest away from the floor while keeping your chin tucked.   Maintain normal breathing while you hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Perform 5 repetitions.

Prone Arm Lift

Begin lying face down with both arms elevated to shoulder level and your elbows bent.   Lift your arms away from the floor and pull your shoulder blades down and back.  It is important to keep your chin tucked to avoid over stressing your neck.   Maintain normal breathing while you hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Perform 5 repetitions.   This exercise targets your erector spinae muscles of your upper back along with the trapezius and rotator cuff muscles.

Wall Slide Exercise

This exercise targets the muscles of your upper back and shoulder blade.  Stand facing a wall with one foot slightly ahead of the other.  Place both forearms against the wall starting just below shoulder level.  Initiate the movement by sliding your forearms up the wall.  Fully extend your arms overhead.  Next, slightly lift your hands and arms away from the wall.  Be sure to avoid arching your low back as you lift away.  Instead, think about tilting your shoulder blades backward as you lift.   Pause at the top of the movement before returning to the start position in a controlled manner.

Closing Thoughts: Osteoporosis Exercises

These are only 5 of many possible back strengthening exercises for people with osteoporosis.  They target the upper and lower back, hips, and shoulder blade muscles.  These are the muscles which are important for maintaining an erect upright standing posture.  We recommend women over the age of 50 perform these or other similar exercises as part of an individualized preventative program.  Your physical therapist can help you determine which exercises are best for you.  Call us if you would like help getting started.