Self Care – Breathing Exercises to Reduce Shoulder Tension

One of my clients describes this as the best exercise for shoulder and upper back tension. He thinks that it should be the first exercise that I give people. Regardless of their problem.

It really does reduce shoulder and upper back tension in a magical way. I noticed big differences over the 1st month that I was showing people how to do the exercise. Everyone says that it relaxes the head and neck as well.

The Problem

Look at those shoulders. She’s working hard. Leaning into the screen as she does a great job. But it stretches muscles that keep those shoulders down.

But it’s not just something we do when we’re stressed or focused. It becomes a habit that we support ourselves with our elbows and stop using our back to keep us upright.

Cars aren’t much better. We either keep our hands high at 10 and 2 or we relax and lean into the armrests. The ergonomics are made to take care of our need to rest those high and tight shoulders.

There’s a lot that I could write on how to sit up straight. The screen at eye level. Hips above knees. Wrists resting on the counter. Elbows floating. Shoulders dropped. The thing is, coffee shops and almost all the other places aren’t build to adjust to each person’s stature. So we need an exercise that helps lower our shoulders. A simple one. Here it is.

Clients usually do this at their desk or while driving. I do it whenever I get to a traffic light. 10 reps. One of my clients does it whenever they get up to get coffee or go to the restroom. also, 10 reps. Here’s how you do the one in the car.

Here’s how to relax the shoulder and neck:

  1. Sit up straight. Get your head back over your hips as well as you can. That probably means that you’ll have to adjust your car seat or sit up straight in your chair.
  2. Let your elbows dangle in space. When I’m in the car, I usually take them off the armrests and hold the wheel at 4 and 8. When I’m using my laptop, I back away from the table so that my wrists are supported but my elbows are free.
  3. Gently push down with your elbows as you breathe out. Just let them sink.
  4. After you have exhaled, inhale with your diaphragm by letting your abdomen expand. try not to let your shoulders come back up. I know they’ll want to come up a bit. Do the best you can.

    Do steps 3 and 4 at least 10 times. Do this exercise at least 3 times a day. For a week. If you’re like most of my clients, you’ll be delightfully surprised.

Lots of people feel like their shoulders are chronically high and tight and they just won’t shift. This exercise uses a physiological principle called “reciprocal inhibition.” It says that when you contract a muscle, the opposing muscle tries to relax. This principle is used in Active Isolated Stretching.

Lots of muscles support high, tight shoulders. Levator scapula. Upper Trapezius. Middle trapezius. Clavicular Pectoralis Major. Middle Serratus Anterior. There are more. The beauty is that you don’t have to worry about the stretch for each one, or remembering their names. This exercise automatically works on the one(s) that keep your shoulders elevated and, when those get stretched, it will work on the next tightest muscles.

Yoga Corner

Upward Dog from

Look at this pose of
Upward Dog. She’s done a great job of getting those shoulders down below the base of her neck. The objective is that your collar bones are level when you’re standing. If you Google pictures of Upward Dog, you’ll see that less than one in ten gets those shoulders down and collar bones level. This exercise will bring those shoulders down.

This site is undergoing changes. Starting in early 2020, we began changing the format of the posts to include more extensive self-care, illustrations, therapist notes, anatomy, and protocols. We’d love your feedback. We are adding posts and converting the old posts as quickly as time permits.

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Understanding Why Tension is an
Important Part of your best days.

This post explores this idea and optimizing tension for our best performance.

Tony Preston has a practice in Atlanta, Georgia where he sees clients. He has written and taught about anatomy, trigger points and cranial therapies since the mid-90s.

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