April 10, 2021

Self-Myofascial Release of the Upper Back

Written by: Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Reviewed by: Mubashar Rehman, PHD

Why Should You Perform Upper Back Myofascial Release?

 

1) Fix Upper Back Stiffness, Pain and Mobility

From my previous article, I've discussed the use of self-myofascial release as a tool to reduce muscle stiffness and pain (1), thereby increasing mobility/ range of motion (1, 2). Additionally, tension can build up in the upper back, requiring various tools to perform self-myofascial back release (2)

2) Increase Chest and Shoulder Range of Motion 

The chest and shoulders are the antagonistic muscle groups of the upper back. If the upper back muscles become overactive and stiff, then the range of motion for the opposite joint actions such as the horizontal flexion of the chest and abduction of the shoulder will hinder pushing exercises (e.g. bench press and shoulder press) (3). Therefore, it is essential to keep the upper back muscles in check (2, 3)

 

Which Muscles To Target

Pectoral Girdle Muscles, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1) Trapezius

The upper back includes the trapezius located in the back's centre and runs up to the neck. It consists of a lower, middle, and upper portion and is responsible for depressing, retracting, and elevating the scapular (shoulder blades) (4)

2) Rhomboids 

The rhomboids (minor and major) are located beneath the mid trapezius and aid in the retraction of the scapula. However, one must delve deeper into the back's centre with a greater amount of pressure to bring off rhomboid release (4)

3) Latissimus Dorsi 

Latissimus Dorsi, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The latissimus dorsi is a large muscle the runs from the upper arm and laterally down the back, consisting of an upper, middle, and lower portion. The latissimus dorsi produces and aids movements such as adduction, horizontal extension, and vertical adduction of the arm (4).     

 

How to Release Tension in the Upper Back 

 

Exercise 1 

Equipment Required: Foam Roller 

Targeted Muscle: Trapezius

Step 1:  Place a foam roller on the ground on a clean surface 

Step 2: Lie supinated (on back) perpendicular on top of the foam roller positioned just close to the neck  

Step 3: Plant the feet flat on the ground at shoulder width 

Step 4: Push off the legs to roll the foam roller up and down the centre of the back as far as the top of the lower back

Step 5: Continue rolling for 30-40 seconds

Additional Information

  • The foam roller is a great tool as it covers the whole trapezius for myofascial upper back pain and stiffness.
  • The positive pressure of this exercise is derived from the participants’ weight. However, this exercise may not be able to delve into some trigger points of the rhomboids. 
  • Repeat the protocol 3-4 times and stretch the area in during a 30 second intra-set period for additional benefits. 

 

Exercise 2

Equipment Required: Massage Ball

Targeted Muscle: Rhomboids

Step 1: Place a massage ball on the wall and simultaneously put your back onto the massage ball

Step 2: Identify a trigger point on the back, which will feel tighter and more painful compared to other areas of your rhomboid when trying to apply pressure

Step 3: Create a stable base by placing your feet at should width and keep the back upright

Step 4: Apply positive pressure onto the trigger point by pressing into the massage ball using resistance via the legs

Step 5: Continue to apply pressure for around 30 seconds

Additional Information

  • The massage ball is great for targeting small and specific areas.
  • The protocol should be repeated 3-4 times and the participant should attempt to dig deeper into the fascia each set.
  • Stretch in between sets for additional benefits.

 

Exercise 3

Equipment Required: Foam Roller

Targeted Muscle: Latissimus Dorsi

Step 1: Place a foam roller on the ground on a clean surface 

Step 2: Lie lateral (on the side) perpendicular on top of the foam roller positioned just close to the armpit  

Step 3: The leg on the side of the lat that you are targeting should be extended, whereas the opposite leg should go across the extended one 

Step 4: The foot on the folded leg should be planted flat on the ground which will help produce the required movement. 

Step 5: Push off the legs and roll the foam up and down the side of the back

Step 6: During the protocol, you can move the angle from lateral to supinated in order to target the whole lat

Step 7: Continue rolling for 40-50 seconds

Additional Information 

  • The foam roller is efficient as it can cover a larger area
  • Make sure you alternate the lats.
  • Repeat 3-4 times.
  • Stretch in between sets to maximize range of motion benefits. 

 

The Easiest but More Expensive Option

If budget is not an issue, then consider going for a massage chair. You simply sit on it and select the appropriate setting, most massage chairs usually have an option to release your upper back.

Targeted Muscle: Trapezius and Rhomboids

Additional information

  • The massage chair is simple and easy to use but is not a cheap self-myofascial release tool.
  • Stretch after the protocol is complete for additional benefits.

 

Conclusion 

Releasing tension within the upper back can reduce stiffness, pain and improve the range of motion in the agonist (upper back) and the antagonist (chest and shoulders) sections. The main muscles that you are required to target are the trapezius (centre of the back) rhomboids (deep in the centre of the back), and the latissimus dorsi (side of the back). 

These muscle groups can be released via a variety of tools such as the foam roller, massage ball and massage chair in a variety of positions such as supinated from the ground, floor, and seat. 

Use the highlighted exercises as a guideline and try to find different ways for self-myofascial release of the upper back. The main idea is to apply positive pressure into a tight area for around 30 seconds at a time.  

References

  1. Beardsley, C., &.,Skarabot, J. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal of bodywork and movement therapy. 2015; 19(4): 747-758
  2. Cheatham, S., Kolber, M.J., Chain, M., et al. THE EFFECTS OF SELF‐MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International journal of sports physical therapy. 2015; 10(6): 827-838
  3. Day, J.A., Stecco, C., Stecco, A. Application of Fascial Manipulation© technique in chronic shoulder pain—Anatomical basis and clinical implications. Journal of Bodyworks and Movement Theraphies.2009; 13(2): 128-135
  4. Cowan, P.T., Mudreac, A., Varracalo, M. (2020). Anatomy, Back, Scapula. StatPearls

Disclaimer: all of the information within this article is for educational purposes and is NOT intended as a personalized exercise prescription. No one can be held liable under the circumstances of damages, reparation, or monetary losses as a result of the information.

Article written by Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Zack Shakoor Kayani was born and raised in the South East of England/London. Zack has attained a bolus of knowledge regarding biosciences through academia and his career experiences. In terms of his educational background, he has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology (Hons.), a Postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition with the International Olympic Committee, and a Master’s of Science in Nutritional Sciences. Zack has been fortunate enough to apply his Exercise Science and Nutrition Knowledge to aid Hundreds if not Thousands of Patients and Athletes, providing 1-1 consultation, Personal training, Information sheets, offering recommendations to collate nutrition and exercise programs, etc. Not to mention, in 2020, he authored a book called ‘Obesity Decoded’

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