If you have spent considerable time at the gym, you have probably witnessed the dreaded 'rounded shoulder inwardly rotated arm' position on one of your muscled gym mates. Or maybe you have seen it in yourself: a slouched shoulder slumping that no bit of correcting seems to help long term. Like the person at the gym, maybe you need to start taking better care of your chest. Doing so will not only improve your posture but also set you up for success in many yoga poses that require flexible chest muscles.
Get to know your pecs
The pectorals are a set of chest muscles that originate on the sternum (breastbone) and collarbones and insert on the humerus (upper arm bones). The job of your chest muscles is to, among other things, internally rotate and extend the arms, and depress and protract (move away from each other) the scapula (shoulder blades).
When chest muscles become tight, what can result is the dreaded rounded shoulder position I mentioned earlier. Even more, the muscles along the front of the neck become short and tight which can lead to neck and upper back pain. Tight pectoral muscles limit shoulder flexion, the ability to raise the arm up overhead. Think of how difficult it would be to do Urdhva Hastasana, Downward-Facing Dog, or Handstand without being able to lift your arms overhead!
Tight pecs also strongly draw the shoulders into internal rotation. Most yoga poses ask for external rotation. Think of the upper arm in Cow-Faced Pose (Gomukasana). The upper arm must move into shoulder flexion and externally rotate so the palm faces inwards to allow for a safe practice of the pose.
Chest muscles can become short and tight because of weight training, lifestyle and a lack of stretching. A desk job, poor posture, a shoulder injury, or the simple fact that we never perform activities that release the chest muscles can all lead to tight pecs.
How to practice safely
Here is an easy way to release the pectoral muscles. Practice 2-5 mins a day to see results:
Fold a firm blanket (think Indian or Mexican) into a tri-fold so it is half as narrow as the width of your upper back.
Roll onto the folded blanket, lay on your back on the support with everything from the back of your head to your buttocks supported. If you feel any discomfort in the low back or tension in the front of the neck, place a second thinner blanket under the buttocks.
Reach your arms out along the floor in line with your shoulders. Externally rotate the arms so the shoulders roll to the floor and the palms face up to the ceiling.
For a deeper stretch, bend the elbows and slide the forearms and hands along the floor up to your head until you feel a comfortable release in the chest. Don't go further than 90 degrees at the elbows! If your hands and forearms come off the floor, you are still good to go as long as you don't feel any shoulder pain. Enjoy the gentle pull of gravity on the arms. If you feel any pulling through the backs of the shoulders, support the underside of the arms with additional folded blankets.
Variations: Use a thinner blanket to create less height under the back and hence a gentler stretch. If you don’t have a blanket to use, a rolled may and block for under the buttocks can do the trick. Play around with the size of the roll as you would with the blanket to give yourself more or less height.
Hold for 2-5mins, focus on your breath and let go. If you experience pins and needles in the fingers, hands, and arms, straighten the arms until feeling returns.
There you have it! The perfect pec stretch you can practice daily that won't hurt the back, neck, or shoulders. Your posture will thank you for it.