Chest Openers: Why & How

Posted on Posted in Mindful Living, Pain Management, Self-Care

Hello all and September Blessings! I am so, so excited that in just 9 days we will be at the Fall Equinox! While fall is much harder to notice here in Hawaii, I make it my business to look for it and revel in the small details everyday. Shorter, cooler days are on their way. ♥

So today I have for you some information on chest openers. In my last couple self-care posts (parts 1 & 2) I mentioned how we really cannot separate and compartmentalize the body successfully because each part of the body effects the other. In fact, chest opening can have a massive impact on neck pain, so this post is sort of a sister post to my Self Care for Neck Pain posts from July. 

Why Chest Openers

Let’s start with the “why”. For many people they won’t do anything unless they know why they’re doing it. I totally understand! I, too, want to know why. 😉

Because of our human physiology, we spend much of our time reaching or leaning forward. It just makes sense. Our eyes are oriented forward and our shoulders allow for easier reaching forward than back. We also have to reach forward while typing, driving, cooking, gardening, writing, washing babies, painting, etc. Pretty much all of our everyday tasks, jobs, and hobbies have us reaching forward.

All of this reaching forward isn’t inherently bad. The real issues stem from not enough reaching back or chest opening which results in tight and short chest muscles, stretched and weak upper back muscles, and hunching in the thoracic spine. It’s also this hunching that can contribute to chronic neck pain.

Regular chest opening or pectoralis stretching is essential for

  • healthy breathing patterns
  • back health
  • neck health
  • free flow of energy
  • healthier digestion and more

While a few 15 second chest stretches 1-3 times per day is definitely beneficial, most of us will benefit from longer held passive stretches that not only stretch the muscles, but get into the tendons and fascia as well. Below in the “how” section, I’ll demonstrate different ways to stretch the chest with benefits for each.

One tip worth mentioning now is that for many people, especially people who are either sedentary, spend the majority of their day at computers, or are age 50 and up, chest opening can be mildly uncomfortable to extremely uncomfortable. For younger people who simply have bad posture or are sedentary, the discomfort may be in the chest or back. For older people, neck pain while chest opening is more common. I will demonstrate how to support the head below, but please never ignore neck pain. Some discomfort in the chest or back for those people who are new to chest opening is quite common and it’s up to you as the individual to differentiate between pain and discomfort.

How-to Chest Openers

I’m going to start with passive chest opening because they are the easiest and most user friendly of all chest opening.

This one in particular is one I recommended to all of my clients that needed chest opening. It’s one of my favorites to do during times of high stress, depression, or during my cycle. As I mentioned in my post about asana for anxiety and sadness, we tend to round the shoulders forward to protect our vulnerable heart during times of sadness, anxiety, or depression. This not only effects our physical body, but our energetic body as well. This is just another reason why I love this gentle opener so much. It’s appropriate for almost everyone and is especially nice even if the last thing we feel like doing is exposing our fragile hearts to the world.

Passive Chest Opener – Option 1

Set-up & execution

  • Grab 2 bed pillows, just the standard size is fine.
  • Find a comfortable spot to lay down, preferably the floor, but a firm bed/couch is also fine.
  • Make sure to turn off any screens and try to make your area as relaxing as possible.
  • Set up the first pillow horizontally, then lay the second on top vertically as shown.
  • Once seated, pull the top pillow right up to the hips so when you lay down it will be directly under the low back.
  • Lay back and see if the bottom pillow is under your shoulders. The very top edge of the pillow should be in line with the tops of your shoulders, not higher.
  • The top vertical pillow will most likely go under your neck and that’s fine. The bottom pillow placement at the tops of the shoulders is most important.
  • Once you have the pillows sorted, turn your palms face up, which causes external rotation at the shoulder joint and allows for greater opening of the chest muscles.
  • Stay here for as long as you like! However, if you are new to chest opening, 5 minutes is more than enough. Start with 3 and see how you feel. I tend to fall asleep here, so I set a timer for 10 minutes to make sure I wake up.
  • Roll over on your side and remove the pillows. Lay flat on the floor for 1-2 minutes, then sit up slowly.

Optional: Add another pillow under the knees to take any pressure off your low back.

Passive Chest Opener – Option 2

This variation is not only more intense, but requires a yoga block. If you have the option, I highly recommend a foam block. The wooden ones or even the pressed cork ones are quite hard and uncomfortable for this use.

Set up & execution

  • Grab 1 or 2 blocks (the second block is optional for under the head. I notice it’s mostly people age 50+ who require the support for the head, typically due to excess kyphosis in the thoracic spine, which is common as we age. A great reason to start chest openers early!)
  • Find a comfortable spot, preferably on the floor. Again, this variation should be used by people who already have some type of yoga or exercise practice and don’t have any type of spinal pathology as it is more intense.
  • There are several block placement variations, which I’ve shown in the pictures.
  • Choose your block height/position and lay down on the floor, propping yourself up on your elbows, maneuver the block so it is directly in line with your shoulder blades (as shown in the “beginner” picture), again turning the palms face up so you have external rotation at the shoulder once you get comfy on the block.
  • If any height/position you’ve chosen is not comfortable, try a different position. If you are already on the beginner position, you may wish to skip this variation and go back to the pillow option listed above.
  • Here is where your neck will tell you if your head needs support. Use the second block as necessary for your comfort, experimenting with different heights, as shown in the last picture.
  • How long you stay will be very dependent on your comfort level. Start with 1 minute. If you already have a strong exercise or yoga practice, you may be able to go up to 5 minutes with no problem. The most important part of this exercise is your comfort level. Your body will tell you when it’s had enough.
  • Whether you’ve laid on the block for 30 seconds or 5 minutes, please roll off the block, move it out of the way, and then lay flat on the floor for a minimum of 1 minute and a maximum of 3 minutes. This helps return your spine to neutral and gives your muscles a chance to soften out of the stretch.
  • If you feel discomfort in your lower back, place a pillow under your knees or simply bring the soles of your feet to the floor at outer hip distance apart and then let your knees fall into each other (as shown in the last picture).

Active Chest Opener – Option 1

If you have had frozen shoulder or rotator cuff injury within the past year, please honor your body and go extremely slowly if you attempt either of the 2 following exercises. (In fact, it’s probably best to check with your PT, OT, Chiropractor, or doctor before attempting any of these exercises.) This first one is more gentle as you have more control over the depth of stretch.

Set up & execution

  • Find a good amount of empty wall space and stand facing the wall.
  • Whichever side you’d like to start with, place that arm out to the side. There are several variations for your arm, as shown in the picture. Choose the version that’s right for you, backing out of the posture to change arm positions.
  • Slowly and mindfully, with the head of your shoulder anchored as close to the wall as possible, slowly start to turn your body. You will turn away from the arm that is extended, as shown.
  • Your body will tell you when you’ve had enough. The closer you are to the wall, the more intense the stretch. If you are too far from the wall, this will not be effective and you will not feel a stretch.
  • You should feel a stretch in your chest muscles. It should not be painful. If you experience pain, please slowly come out of the posture and discontinue exercise.
  • If you feel good, repeat exercise on the other side.
    • A note on the “intermediate” option. I often see students trying this option, but the elbow is far below the shoulder. If this feels more comfortable to you, maybe switch to the “beginner” positioning. The intermediate positioning can become advanced if you force the shoulder or bring the elbow up past the line of the shoulder. 
    • A note on the advanced option. Beware if you’ve had elbow injuries. The stretch to the inside of the elbow is intense. 

Active Chest Opener – Option 2

This posture is much more intense for the chest and shoulder. I do not recommend doing this exercise if you have had frozen shoulder, shoulder surgery, or rotator cuff injuries within the past year unless you are already working with a PT or OT to restore mobility.

Set up & execution

  • Find a spot on the floor that is clear and will allow you to roll around.
  • Start by laying flat on your belly and choose which side you’d like to work on first.
  • Reference the above pictures for arm position options. Again, the same ideas apply for beginner, intermediate, advanced. If you choose any arm position and find it uncomfortable or painful as you start to twist, come back to your belly and move to the more beginner option. If the beginner option is still painful, skip this posture altogether.
  • Once you have chosen your arm placement, keep the head of that shoulder anchored to the floor and begin to twist at the hips, as shown.
  • Use the opposite arm to help you/support you. Go as deep or as shallow for what feels good for your body. I would recommend no longer than 1 minute here. Try for 6-10 deep breaths.
  • To come out, slowly let the chest come down to the floor, followed by the hips.
  • Let the arm that was previously out to the side (the side being stretched) come down the side of the body, letting the shoulder round forward towards the floor so the chest muscles can rest. Stay here and breathe as long as feels comfortable for you.
  • Repeat on the second side.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of chest openers. In fact, there are many, many ways to open the chest, but these are the most beginner friendly and can be done by the majority of the population. If you are in good health, ask your yoga teacher to show you some other chest openers that you might find more challenging or interesting. 🙂

Remember, passive chest opening is safe to do multiple times per week and is actually very relaxing. I highly recommend adding it in to your self care routine whenever you can. If you have any questions, drop them below or find me on Instagram.

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