Pre/postnatal Pilates: 4 yummy stretches for the upper back & shoulders
Updated: May 1
Welcome back! If you tried out my upper body strengthening workout earlier this week, you might be feeling some muscle aches in your arms, upper back and shoulders. This is also tends to be a problem area for various groups of people. Mummies – from baby-wearing and breastfeeding tend to develop a forward slouching posture; office workers – from spending hours in front of laptops in chairs that might not be ergonomically-designed. It is common for many people to feel tightness and pain in the upper back and shoulders. Besides going for regular massages (who wouldn’t love that?), here are some stretches that you can do at home on your own to get some relief from all that tightness.
Start by lying on your side. You can have either a cushion under your head, or if that’s not available, fold your bottom arm and use it to support your head, so that your head & neck are in line with the rest of your body. Knees can be bent in a comfortable position. Extend your top arm on the ground in front of your body. As you inhale, open up your body as the arm sweeps up in a rainbow arc (being mindful to keep your fingertips in line with your shoulder blades, so that there is no pinching in the back of the shoulders). Exhale to return to the starting position. Do this a few times on one side, and remember to repeat it on the other side as well.
Thread the needle
Thread the needle
Beginning in your all-fours/quadruped position, inhale as you open your right arm up to the ceiling (going as far as it is comfortable for your shoulder – you might notice that your range is limited if shoulders start off feeling quite tight). As you exhale, thread the same arm under your left, bringing your right shoulder and head to rest on the mat if possible (level 1). This is a lovely rotational stretch for the spine and shoulder, helping to relieve the stiffness in the upper back area.
To get a bigger opening in the front of your chest and also the left shoulder, reach the left arm up to the ceiling (level 2), or loop it around your back allowing your left hand to wrap around your right inner thigh in a bind (level 3). You may do this a few times progressing through the levels to ease into the stretch. Repeat this on the left side as well.
Kneeling shoulder stretch
Kneeling shoulder stretch
In a low kneeling position, interlace your fingers in front of your chest with your elbows bent, then exhale as you round your spine into a C-curve as you extend the arms forward. Focus on lengthening and rounding through the mid-back area, rather than simply hunching in the shoulders. The aim is to get a stretch into the thoracic (mid) spine area, which tends to be where we feel the stiffest. You might notice that the range that you can round forward in the thoracic spine is quite limited, which is very normal! But by trying to get a C-curve in the thoracic spine, you’re working on improving the mobility of the spine which helps to take the tension out of both the upper and lower parts of the back, and relieve aches in those areas.
As you take an inhale, sweep your arms behind your back and interlace your fingers behind your back, pulling the arms back and lifting your heart up to the ceiling for a yummy stretch of the front of the chest this time.
You can continue alternating between these two stretches, or progress with these further steps when your arms are behind your back. On the inhale, other than lifting your heart up to the ceiling, you can also begin to float your bum off your heels into a high kneeling position. As you breathe out, lower your bum to your heels first and then slowly lower the crown of your head to the mat as your hands reach up to the ceiling as much as you can. If the range is available to you, you may even lift your bum off the heels again till your hips are right above your knees. This is a really nice stretch for the front of the shoulders, which tends to get very tight from being in front of your computer.
If you experience discomfort in your knees in a kneeling position, you may also do the upper body exercises in a cross-legged seated position, without adding in the movement in the lower half.
This is one of my all-time favourite stretches for the shoulders! It’s pretty intense, but you can also adjust it according to your own level. Again starting in the quadruped position, walk your hands a few steps forward. Begin to melt your chest toward the mat, keeping your hips stacked above your knees. Bring your upper body close to the mat, resting your elbows on the mat for some support. While there is the tendency to collapse into the lower back as you stretch (I know it feels good!), try to keep the core engaged by knitting your ribs together and lifting the – they shouldn’t be flaring out. You will feel a deeper stretch in your upper back and shoulders if you keep your ribs connected!
If you feel that the stretch is quite intense for your shoulders, walk your hands further apart (perhaps mat-width), to allow for a gentler stretch. On the other hand, a progression would be to lift your elbows off the ground and even your wrists, simply balancing on your fingertips for an even deeper stretch into the back of your shoulders.
I love doing these stretches in the morning when I wake up feeling all stiff from being curled up in bed! They’re also a great way to wind down in the evening, after a full day of computer work. Let me know how you feel after doing these stretches! And if you’d like more full-body Pilates workouts, come join me for a class! It’s always good to have a qualified instructor to watch out for your form to ensure that you’re moving safely, especially when you’re an expecting mummy!
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