Millions of Americans suffer from tightness in their upper back, neck, and shoulders. Sometimes it feels like knots between your shoulder blades that you can never seem to work out, while other times the pain might feel like it’s spreading from your upper back into your neck. Whether you’re a weight lifter or a desk jockey, we’ll show you how to use a foam roller to alleviate the tightness and knots in your upper back, neck, and shoulders, so that you can get back to living your life.
This page was last updated on 6/4/2019.
What Causes a Tight Upper Back?
This might come as a surprise, but the culprit of upper back pain is something that you’re probably doing right now.
The scary truth is that the main cause of upper back and neck pain for millions of Americans is a sedentary lifestyle, and extended use of computers, phones, and tablets. A 2008 study conducted by Vanderbilt University showed that we sit for an average of 7.7 hours each day, with some people sitting for up to 15 hours daily!
Sitting so much, in addition to causing upper and lower back pain (see: how to foam roll your lower back), will actually make you more likely to die, according to a study by the American Cancer Society! Upper back pain also easily leads to neck pain. First we’ll talk about how to foam roll your neck, then move down to foam rolling the shoulders and finally how to foam roll the upper back.
How To Foam Roll Your Neck
First, lay down on your back, with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle and feet flat on the ground. Lifting your head off the ground, place your foam roller under your neck – it should be perpendicular to your body, so it forms a cross. Then gently lie your head down, so that the foam roller is under your neck.
Now slowly pivot your head from side to side, stopping on the tender areas for 10-15 seconds. If you need to move the roller higher or lower, lift your head to re-position it.
Important notes when foam rolling the neck:
When you do this foam rolling exercise, the weight of your head should be all that’s needed to apply pressure to the fascia. You don’t need to lift your buttocks off the ground, and in fact that could result in too much pressure on your spine and possibly cause injury.
If you’ve never used a foam roller before, you might want to use a softer foam roller initially. For less than $15, the Yes4All 24-inch foam roller is a good buy.
Foam Rolling Your Shoulders
Next we’ll discuss how to foam roll the shoulders; it’s simple and quick, and we’re going to start by first foam rolling the traps. To begin, lay on your back, with knees bent at 90 degrees, and feet flat on the ground. The foam roller should be perpendicular and underneath your trapezius muscles (aka traps). It should be about where you would hold the barbell when doing squats.
Next, tighten your core and push with your feet, lifting your buttocks off the ground. This should increase the pressure of the foam roller on your traps.
Now slowly roll back and forth, while also oscillating side to side. This will allow you to put pressure on your traps from different angles, and eventually find some trigger points. Once you find them, stay on them for 10-15 seconds.
Remember: you should be breathing deeply while foam rolling, and the muscles in the area that you’re rolling should be relaxed. Foam rollers aren’t effective if you’re tensed up.
Getting Super Deep Into Your Shoulders
If foam rolling your traps isn’t enough, and you want an even deeper penetration into the shoulder muscles, it’s time to get out the big gun: the Rumble Roller Beastie. Simply put, this miniature foam rolling ball is the most aggressive, most effective foam rolling product on the market.
I’m pretty sure the Rumble Roller Beastie was inspired by some sort of medieval weapon, and it can hurt like one, but afterwards you’ll feel tons of relief. My wife and I purchased one of these shortly after they were released, and we swear by it now. It’s great.
Anyway, fanboying aside, let’s get down to it.
Using the Rumble Roller Beastie On Your Shoulders
There’s not a ton of technique for this guy, and it’s much the same as using a tennis ball or lacrosse ball. I like to start on the ground, lying on my back. Arch up one of your shoulders, and roll the Beastie underneath, so that it’s under the tight area of your shoulders. (Aim for a fleshly, muscular area; don’t place it underneath your shoulderblades.) Then slowly, slowly ease your weight onto the Beastie. Now roll.
This will probably be pretty intense. The Beastie is orders of magnitude firmer than a standard high density foam roller, and the little spikes concentrate your body weight onto it. Start slowly, using your arms and legs to support your weight, and only use the Beastie for a minute or two at first. But I guarantee you that this will get deep into your shoulders.
Foam Rolling Your Upper Back
Finally we’ll discuss how to foam roll your upper back, which will include the rhomboids and trapezius.
To start, lie on the ground, knees bent at 90 degrees with feet flat on the ground. Your foam roller should be located underneath your shoulders, perpendicular to your body. Next, give yourself a hug, so that your arms are wrapped tight to your chest. Now slowly press down with your feet to lift your buttocks off the ground.
For this exercise, you want to slowly push with your feet, so that you’re rolling up and down. At the same time, you want to rock your torso side to side. This will help you get deep activation of your rhomboids.
What Else You Can Do For Upper Back and Shoulder Pain
After you’ve creating a foam rolling routine, there are a couple more recommended lifestyle changes that can help decrease your pain.
- Work standing up. Like we said above, if you work at a desk most of the day, chances are that’s what causing your back and neck pain. In addition to foam rolling, you could also try to work standing up. There are a number of desks available nowadays that can switch easily from a sitting configuration to a standing one. It might look weird at first, but there’s no reason to be self conscious. After all, sitting too much decreases life expectancy, so by standing up to work you might literally be saving your life.
- Adjust your computer monitor and/or TV position. Another big culprit, especially for neck pain, is when your computer monitor isn’t at eye-level or isn’t directly in front of you. Even when it’s just a few degrees to the side, your neck will be strained all day to maintain that angle. Putting it directly in front of you will reduce the strain. The same goes for TVs: putting your TV above your fireplace might look nice, but it forces you to crane your neck to watch TV.
Supplementing with Resistance Bands
As noted before, one of the most common causes of upper back, neck, and shoulder pain is the fact that roughly 86% of Americans work at a desk job where they are sitting for 8 or more hours every single day. This seated, hunched over position, creates a lot of strain in your shoulders and neck. Enter the resistance band.
Elastic resistance bands are a great supplement to foam rolling your upper back and shoulders. I personally use the FitSimply 5-Piece Resistance Bands with Bag, which are a great value at only $9.99.
According to a Danish study, doing lateral arm raises with a resistance band for as little as two minutes per day significantly eased neck and shoulder pain over a 10-week period. Only two minutes, that’s barely one commercial break…what’s to lose?
How to do Lateral Arm Raises with Resistance Bands
To start, hold your resistance band kind of like a jump rope, and stand on the center part. Your feet should be roughly shoulder width apart. Hold the resistance band to the side, and slightly in front of you, with elbows flexed rather than locked out. Now slowly raise your arms to shoulder height, keeping your elbows flexed. Rather than straight to the sides, your arms should be about 25 degrees in front of you.
Beazell, J. R., & Magrum, E. M. (2003). Rehabilitation of head and neck injuries in the athlete. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 22(3), 523-557. http://www.sportsmed.theclinics.com/article/S0278-5919(03)00002-4/fulltext
Janyacharoen, T. (2016, January 30). Effects of resistance exercise on cardiopulmonary factors in sedentary individuals. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26957760
Ruivo R.M. (2016). Effects of a Resistance and Stretching Training Program on Forward Head and Protracted Shoulder Posture in Adolescents. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 40(1), 1-10.