The chest or pectoralis muscle is a strong muscle that plays a role in various movements of the arm but also in the stability of the shoulder girdle. If this muscle is tight, adding a pec stretch to your program would be advisable.

The pec major is a fan-shaped muscle, which makes up the bulk of the chest muscle. The pec minor is a thin, triangular muscle located beneath the pectoralis major. It attaches to the ribs, and serves to stabilize the scapulae (shoulder blade). Performing a chest stretch may not be as commonly performed as the quad or hamstring stretch but it is equally important.

A tight pec can pull your shoulders or one shoulder forward towards a more rounded position. This altered position and restrictive movement may lead to injury. The rounded position may also be aesthetically unpleasing and predispose you to future problems.

pec stretch

It is common for therapists to recommend strengthening the scapulae muscles to help pull shoulders back. This is good advice but if the pec muscle is tight, it wins that battle. The chest muscle is bigger and stronger and has the mechanical advantage. The chest muscle would need to  be stretched so it doesn’t ‘over power’ the muscles of the upper back.

Stretching the chest can not only relieve tightness in the chest but also in the shoulder girdle which then provides more mobility to the shoulder. The shoulder usually pays the price for tight muscles in the chest.

Why is only one side tight?

  • Sleeping on one side the majority of the time.
  • Work related where you are very one arm dominant like a dentist, painter, etc.
  • An old injury in that area that you have adapted to a favoritism of that side.
  • Dominant side, is typically a little tighter but shouldn’t be a night and day situation.

Why are both sides tight?

This may be more common than just one side being tight.

We live in a world where many of us sit throughout the day. Chronic postural positions can have a profound impact on the muscular and skeletal system.

Typical reasons for both sides being tight:

  • Work related (chronic computer work, tattoo artist, esthetician etc.)
  • Previous injury. The shoulders round in a protective nature to stay away from pain and over time chest muscles shorten. Also, common in a surgery scenario where the posture is protective.
  • Faulty breathing. This would happen over many years. With chest breathing the deep cervical flexors (throat area) become more hypertonic (tight) and can result in pulling head forward. This coincides with shoulder blades elevating and likely protracting (separating). The rounded shoulder position is the outcome and the chest muscles shorten in this new postural position.
  • Posturally the head and shoulders have migrated forward. Our posture is heavily influenced from habitual repeated positions. A work situation where we sit all day at the computer with hands in front and coupled with head leaning in to read screen can set up unfavorable posture.

Are they tight?

The chest muscles are not typically a muscle you’ll notice tightness in normal daily activities.

pec stretch test
pec stretch 2

If you compare the above photos you can see the one on the right has a elevated acromion in her right shoulder relative to the left. You’ll need a partner to help assess. This would likely indicate a pec minor on that side which is tight.

pec stretch

How to correct tight chest muscles?

Stretching would be high on that list but there are multiple actions one can take. A massage therapist can help immensely but also a self massage and/or strengthening of that area.

Try this self massage with a lacrosse ball or something similar to reach the pec minor.

Static stretching

Static stretching is where you hold the stretch for a period of time without ballistic movements. That stretching method is safer for this particular muscle group and the associated shoulder joint than performing dynamic stretches. If you are a pro athlete then that recommendation may change.

Here’s a pec stetch with applying the pinky finger to wall or door about shoulder height. Once in position, turn body very gently away from wall. You don’t need to be aggressive. If you feel shoulder or bicep then you may not be tight in the chest or you have your arm too straight. Keep about a 10-15 degree bend at elbow. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat if it feels tight. If one side is tighter, perform more reps to that side.

Make sure to try both sides. If you don’t feel tightness then great!

Another simple pec stretch you can perform is laying on a foam roller. Make sure the roller is long enough to support head and low back. Hang out there till you feel some release in the chest. If the shoulder causes some irritation try bending elbows more. We don’t want pain while stretching or exercising.

pec stretch

Like most muscles, the chest may need some strength training before it relaxes. This is a very common case in muscles like the calves, quads and hamstrings.

Anytime you are using a pushing motion you are likely using the chest muscles. For strengthening the chest, a combination of closed chain and open chained would be wise.

A closed chained exercise would be a something like a pushup. Closed chain is pushing away from something that doesn’t move like the floor or wall. An open chain would be using a resistance that does move. This could be dumbells, med balls, tubing , cable etc.

A couple of examples of open chained chest strengthening would be a one arm press dumbell or a dumbell flye. These exercises don’t need to be done daily but included as part of your normal program. If your chest muscles are causing issues elsewhere then a more frequent stretching program would be adviseable.

 Recap:

  • Check to see if muscles are tight. If they are not, then stretching isn’t needed.
  • Perform static stretch prior to exercise if needed. Don’t need to train on a tight muscle.
  • Use a combination of stretching, strengthening and ball therapy to release tension.
  • Be posturally conscious of your shoulders, head and upper back position. Use postural cuing like post-it notes, phone alarms and visual cues as a reminder.

Please let me know how you do with this and feel free to share with someone you know may benefit.

Stay well

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