At the beginning of July, we started a brand new 12 Minute Athlete Get Bendy 6-Week Flexibility Challenge.
If you missed the introduction post where we talked about the importance of flexibility and how to incorporate stretching exercises into your workout routine, make sure to check it out here.
Throughout the flexibility challenge, we’ll be focusing on one or two muscle groups each week. We’ll talk about why these areas of your body get tight in the first place, why you should be working on loosening them up, and also show you some of the best stretches that help you to increase your flexibility and get bendy.
We’re about to start Week 4, but if you’re joining us just now, don’t forget to check out Week 1 where we talked about stretching hamstrings and calves, Week 2, where we focused on quadriceps and hips, and Week 3, where we paid special attention to lower back.
Why You Should Stretch Your Upper Back & Shoulders
You’ve probably experienced how your upper back gets sore after sitting down for hours. Hunching over the computer for long time and tucking your head forward creates a ton of muscle tension in this area. One day you may find that your neck muscles feel like ropes when you’re touching them!
Muscle tension in your shoulders and upper back can also be caused by something really simple that you may never have thought of—always carrying your backpack on one shoulder or grocery sack in one hand. If you’re right-handed, you probably tend to overuse the right side, if you’re left-handed, it’s the left side. Try to remember to switch sides every once in a while.
And of course, doing a lot of handstands, pull ups, and other upper body exercises will also cause your upper back to be super sore.
Four Stretches to Loosen Up Upper Back and Shoulders
Below are the four stretches that we’ll be working on during this week of the flexibility challenge.
The difficulty of these stretches varies: Level 1 designates the easiest stretches and the Level 5 the most difficult stretches. If you can’t do the Level 5 stretches yet, don’t worry—work on the easier ones for now, and as your flexibility improves, move on to more advanced ones.
Hold each stretch for about 30-45 seconds, 2-3 rounds.
Cat and Cow Pose
Difficulty level: 1
This pose helps increase flexibility in your spine and shoulders while also helping to open up the chest. This is a dynamic stretch, meaning that unlike most other stretches in this challenge, you can do Cat and Cow pose also before working out.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees on the ground. Lift your chin and chest, let the belly drop, arch your back, and draw your shoulders away from your ears. This is the cat pose. Exhale, bring your belly close to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling as you look down–now you’re in the cow pose. Alternate between these two poses for 30-45 seconds, but don’t rush it!
Door Handle Stretch
Difficulty level: 2
This is a simple stretch that opens up the lower back while also helping to relieve tension in the upper back and shoulders. It looks easy, but it’s one of my favorites!
How to do it: Grab hold of a door handle, countertop, or something similar that won’t move when pulling on it. Stand in front of it and hold it firmly with your both hands as you pull back slightly. Let the butt drop, extend the arms and feel the stretch through all the back. The closer your feet are to the door, the deeper the stretch will be.
Downward Dog at the Wall
Difficulty level: 3
This stretch helps to relieve tension in the neck, back, and shoulders, but you’ll also get a nice hamstring stretch at the same time. Pretty much all of us could have a bit more flexible hamstrings.
How to do it: Stand about three feet from the wall, facing it. Place your hands on the wall at about shoulder height, then press the fingers and palms against the wall and feel the stretch through your shoulders and back.
Advanced Stretch: Bridges
Bridges are one of the best exercises ever to help improve flexibility in your back, shoulders, and chest. There are several variations, but let’s take a look at three of them:
Hands Elevated Bridges
Difficulty level: 5
How to do it: Find a sturdy bench or other elevated surface that’s about knee height or higher. Sit in front of the bench, facing away from it. Place your hands down by your head with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Press through your hands and raise your hips as high as you can, arching your back and straightening your arms.
Difficulty level: 5
How to do it: Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your hands on the sides of your head, fingers pointing toward your toes. Push through your shoulders, press the hips up and straighten your arms, so you feel a good stretch through your body.
Feet Elevated Bridges
This bridge variation will really force you to work through your upper back and shoulders, and can be a little scary at first if you’re not used to doing bridges. But it’s one of the best exercises I’ve ever come across to open up the upper back and shoulders, so when you’re ready give it a try!
How to do it: Find some stairs, a bench, or other elevated surface that’s about knee height or lower (the bench in the photo is actually slightly higher than is optimal). Sit in front of the bench, facing towards it. Place your feet on top of the bench and your hands down by your head with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Press through your feet and hands and raise your hips as high as you can, arching your back and straightening your arms. Try and really push through your shoulders on this one.
Flexibility Challenge Week 4 Homework
Here is your homework for Week 4 of the Flexibility Challenge! We will build on the previous week’s homework each week, so you’ll be doing all the stretches from the last few weeks as well. We promise that you’ll be way bendier by the end of the challenge!
3-6 days a week:
Remember, you don’t have to do every single stretch every time—just focus on the ones that work best for you. You should be spending about 10-15 minutes a day most days of the week on these stretches.
And if you’re not able to do the advanced stretches yet, don’t stress about it—just keep working on the other stretches and you’ll eventually be able to do them.
Make sure to post all your stretching photos and videos in the 12 Minute Athlete Facebook group to get feedback and support from us and your fellow athletes.