Use These Movements To Soften Your Shoulders & Upper Back

Most grapplers can relate to that nagging pain running from the neck down into the shoulder blades. It’s a part of the sport, but we can definitely mitigate it. We can even strengthen ourselves to where this “issue” becomes a strength and ultimately something we can exploit in our opponents.

This series of exercises will strengthen and stabilize the shoulders near the thoracic spine (area between the shoulder blades) while also relieving pain and opening up overall movement.

Why Is This Important?

As grapplers, we’re constantly seeking to break posture by pulling on each other’s necks — something that can severely irritate the neck down into between the shoulder blades. The goal with these exercises is to activate and work out the kinks in this area to where everything fires efficiently.

The goal should also be to optimally hold our posture and ultimately direct energy better when training. As the old adage goes, where the head goes, the rest of the body follows.

Activation and Stabilization vs. Passive Stretching and Lengthening

I’m a big believer that the thoracic spine soft tissue work is great, but it must be paired with activation and stabilization work. For many grapplers, this area gets “clunky,” so mobilizing is great to grease the movement components. But then we must use activation and stabilization in order to hold a structurally sound position.

What I seek to share below is something you can use to prime and remind this area of the body to function before training especially and even after.

If you do enjoy doing more passive stretching of this area, save it for after training as before it may lead to decreased neuromuscular firing patterns.


Seek to spend at least a couple of minutes in each of these positions. More than time, though, I love advocating long, slow, deep breathing through the lower abdomen. At least six breaths in the exercises that require less movement (hangs and thoracic opener on yoga block/foam roller/double lacrosse ball).

Utilize roughly a 5 second inhale/5 second exhalation, as this cues a relaxed nervous system response, which will then communicate for the body to soak up the benefits of these exercises.

A panicked, anxious, rushed breath will communicate that this is a position our body should fear, and thus it won’t store that “motor programming” in a cooperative manner.


  • Old faithful here: relax with a tight grip on the pull-up bar
  • Keep ribs locked down (meaning you’re still able to take a light punch) but keeping a soft low belly breath
  • Allow your shoulder tissue to lengthen, as well as your fascia head to toe

Thoracic Mobilization w/ Block, Foam Roller, or Lacrosse Ball

  • Find the area(s) that’s tight in between your shoulder blades and place your selected device there
  • Groove flexion and extension (closing chest and then opening) while breathing in a relaxed fashion as outlined above

Snow Angel Arc Series

  • Perform 5 to 10 second contractions in each of the 5 positions described in the video
  • Then do at least 3 “snow angel arcs” where you integrate these 5 positions into a full movement

Final Considerations

Remember, I am an avid advocate of “greasing the groove.” Make it routine, make it habit, and watch your shoulder, neck, and upper back health increase. The better you feel and function, the better you can enjoy your time on the mats!

I cover more performance training tidbits at that will help you prepare, recover, and perform better on the mats!


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