Centr trainer Maricris Lapaix performs an upper back stretch using a foam roller from the Centr Reco
Centr Team

4 foam roller exercises for upper-back release

Centr Team

Oh foam rollers, is there a more misunderstood piece of recovery equipment?.

Foam rollers were made to iron out your muscles’ kinks and knots. Use one regularly and you could be rewarded with better mobility, reduced stiffness, and faster recovery.

And while many people associate them with the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’, the truth is that, if you use them correctly, foam rolling should feel like a firm massage, not a painful process.

We’ve put together 4 of our favorite foam roller exercises for upper-back pain from Centr’s coached recovery workouts.

Centr trainer Maricris Lapaix performs an upper back stretch using a foam roller from the Centr Recovery Kit.

Don’t have a foam roller? You can shop one as part of the Centr Recovery Kit or as a standalone piece of gear from shop.centr.com.

The benefits of using a foam roller

Ready to roll? You’ve made a wise choice. While the jury is still out on exactly why foam rolling feels so good, the leading theory is that it helps alleviate tension in the myofascial tissue, which connects – and transfers force between – your joints, muscles, and bones.

This tension and tightness is often the result of sedentary habits and repetitive motions, but relief is possible thanks to a variety of targeted foam roller exercises. It’s that myofascial release that causes the soreness that can put off first-time rollers (see our tips below for making yours the good kind of pain).

Some of our favorite benefits of regular foam rolling are:

How to use a foam roller

We’ll provide step-by-step instructions for specific exercises below, but here are a few general pointers for using a foam roller:

  • Keep things slow and steady, avoiding rapid or jerky movements.

  • Give a lot of love to those areas with knots, tightness, or discomfort.

  • Shift your body weight to adjust the pressure and ease any pain (cursing is also a totally acceptable pain management technique).

  • Practice deep, steady breathing to relax the muscles being rolled.

  • Never roll directly over joints or bones. It not only hurts but also won’t achieve anything – focus on the surrounding muscle tissue instead.

  • If a movement causes pain, adjust your technique or stop entirely.

  • Roll regularly for the greatest benefit.

Should I use my foam roller before or after a workout?

There are actually benefits to both. Foam rolling exercises can be used to release muscle tension and alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after a tough session, or improve mobility, blood flow, and range of motion before a workout.

Try getting in the habit of rolling before and after exercise to get the most out of your foam roller.

Remember, start slow and gentle with these foam roller exercises for upper back pain. Aim for roughly 60 seconds per exercise.

1. Upper-back roll

Muscles targeted: trapezius (upper-back muscles), rhomboids (between your shoulder blades), and erector spinae (muscles along your spine)

How to do an upper-back roll:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs bent and feet flat on the ground.

  2. Place the foam roller horizontally under your upper back.

  3. Cross your arms over your chest or support your head with your hands.

  4. Keeping your back straight and core engaged, use your feet to gently push your body so the foam moves up and down your upper back.

  5. Focus on tight spots by pausing and applying more pressure.

2. Lat roll

Muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi (lat muscles), teres major (the muscle that borders your scapula)

How to do a lat roll:

  1. Lie on your left side with the foam roller positioned just below your armpit.

  2. Support your head with your left arm.

  3. Roll slowly back and forth, from just below the armpit to just above the rib cage, using your right hand and feet to control the pressure.

  4. After rolling back and forward twice, gently roll your body forward and backward.

  5. Repeat on the other side.

3. Roller thoracic extension

Muscles targeted: thoracic spine extensors (muscles along the mid-back)

How to do a roller thoracic extension:

  1. Lie on your back and position the foam roller under your mid-back.

  2. Place your hands behind your head for support, but avoid tugging on your neck.

  3. Slowly arch your back over the roller, keeping your lower body steady.

  4. Note that the foam roller shouldn’t move during this exercise.

4. Upper-body side roll

Muscles targeted: trapezius (your trap muscles), rhomboids (the muscles of your upper back just below your neck), latissimus dorsi (the muscles that wrap around your ribs)

How to do an upper-body side roll:

  1. Lie on your back with the foam roller positioned more to the left side of your ribs than the right – a little confusing, we know, so be sure to watch the video.

  2. Roll from your left shoulder to just below your ribs, keeping the pressure mainly on the left side of your body.

  3. Use your feet to control the pressure.

  4. Switch sides.

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