Recently, I’ve worked with athletes that express pain and discomfort in their upper back; right in between the shoulder blades, or even underneath the shoulder blades. Some have expressed also feeling this pain travel to the front of the shoulder, up into the neck, or down into the mid back. This referred pain from the shoulder to the neck and back can be a result of these muscle groups not working properly together. A common factor is that the body begins to compensate due to weaknesses in synergist muscles. To improve muscle synergy strength training exercises are ideal. I have interviewed a local trainer to provide the exercises for commonly weak muscle groups related to pain in between, in front, and/or underneath the shoulder blades. But, first let’s talk about some activities that can contribute to pain in these areas.

Common causes for shoulder/neck pain:

Those who partake in a multitude of physical activity including their line of work can suffer from this pain. These include:

●      runners; who tend to elevate and round their shoulders after long distances

●     cyclists; who ride with their chests to the handlebars

●     weight lifters; who add weight to the stress they put onto their bodies

●      working professionals hunched over their desks using phones, and/or computers

●     carpenters and construction workers working overhead or low to the ground, and

●     medical professionals; who often have to lift patients and carry medical tools around their necks

These are just a few activities to mention that people partake in, and all at some point in time experience pain in the shoulders. Other than work and exercise, the use of cellphones and laptops can contribute to the existing pain and discomfort. The use of these devices place stress on the neck and shoulders from looking down. Another daily activity is riding transit. To resist being tossed around on the bus or train, the body naturally tenses up. Some people do this while using their portable devices. These activities are added stress on the neck, shoulders, and back, so adding strength training to self-care is crucial. I have interviewed a local trainer to gather basic exercises to strengthen and stabilize the shoulders with the goal to reduce pain and discomfort in the upper back and neck. The following is a short bio of the trainer followed by some Q&A.

Personal trainer introduction:

Jamaal Green, Cali born and Philly bred, was born into a life of sports and fitness. With two military parents he has always been active with exercise and sports. Jamaal’s goal is to spread his health and fitness knowledge and to make an impact on others through exercise and training; with focuses in circuit training and lower/ upper body strength training. Jamaal suffered a torn ACL and nerve damage to the leg in the spring of 2017 which strengthened his passion to help others achieve success in rehab and body transformation. Jamaal uses an organic program that is tailored to each client’s needs and goals. His motto is “Build Results Until Happy,” B.R.U.H. Fitness. Whether your goal is to lose weight or build muscle, Jamaal is here to see you succeed!

Jamaal’s exercise recommendations for upper back/ neck relief:

Dynamic Stretching

In a standing position using an exercise ball and holding it centered to the body. Inhale, exhale and reach arms downward toward the floor on one side of the body, twisting the spine. Be mindful of hip and shoulder positions. Keep the hips centered, neck and shoulders stable, and feet planted. Inhale, swing arms upward toward the ceiling on the opposite side of the body, exhale and back to center repeat 10 times.

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Floor prone cobra

While lying face-down, bring arms above head. Squeeze the gluteal muscles, take a deep breath, and raise both arms and legs upward. Hold for 3-5 seconds, exhale, and lower arms and legs back down releasing the gluteal muscles last. Repeat 3 times.

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While lying face-down, keep arms at the sides of the body. Squeeze the gluteal muscles, take a deep breath, and raise chest and legs upward. Make sure to raise the chest up until just the upper abdomen is touching the floor. Hold for 3-5 seconds, exhale, and lower chest and legs back down releasing the gluteal muscles last. Repeat 3 times.

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Seated Military Press

In a seated position with 5-10lbs. weights in each hand, hold arms out on either side of the body. Elbows are away from the body and bent at a 45-degree angle. Squeeze the shoulder blades together, inhale and reach arms upward, careful not to touch weights together for specific muscle contraction, exhale and bring arms down to starting point releasing shoulder blades last. Repeat 10 times.

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Seated Reverse Flyes

In a nice and tall seated position with knees hips width apart, and bent at a 90-degree angle, hold arms out in front of the body at shoulder’s width apart. Be careful not to touch the weights together for specific muscle contraction. Take a deep breath and open the arms to each side of the body at shoulder height making sure to depress shoulder blades and squeeze them together. Exhale and bring arms back to center (keep arms out in front of the body). Repeat 10 times.

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Bent Over Cable Flyes

Similar to the Seated Reverse Fly, the Bent Over Cable Flyes are a step up. This exercise utilizes gravity as added resistance. In a standing position bend at the hips, upper body should be parallel to the floor, knees slightly bent, arms down, and eyes forward. With cables in each hand, or you may use free weights, squeeze the gluteal muscles, inhale and open arms to shoulder height squeezing the shoulder blades together (be mindful to keep the shoulders away from the ears). Exhale and slowly bring arms back down to center. Repeat 10 times.

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Soccer Throw

In a standing position using an exercise ball, inhale and reach arms upward toward the ceiling. Be mindful of neck and shoulder positions. Keep the chin up, eyes forward, depress shoulder blades and squeeze them together. Exhale, bring arms downward releasing the shoulder blades, bounce the ball, catch it, and repeat 10 times.

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Shoulder Shrugs

In a standing position, arms down to the sides of the body, weights in hand, inhale, squeeze shoulder blades together and elevate them toward the ears. Be mindful of neck position making sure the chin is up and eyes are forward. Hold for 3 seconds, exhale and slowly depress the shoulders down toward the floor, relax (don’t put down the weights) and repeat 3 times.

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Basic Shoulder Stretching

In a standing position, bring one arm up over the head placing the hand on the upper back, on top of the spine as close as possible. Bring the other arm also over the head and place the hand on the elbow or triceps of the opposite arm. Inhale and on the exhale; gently pull on the elbow or triceps using the resistance to squeeze the shoulder blades together and depress them. Make sure to stand nice and tall, chin up and eyes forward, Hold for 3 seconds while breathing comfortably and repeat 3 times. Switch sides and repeat the steps. 

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Basic Neck Stretching

This can be done in a seated or standing position. Place one arm at your side while placing a hand of the other arm on top of the head. Inhale, exhale and gently tilt the head toward the raised arm. Hold for 3 seconds while breathing comfortably and repeat 3 times. Switch sides and repeat the steps.

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Q: What types of tools should be used?

A: Exercise balls, resistance band, free weights.

Q: How many times should each exercise be performed per week?

A: For optimal results these exercises should be performed 3 times a week. Stretching should be before and after workouts, and incorporated in daily routines.

Q: How long after do you suggest these exercises be performed before noticing results?

A: 21 days is when the body initially begin to change. 6-8 weeks of consistency is key. Be sure to include breaks, rest, etc. in your routine.

Other ways to provide relief:

Outside of stretching and strength training exercising, regular massage and self-massage are other ways to provide pain relief. Massage will release tension in muscles and increase blood circulation to the area essentially, relieving pain and post workout muscle soreness. Your massage therapist will be able to provide several self-massaging tips and stretches. Further information on self-care, stretching, and exercises can be found here:

The Levator Scapulae - what a pain in the neck!

Self-massage for the upper back and neck area (video)

Sleep it on, Don't sleep on it!


After learning about common activities that contribute to shoulder pain and about exercises to help relieve that pain, I encourage athletes to incorporate these exercises in their daily routines. Athletes will experience pain relief in their shoulders and in referred areas like the neck and back. They will also notice improvement in posture and muscle synergy. Along with stretching and strength training exercises, upper back and neck pain can be helped through regular massages and self-massages. The Phila Massages team and I can assist with any questions regarding upper back and neck pain. Jamaal can assist with questions regarding exercises, and can be reached via email:, or Instagram: mg_errrday.

Pictures used with permission from Jamaal Green. 

This article/video is for educational purposes only; do not attempt without your physician’s clearance. If you are in pain or injured, see your physician.