How to stretch your pecs without wrecking your shoulders
Don’t Do This
Sorry if this bursts your prehab bubble, but the use of “banded distraction” techniques has got to be debunked. It’s become popular to grab the thickest elastic band you can find, wrap it around a chosen joint (usually the shoulders, hips, or ankles) and stretch at extended end ranges under tension.
While this technique may work for some, most of the time the aggressive banded distraction plus end-range stretch does more harm than good.
The idea that a piece of rubber is strong enough to mobilize and alter the position of joints is a bit insane. Joints are encapsulated by thick and rigid non-contractile tissue, stabilized by more wire-like ligaments, and surrounded by multiple articulating layers of muscles and tendons, in addition to a dense fascial sheath lying above all of these structures.
And then there’s the three layers of dermal tissue and adipose tissue that exponentially decrease the transferability of a band to even reach, let alone alter, the joint’s movement.
This is the reason it may work for a select few. Band contact on skin may actually be the reason for many positive responses. Nerve roots that distribute from the spine run to both areas of the skin (dermotomes) and specific musculature (myotomes). The cool thing about the nervous system is that we can see cross linking between sensory and motor pathways, and use one to manipulate the other.
By the band touching dermotomes that correlate with underlying myotomes, contractile musculature (and dare I say fascia) can actually reduce tone, improving movement capacity. But again, this will NOT work for everyone.
I’m not saying never to mobilize and stretch with a band, but be smart about it. Structures like the hip and ankle are more resilient due to the size and stabilizing structural components to these regions. But when it comes to the shoulder, the most mobile joint in the body, there are better ways to unlock neural tightness and improve positions.
Reciprocal Eccentric/Concentric Pec Mobilization
- Place your hand and forearm in contact with a rack or immovable object. Elevate the shoulder to just above 90 degrees.
- From here, stagger your stance with your opposite foot from the elevated arm out in front. You’ll keep your shoulder, forearm, and hand in the same position throughout this drill using your body to generate the movement.
- Start by contracting your pecs to drive your body into rotation towards that elevated arm. Move slowly under maximal internal tension and control.
- Once you’ve hit end range, reciprocate the movement and move back in the opposite direction. The key here is to keep tension in the pec, and grade it back slightly so you’re stretching against your own tension, never getting into forced end ranges without control. Do this repeatedly for 45-75 seconds per side using a controlled breath.
Many lifters are correct: their chests are tight and need some attention. Where they miss the mark is the unlocking of the neural tone that’s prevalent in the front side of the shoulders after they’ve already addressed other postural regions like the thoracic spine and cage that respond extremely well when mobilized into extension and rotation.
Once the thoracic spine, cage, and shoulder blade show some semblance of function, the next region to address to combat chronic forward shoulders, dumped over scapulae, and even forward head posture is to address the pectoralis group.
A majority of injuries occur in ranges of motion that an athlete has access to, yet cannot actively stabilize. This is called the “motor control gap” and is a powerful way to objectify otherwise subjective practices like foam rolling, stretching, and corrective exercises.
For the pecs, that range of motion tends to be elevation above 90 degrees plus external rotation. This instable extended range of motion is the one most closely associated with front-sided shoulder pain. So instead of placing your shoulders into an inherently unstable position to stretch the pecs, you can create active tension around the shoulder and use a reciprocal tension technique.
This will improve positions of external rotation and horizontal abduction while keeping the shoulders in a safe and stabilized position.