Between my job as a writer and my large breasts, I’ve found that at the ripe age of 33 my posture is seriously not OK. I always knew this, but in the past few years, my shoulders have gone from slightly rounded to full-on forward. What’s more, everything—my neck, shoulders, and back—feels so tight. But I was never able to figure out the right stretch. Until I went to a yoga class one day, that is, where an instructor taught us a stretch (it went something like this) for the pectoralis majorus and minorus, AKA the pec major and minor.
The pec muscles, by the way, "are the two muscles that live on both the right and left sides of the body near the chest," Derek Mikulski, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., and founder of ActivMotion Bar, tells SELF. They lie beneath the breast tissue. "The pec major attaches at the middle of your collarbone and continues toward the midline of your body, all the way down into the lower sternum and breastbone area," Mikulski adds. "If you put your hand over your heart, you'll simulate the rough angle, shape and location of the pec major."
Not being a dude, I never knew how to even locate my pecs, let alone make 'em dance the way some talented gentlemen can. The pec minor is even tinier and harder to find as it lies underneath the pec major. "It attaches at the middle of your third, fourth, and fifth ribs," Mikulski says. "The other end of the muscle travels backwards and up, and attaches basically at the top of the scapula, or the shoulder blade."
When I tried the pecs stretch at yoga that fateful night, I couldn't believe how tight these muscles were—specifically, my pec minors.
The tiniest of movements made the little muscle HURT. I really never noticed just how tight the muscles had become. A few months later, I spent a long weekend with my mom (Hi!!) at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, where I treated myself to 100 minutes of neuromuscular therapy—a special type of targeted, deep soft tissue massage. At the spa, I told my therapist about the stretch I had learned at my local yoga studio, and that my pectoral muscles were the ones to target during the session. She warned me it would be painful, but apparently I'm completely immune to torture because I drooled through the almost two-hour appointment the way a "normal person" would from like, a regular massage.
I left Canyon Ranch with bruises on my pecs and some brand-new knowledge about my body: I needed to do something about this tightness.
Turns out, we'd all benefit from stretching and strengthening our pecs, even if we're not trying to bench press 200 pounds.
Your pec majors are super-important muscles. They help you move your shoulders "in different directions and pull the arms closer to the midline of your body," says Mikulski. Likewise, the pec minors are equally as valuable: "When the pec minor contracts, or shortens, it primarily creates stability for the shoulder blade, while also helping the shoulders protract, or pull the shoulder blades apart." So those tiny little guys—the babes I could barely move in yoga—are essential to our upper body's stability and maintaining upright posture. It makes sense that these muscles are taking a hit when I cower over my Macbook all day.
The pectoral muscles also "play a role in deep breathing, especially the pectoralis minor," Heather Seidman, P.T., of Professional Physical Therapy in New Jersey, tells SELF. That's because it's attached to your ribcage, so any time you take a big, deep breath, the pec minor has to stretch for everything to expand.
The pecs, both major and minor, are also essential for performing any sort of pushing motion, like when you're trying to open a heavy door or do a push-up.
If you, too, have always thought that working your pecs would make your boobs bigger, hopefully this clears things up for you.
I guess the real reason I hadn't ever bothered strengthening (or stretching) my pecs is that I had always assumed building the muscle tissue beneath my breasts would give me a boost in cup size, which I really don't want. When I think about pecs, I think about a '90s bro on Venice Beach busting out of his tight mesh tank top while doing a bicep curl with a giant dumbbell. Not really my look.
When I voiced my concern to Mikulski, he reassured me that strengthening my pecs wasn't going to change the size of my boobs. “Muscle tissue is completely different from breast tissue," he said. So while working your pecs over time may increase the size of your chest muscles, it's not going to take you up a cup size or change your actual breast tissue in any way.
My aversion to pecs exercises has left me feeling tight and looking slouched—both things I'd prefer to reverse.
As mentioned, those boobs of mine (big) and that posture (poor) are two major causes of tight pectoral muscles, says Seidman. In fact, when you've carried a heavy chest for a while or have spent a decade working at a desk, your pecs muscles actually become conditioned to be shorter as they adapt to poor posture. This then causes rounding of the back, "as the tight muscles pull your shoulders and scapula forward and apart."
And from there, the effects just domino like whoa. Your head comes forward, which only encourages more rounding of the upper back while also causing back pain. Think about it: Your head weighs 11 pounds. What's more, you may also experience limitations with spine rotation, which can prevent you from comfortably doing activities that you love and didn't even realize could have been affected. Think: golf, playing with the kids, going for a hike, just about anything.
As Seidman says, "the pectoral muscles are activated at a low level during many of our daily functions, such as driving or typing on a computer. Sitting for long periods of time cause pectoral tightness and rounded shoulders if we are not consciously aware of pulling our shoulders back and sitting up taller in our seats." (Note that I just sat up about 4 inches taller and rolled my shoulders back upon typing this.) It can limit the ability to breathe properly, too, says Seidman.
After determining that I unofficially have the world's tightest pec muscles, I asked the pros what I should do.
"Stretching and tissue release exercises are the best ways to release and lengthen tight pecs," Mikulski says. "Stretching tight pecs simply means getting them out of their shortened state and holding that position for 30 to 60 seconds, while tissue release is the use of physical pressure—and tools like a foam roller, possibly—on the muscles themselves." Like the NMT session I had at Canyon Ranch—which Mikulski says to think of as a "hard, semi-painful massage to get the pecs to loosen up," but I describe as an other-worldly, dream-inducing rubdown.
Know that strengthening your pecs is also an important part of a well-rounded routine—a stronger chest and back will make it easier to sit up straight and over time, help make proper posture feel more effortless. But in order to strengthen your pecs, you need to stretch and lengthen first. Without enough flexibility, you won't be able to move through exercises like a chest press properly, which is why Mikulski suggests anyone with tight pecs start with tissue release and/or stretching to loosen up before moving onto strength work.
Both Mikulski and Seidman offered up the same stretch for my pectoral muscles. Although it wasn't the same one I learned at my local studio, it works. To do it, stand in the doorway with your arms out to your sides and holding onto the doorframe. Lean your body forward into the doorway. You should "feel a gentle pull across your chest," says Seidman. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and perform three sets of the stretch on each side a couple of times a day.
Of course, to really improve your posture, Mikuski suggests training your back and core, too. "Engage in exercises like rows, lunges, and core strength drills to to keep your body's internal framework strong, stable, and erect," he says. "Regularly stretching and releasing the pecs also helps tremendously." (Here are a few more really good pecs stretches you can try.)
So if you need me, I'll be in the doorway. Because damn does it feel good, you guys.
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