In the fitness and bodybuilding communities, upper back and neck strain are as chronic and irritating as AM talk shows. Strength imbalance, fatigue and temporary muscle stiffness trigger a stress zone to develop in the region of the middle trapezius, levator scapula, and rhomboids. Incidentally, when this zone develops, a third-degree strain injury usually occurs the day after a back workout and while performing a pressing exercise.

Correcting this postural fault will not only decrease downtime but will have the added benefit of boosting your pressing, biceps and triceps strength. This is because all rely on proper support and function of the upper back.

Here's the story. Due to the frequency of scapular retraction and elevation exercises, the upper traps and rhomboids get ample work. Therefore, they remain in an inflamed, shortened state a day or two after a back workout. This adaptive shortening tends to adduct (pull together) and elevate the shoulder blades. Add to this a forward rotation on the shoulder girdle from chronically tight pec minor muscles and throw in some lateral neck tightness and you have unfavorable sheering forces in the upper back and neck.

In some cases the cause goes one step deeper. Anterior (forward tilting) of the pelvic shelf due to tight hip flexors increases lower lumbar curvature. This results in the body increasing thoracic flexion to compensate posteriorly. This adds another counterforce by abducting (away from midline) the scapula, thereby helping the pecs to round the shoulders. In this case I'd aggressively stretch all three hip flexors before implementing the following corrective routine. While the scope of this article doesn't allow me to go into detail regarding hip stretches, Ian King provides some good ones in his "Lazy Man's Guide to Stretching".

Upper Extremity Microcycle

Perform this mini-routine pre-back and chest training, between two to four times per week until pain or tension subsides, then continue one to two times per month to maintain corrective posture. In severe cases where sleeping is disturbed, I recommend Active Release Techniques (ART) in conjunction with a competent chiropractor.

"Criminal" Postural Test

Passing this test means that all contact points including the length of the spine, scapulae, wrists and head are in contact with the wall at all times. If not, then you just became a target for an upper extremity strain.

Assuming the position requires you to stand like a common criminal with your back against a wall, heels four inches from the wall. Reverse tilt the pelvis by contracting the external obliques and use the lower abdominal fibers to flatten the low back against the wall. Bring the arms up to your sides, with the elbows forming a 90-degree angle. From there slowly extend the elbows to a diagonal position while still maintaining contact points. This test represents anatomically correct alignment and works well as a "warm-up" to strengthen the lower traps while also stretching the chest.

Afterward, do the following exercises:

A: Exaggerated, incline chest fly, pronated grip

This pronated hand position limits the involvement of the lateral deltoid fibers, thereby forcing pec minor isolation. Position yourself supine on an incline bench. Grasp the dumbbells and "kick" them on to the upper chest position using your knees. Press to elbow locked position over the upper chest. As you descend slowly, stretch the upper pec fibers by pulling the elbows down and back to your ears. Pause momentarily before returning to the contracted, elbow extended position.

The lower trap fibers (underdeveloped in most intermediate trainees) act to depress and counter-fixate the upper trap fibers. Therefore, pliability and isometric strength are required. Start by facing forward on an incline bench. Grip two dumbbells with the thumbs up (like in a hammer curl). Keeping arms straight, elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells toward the ceiling at a 45-degree angle from your head (the 10:00 and 2:00 positions of a clock.) Retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together) at the top position.

The serratus anterior is the direct antagonist to the rhomboids and if weak, inhibits rhomboids flexibility. The incline front raise* using dumbbells is a simple yet effective SA strengthener. Note: If you have anterior pelvic tilt as mentioned previously, then substitute the prone trap raise** with arms 3 and 9 o'clock instead of the front raise.

*Incline front raises, semi-supinated (palms facing each other)

Start this exercise by lying supine on an incline bench set to 45æ. With the elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells using your shoulders until a perpendicular angle is formed with the arms and the bench. Lower the weight under control to a dead stop before repeating.

**Prone position mid trap raises

Lie prone (on your belly) using an incline bench set at 45-degree. Grip two dumbbells with the thumbs up (like in a hammer curl). Keeping arms straight, elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells toward the ceiling to form a 90-degree angle with your neck. (The 3 and 9 positions of a clock). Retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together) at the top position.

Roll a towel tightly around a weight plate. Next, position yourself side lying on a bench or floor. Grasp the plate and place it on the midline of the neck, prevent it from sliding. Laterally flex the neck (to the side).

Lie supine on a hard surface. Place fingers on chin. Slowly flatten your cervical spine by retracting your chin down and in toward the floor. Hold isometrically for ten seconds. Then push in the opposite direction against your fingers to create an opposing force. Again, hold isometrically for ten seconds. Repeat three times each direction.

Done correctly, this program should make any upper back and neck strain problems a thing of the past.