The pectoralis major is the large, fanlike muscle that extends from your breastbone and the top of your abdominals toward your upper arm. It sits in front of your rib cage and helps you to rotate your arm inward as well as draw your shoulder blades forward. These muscles can shorten if you regularly sit for hours in front of a computer or perform work with your arms in front of you. Simple stretches, such as slowly walking through deep water with your arms extended to your sides, can loosen and elongate the pectoralis major.
Symptoms of Inflexibility
Symptoms of an inflexible pectoralis major muscle can include pressure spanning your chest, pain along your breastbone, spasms between your shoulder blades or a feeling of numbness or tingling in your arms. If you’re battling a vulture-neck posture -- in which your head and jaw jut out in front of your torso and your shoulders are rounded -- chances are you have a tight chest. You can test the flexibility of your pectoralis major by standing with your back against a wall. Extend your arms to your sides and bend your elbows at 90-degree angles. Lift your forearms to the ceiling, placing the backs of your forearms and hands against the wall. If you can’t reach this position without arching your spine, you need to stretch your pectoralis major.
Advantages and Focus
By stretching the pectoralis major, you can extend the range of motion in sideways abduction, extension, flexion and the rotation of the long bone in your arm. When you perform stretches, you can target different areas of the pectoralis major by altering the angle of abduction, or distance away from the midline of your body. Less abduction with your arms positioned at an angle of 45 degrees on a stretch will work the upper region of the chest muscle around your breastbone. More abduction with your arms raised overhead at an angle of 135 degrees will focus on the muscle’s lower region around the middle of your rib cage, according to “Facilitated Stretching” by Robert McAtee and Jeff Charland.
A basic but effective stretch for the pectoralis major begins by standing in the middle of a doorway with your feet staggered at shoulder-width apart. Put your right foot slightly in front of your left. Lift your arms to shoulder height and extend them to your sides. Place your palms on the walls behind you as if you’re going to push the walls forward. Exhale and slowly lean forward, keeping your elbows locked and back straight. The more you lean forward the deeper the stretch. Hold the stretch for five to 10 seconds, inhale and then return to starting position. Perform two to three reps. If you feel a sting in your chest muscle, release the stretch. If your shoulders are very flexible, perform the stretch with your arms at a higher level.
Adding an Isometric Contraction
By adding an isometric contraction, you can deepen a stretch for the pectoralis major. For example, begin by standing with your left side next to an exercise rack with your feet in staggered position. Your right or outside foot should be in front. Place the inside of your left forearm on the rack with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and lower arm pointing up to the ceiling. Your upper left arm should be at shoulder height and parallel to the floor. Maintain a straight back, keeping your head up and gaze forward. Exhale and slowly draw your left arm backward as far as possible. Step forward in the staggered position until your left forearm again rests on the rack. Perform an isometric contraction with your pecs by pressing your forearm against the rack. Hold the contraction for six seconds, slowly release and then pull your arm backward a second time to deepen the stretch. Repeat the exercise two to three times.