I love this exercise, both as one to do myself and one to give my patients. Any physio will tell you that one of the more frustrating aspects of our job can be getting your patients to do their exercises. But this exercise, I've found pretty much everyone will do. Not only does it feel good, it requires no physical exertion and you can lie down while you do it. Doesn't get much better than that!
The foam roller chest stretch aims to stretch the muscles of the chest and the front of the shoulder - particularly the pectorals. In a large number of people, these muscles become shortened and tight due to poor postural habits. Lets compare 2 riders with poor posture in the saddle.
See how rounded and forwards both of their shoulders are sitting? Both have a multitude of issues going on (rider 2 is a candidate for core stability training if I ever saw one, all I can say is that his horse must be something pretty special!), and one that is common to both is a rounded shoulder and forwards head posture.
One way to combat this poor posture is to stretch through the front of the chest and encourage the shoulder blades to sit back (retract). A really effective way to do this is on the foam roller. A study conducted by Lynch, S. S., Thigpen, C. A., Mihalik, J. P., Prentice, W. E., & Padua, D in 2010 looked at the effects of an exercise intervention on forward head and rounded shoulder postures in elite swimmers, with this particular stretch being part of the exercise program. The exercise intervention was shown to be successful in decreasing forward head and rounded shoulder postures in the swimmers.
How to perform the stretch
To perform this exercise place the foam roller on the floor. Lie lengthways along the foam roller, with the roller positioned along your spine. Bend your knees and rest your feet on the floor.
Keeping your spine in neutral and your rib cage relaxed, take your arms out to the side until you feel a stretch through your chest and anterior shoulder. To increase the stretch bend at the elbows and take your hands up towards your head. As you do this it's important to not lift through the ribcage. Take nice deep breaths, getting the air right into the bottom of your lungs.
Hold the stretch for as long as you feel comfortable, several minutes if you can. It's best to perform any stretch when you're already warm, so at the end of a training session is ideal.
What if I don't have a foam roller?
If you don't have a foam roller handy, you can substitute with a towel. Fold and roll a towel up and place it along your spine between your shoulder blades. The stretch won't be as strong or as effective, but it will be a start. Bolsters also work quite well for this stretch.
Foam rollers are available to purchase quite easily, most sporting good stores sell them these days. Ideally you want a good quality, high- density roller that is firm. As with most things, you get what you pay for and I would advise staying clear of the really cheap rollers. We always have foam rollers available for sale in the clinic.
Performed regularly this is a really effective stretch to help combat poor posture associated with tightness through the chest, although most riders with this type of posture need to work on more than just this stretch. An assessment with a physiotherapist or other health professional specialising in postural dysfunction will be able to steer you in the right direction and prescribe an appropriate rehab program designed specifically for you.
Reference: Lynch, S. S., Thigpen, C. A., Mihalik, J. P., Prentice, W. E., & Padua, D. (2010). The effects of an exercise intervention on forward head and rounded shoulder postures in elite swimmers. British journal of sports medicine, 44(5), 376-381.