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The behind-the-head stretch lengthens and loosens the triceps muscle of the upper arm and, to a lesser extent, your lats. It's the perfect end to workouts that include triceps kickbacks, overhead extensions or dips, but it's easy enough to perform anytime you feel tension in the shoulder, upper arm and upper-to-middle back. As you settle into the stretch position, expect mild to moderate tension along the underside of your upper arm.
Also known as the overhead triceps stretch, the behind-the-head stretch works from either a seated or standing position. Begin by extending the right arm overhead and bending the arm at the elbow. Your elbow should point upward and your palm should face the back of your neck. Using your left hand, grasp your right upper arm near the elbow and gently draw the elbow to the left. When you feel light tension along the underside of your right upper arm, hold the position for up to 30 seconds. Relax briefly and repeat the stretch up to four times, trying to increase the stretch with every rep. Shake out your right arm and repeat the exercise with your left arm behind your head.
Tips and Reminders
Use the behind-the-head stretch when your muscles are already warm and supple, ideally after workouts that emphasize your triceps. At other times, warm up with three to five minutes of general cardio activity and a dynamic arm and shoulder stretch, such as across-the-chest arm swings. When you perform the behind-the-head stretch, keep the forearm as close as possible to the upper arm and pull your shoulder blades together. Breathing normally and relaxing the muscles of your jaw, neck and shoulders will help you ease into and hold the stretch position. Avoid dropping or jutting the head forward or tipping it to one side; instead, keep your chin and the top of your head level and your head directly over your spine.
Regression and Progression
To better engage your lats, first move into the basic stretch position. As you pull your right elbow to the left, lean your upper body to the left, as well. You'll feel the right side of your torso -- or latissimus dorsi -- lengthening. If you find the basic stretch awkward, regress to a variation involving a hand towel . When stretching the right triceps, grasp one end of a towel with your right hand. Position your right elbow overhead and your right hand behind your neck as you would for the basic exercise. Reach back with your left hand to grasp the other end of the towel and gently pull downward until you feel a stretch. Repeat with the other arm.
Alternatives and Concerns
If stretching the triceps from a behind-the-head position strains your shoulders and neck, try an alternate, milder stretch. Bend your elbow in front of your chest and use your free hand to gently pull the elbow further across your rib cage. Whatever variation you use, pain, pinching or numbness anywhere in the arm or shoulder are cues to stop immediately. If you've injured your arm or shoulder in the past, speak to your doctor, physical therapist or personal trainer about the advisability of particular stretches.