Pectoral Muscles and Upper Back Pain

Updated June 4, 2017

Your pectoral muscles are the muscles that cover the anterior region of your upper rib cage. While you only have two muscles that are called “pectoralis” muscles, there are actually four muscles in this group. We are going to take a look at each muscle individually, and then examine how they all work together as a group. Then,we will examine why these muscles should receive massage if you are experiencing upper back pain. Yes, I said back pain.



pec major

Image by StudyBlue

The pectoralis major is the most superficial pectoral muscle. You know those big beefy guys you see at the gym with the giant chests? That’s their incredibly defined pectoralis major you see. It is a massive muscle, originating in the middle of your chest at the clavicle, sternum, and the cartilage of your top six ribs; and inserting at the front part of your upper arm, at the crest of what is called the greater tubercle of your humerus, the bone in your upper arm.



pec minor

Image by StudyBlue

Pec minor is called so because it is much smaller than pec major. It lies just beneath its bigger counterpart, originating at the cartilage of ribs 3-5, and inserting at the top aspect of your shoulder blade, called the coracoid process.



serratus anterior

Image by Yoga Room Norcross

Serratus anterior is also a muscle that tends to be easily seen on body builders. When you see someone with well defined muscles that resemble a rib cage, that’s serratus anterior. It connects to the outer anterior surface of the first eight or nine ribs, wraps around the lateral torso, and inserts on the medial aspect of your scapula.




Image by

The word subclavius means “beneath clavicle,” and that’s exactly where you’ll find it – right below your collar bone. It’s a small sliver of a muscle that originates at the joint between your first rib and the cartilage that attaches the first rib to the sternum, and inserts into the posterior medial aspect of the clavicle.




Each muscle performs a slightly different function, but in general, they call come together to pull the structures that make up your shoulder anteriorly toward your chest.

So, what does this have to do with back pain? The answer lies in antagonist muscles. Antagonist muscles are any muscles that perform the opposite action of the muscle in question. As one muscle contracts, the other relaxes. Just as your pectoral muscles move your shoulders toward your chest, thereby causing an anterior arch to your torso, the muscles of your back aim to keep your spine straight.

This is another reason why proper posture is so important. When you use forward head posture, it causes the pectoral muscles to tighten up as they become accustomed to being chronically shortened. This causes the muscles of the back and upper posterior shoulder (including the trapezius and rhomboids) to overstretch. Over time, that stretching will cause pain in your upper back. This is because your muscles were not meant to be in this position, especially for long periods of time.





Image by Mosaic Health


How might you fix the problem? The best thing you can do is actively pay attention to your posture. This is the hardest part of fixing the problem because your body has grown so accustomed to being in improper posture, and you’ve never had to think about it. Gravity works against you, and it’s difficult to pay 24/7 attention to your body, especially when you lead such a busy life. With a little effort, it will become easier over time.

If you sit at a desk, you should find a computer chair with good back support. You should spend as little time as possible looking down, so if you can, adjust your computer monitor so it is level with your face.

When driving, make sure you sit up straight so that there are no curvatures to your spine. While your back is straight, adjust your side- and rear-view mirrors. This way, if you begin to revert to improper posture, your mirrors will serve as a visual reminder to straighten your spine.

While sitting, you can also use a foam roller, or just a rolled up hand towel in the small of your back. This will force your spine into a straighter position.

While standing or walking, you can use windows and mirrors to check out your reflection. This can serve as a visual reminder to keep your spine straight.

Of course, the pain you feel in your back will always remind you as well. The best way to relieve that pain is with massage over your pectoral muscles. Allowing those muscles to release will open up your chest, making it easier to breathe and relieving the extra stress on your back muscles caused by over stretching.

If you are suffering from upper back pain, receiving massage over the area will serve as instant gratification, but it is only a temporary fix. The pain will return so long as the cause remains. In this case, the cause is tight pectoral muscles.

It should be noted that massage cannot help pain resulting from issues originating in the bone, nerves, or other structures. For those problems, it is best to consult your primary care physician and let him decide whether or not massage is an appropriate compliment to your health care.

For more information the impact improper posture has on your body, please read my informational blog post on posture.


About Tonya Sapiel, LMT

My goal with The Wellness Seeker blog is to educate the general public on the benefits of massage therapy, why it is an important addition to their health care routine, and what they can do to help themselves in between their massage therapy sessions. I welcome feedback and questions. I also accept requests for post topics. For more information about me or my practice, please visit

2 responses to “Pectoral Muscles and Upper Back Pain

  1. At first I thought you were writing about me. I’ve worked all my life humped over. Hard to remember to stand tall and straight but I try.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Trapezius | The Wellness Seeker

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