Heart-opening moves

Exercises and stretches with deep physical and mental effects

Opening your heart is more than just an expression. In fitness, heart-opening stretches strengthen electrical signals to the heart that determine heart rate variability (HRV)—the variation in the time between heartbeats—and optimize overall heart function, says Eddie Ulm, the spa coordinator and master therapist at Equinox Century City in California. Having a healthy HRV means your body can efficiently change your heart rate depending on your activity, such as during different types of exercise.

What’s more, “Tension in the back, chest, core, and shoulders can shorten or create physical imbalances that can lead to limitations in range of motion, pain, or injury,” says TK Murray, the spa manager and a master therapist at Equinox Sports Club New York. Releasing this upper-body stress can positively affect the lower body, helping you run faster, longer, and with less fatigue or strain, he adds.

Beyond physical benefits, there is a very clear emotional advantage to be gained via these stretches. “Many people hold emotions such as fear and anger in their chest, abdomen, or shoulders,” says Murray. “Chest stretches help to increase oxygen intake and to correct posture for the head and shoulders; increased oxygen and better posture help to decrease anxiety and help with a more positive outlook on your surroundings.”

Here, five heart-opening exercises and stretches that are loved by some of Equinox’s top bodyworkers.

1. Thoracic Spine Support

How: Place rolled up towels or a foam roller under and parallel to the thoracic spine while lying on your back with your arms by your side or out wide. Hold for 40 seconds to 2 minutes for a fascial opening.

Why: “If you think of someone who is going through something stressful or grieving, their shoulders might be rounded, protecting the heart,” says Loren Tazalla, a massage therapist at Equinox The Loop in Chicago. “This is a simple stretch but it opens up the chest and, working with your breath, helps shoulders melt to the ground.”

2. Medicine Ball Lie

How: Lie face down on the ground with a small medicine ball under you on the lower right side of your abdomen. Let your body slowly sink into the ball. Spend two minutes on this side, then move ball to the other side of your abdomen and repeat.

Why: “This will release tension in the psoas muscles and the obliques,” says Murray.

3. QL Rotation Stretch

How: Lie on your back on a firm surface. Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms next to your sides. Keeping your shoulder blades on the ground, squeeze your knees together and slowly lower them to the left side until you feel a stretch in the right side of your low back. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then bring your knees back up to the starting position. Repeat three times, then switch sides to stretch your left quadratus lumborum (QL).

Why: Stretching the QL muscle, which lies deep within your abs on either side of the lumbar spine, can help relieve the tension in the lower back that a lot of people tend to feel when they’re rounded forward, says Murray. It’s tension that can lead to fatigue as well as mood and personality changes, he says. “If you're more relaxed, you’re more open to receiving good or positive things in your life instead of closing up.”

4. TRX Band Stretch

How: Stand upright and stagger legs with one foot slightly forward. Bring TRX bands overhead, then slowly move bands so arms are out in airplane position (in a T) with hands facing wall in front of you. Walk feet out a little bit so hands are behind chest. For more of a stretch, push into the band for 5 seconds at a time with about 40 percent of your strength. As you exhale, you should be able to get deeper in the stretch. Switch the stagger of your legs and repeat on the other side.

Why: “This creates a deep stretch through the whole frontal fascial line, the chest, and the heart,” says Tazalla.

5. Scapula Boxes

How: Stand barefoot with feet hip-width apart, facing a mirror. With arms by sides make a fist with the right hand. Then elevate, protract, depress, and retract with the left shoulder, keeping your arm long without bending at the elbow. There should be no influence of any musculature besides those involved in moving the shoulder. Do not move the head or tighten up the muscles of the neck. Complete five rotations on each side then switch arms.

Why: “The benefit of this exercise is to wake neuro- and mechanoreceptors, essentially re-wiring the shoulder to lighten load on the chest,” says Ulm. “They are forgotten exercises, so the benefit is often immediate.”