By Nicky Hilsen
This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Massage Bodywork.
A wall angel is a stretching/strengthening exercise that can be used as a functional assessment for upper-crossed syndrome. If the wrists come forward off the wall or are unable to touch the wall, then there is an upper-quarter imbalance.
Wall angels can be done either against a wall or on the floor (floor angels). This exercise stretches/lengthens pecs and strengthens/shortens rhomboids and trapeziuses. They are similar to snow angels, but the elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle.
To perform a wall angel, stand with your heels comfortably about 6-8 inches away from the wall. Lean your back against the wall, with a posterior pelvic tilt, so that the lumbar region is flat against the wall and knees are softly bent. Tuck your chin slightly to create length in the back of your neck and to lengthen the top of your head toward the ceiling. Pull your shoulders down, away from your ears.
Bring your arms up like a field goal gesture, palms facing forward. It is important that your wrists lay flat against the wall. (Even staying in this position for at least 20 seconds is significant.)
When you're ready, you can use your exhale and work to bring your elbows up toward the ceiling, maintaining the field goal position and wrist contact with the wall (as shown). Now move your elbows down toward your hips. The breath is a very helpful and important aspect of all stretching. If your wrists break contact with the wall, raise your elbows back to where the wrists remain as close to the wall as possible.
It's an active exercise, so move through upward and downward rotation of the scapula, thereby increasing range of motion, strengthening weak back muscles, and lengthening strong front muscles.
When performed on the floor, the movements are the same. With knees flexed, the feet lay flat on the floor, and the pelvis and chin are tucked. This maintains lumbar and cervical contact with the floor and allows for better lengthening of the spine. For many, the floor version is preferred, because it allows you to really focus on the upper quarter with ease in the lower body. Retracting the scapula together and allowing the chest to open is assisted by the pull of gravity as you sink into a relaxed state of vulnerability.
A graduate of the Cortiva Institute, Nicky Hilsen is a practicing licensed massage therapist in Chicago, Illinois. She uses mindfulness and compassion to assist her clients in realizing comfort and healing.