8 Neck and Shoulder Stretches to Relieve Pain
Work and play both stress the neck and shoulders. Here's how to recover.
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Heads are heavy—roughly 7 to 10 percent of your body weight. That’s a big chunk of bone to carry around all day. When your head is centered on your shoulders and you allow your spine to stack naturally, your neck can easily manage the load. But if your head is off-kilter for extended periods of time, like when you’re in the saddle of a bike or craning your neck to belay, gravity and leverage begin to work against you.
The main culprit of neck and shoulder tension is poor posture—like when you’re hunching in front of a computer screen or staring down at a phone. We also hold stress in our neck and shoulders. So whether you’re an athlete or work a desk job (or worse—both), chances are you’ve experienced a few aches and pains.
We reached out to Caitlin Pascucci, a yoga teacher and the founder of Sangha Studio in Vermont, for her favorite moves to alleviate neck and shoulder tension. She suggests doing this whole series two or three times per week, after a workout session or mixed into a yoga routine. You can also choose your favorite moves and practice them daily.
What it does: Stretches the muscle that wraps from your sternum and collarbone to behind your ear, called the sternocleidomastoid.
How to do it: Sit upright with your spine straight, chest open, shoulders relaxed, and neck centered in a neutral position. Slowly turn your head to the right side until your chin is over the shoulder and parallel to the floor. Hold here, then tip your chin downward toward your shoulder. You can gently hold the back of your head with your right hand to increase the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Seated Neck Bend
What it does: Stretches the upper trapezius muscles on the side of your neck.
How to do it: In a seated position, put your hands behind your back, interlace your fingers, and hold them (with palms together and knuckles facing forward) to one side, just above your hip bone. Slowly lean your head to the same side to ease into the stretch—you should feel it on the side of your neck between your ear and your shoulder—and hold for 30 seconds. Switch your hand position to the other side, tilt your head in that direction, and repeat.
What it does: Stretches the back of the shoulders (deltoids) and the neck.
How to do it: Sitting or standing, reach your arms out to each side and then cross them in front of you, left elbow over the right elbow. Bend your arms so that your hands point toward the sky, and if you have the flexibility, wrap your wrists so that your palms meet. If you can’t make full contact between your palms, place each hand on the opposite shoulder instead. Lift your elbows so that your upper arms are parallel with the floor to target the back of the shoulders. At the same time, tuck your chin toward your chest to target the back of the neck. Hold this position for 30 seconds, then repeat from the beginning with the right arm crossed over the left.
Seated Mountain Pose
What it does: Lengthens the shoulders, upper back, and lats.
How to do it: Sit upright with a long spine, open chest, and relaxed shoulders. Interlace your fingers and raise your arms above your head, palms facing the sky. Continue pressing your palms to the sky to lengthen the shoulders and the upper back. Hold for ten seconds and focus on deep, slow breaths. Then exhale as you gently lean to the right side to lengthen the left latissimus dorsi muscle along the side of your body. Hold the stretch for a few seconds, inhale as you return to center, and then repeat on the other side. Continue swaying back and forth a handful of times, easing deeper into each side bend.
Open Chest Stretch
What it does: Stretches the front of your neck and the muscles between your shoulder blades.
How to do it: Sit cross-legged and upright with a long spine, open chest, and relaxed shoulders. Place your hands behind your head at the base of your skull, and gently tip your head back, using your hands for support. Bend your back slightly, and imagine your elbows growing heavy to pull you into the stretch.
Open Book Stretch
What it does: Stretches the front of the shoulder, the chest, and the oblique muscles.
How to do it: Lie on your side with your knees together and bent at a 90-degree angle, in a fetal position. Interlace your fingers behind your neck, with your elbows nearly touching (the “closed book” position). Pivot your upper elbow over and across your body, as if on a hinge, and then slowly let it sink toward the ground on the other side. Breathe deep and open your chest toward the sky. Keep your knees on the ground and pressed together throughout the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Stretches the shoulder and chest.
How to do it: Lie on your stomach with your legs straight and your arms out to each side, palms to the floor. Turn your head to the right so that it’s resting on your left ear. Bring your right arm in so your elbow is pointed toward the sky and bent at roughly 90 degrees. Bend your right leg at the knee, then lift it over your body as you rotate it and your hips outward, pushing down with your right hand. Let the weight of the raised leg pull you into the stretch as it dangles toward the ground (or touches the opposite side). Hold the tension for 30 seconds as you gradually sink deeper into the stretch. Return to center, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Opens the chest and the front of the shoulders.
How to do it: Sit upright with a long spine and your legs flat on the ground in front of you (if you have tight hamstrings, sit as straight as you can). Place your palms on the ground just behind your hips with your fingers facing forward. Slowly walk your hands back a few paces, then press into your hands, straighten your elbows, and lift your chest. Root down with the center of your thighs, and let your shoulder blades slide down your back as you open your chest. Hold this position for 30 seconds, and remember to take slow, deep breaths.
Fix Your Posture
These stretches will help to relieve a sore neck and shoulders, but the best solution is to stay ahead of the tension in the first place. Avoid “text neck” by holding your phone up higher and level with your eyes—or better yet, put the phone away and get outside!
If you sit at a desk for most of the day, raise your computer screen so it’s at eye level. Stack boxes underneath the monitor if need be.
Be conscious of your posture. Sit up straight, draw back your shoulders, and hold your head centered in a neutral spine position. Good posture is all too easy to forget, so Pascucci recommends that every time you get up and return to your chair, sit down consciously, with attention toward alignment, instead of mindlessly sinking back into whatever you were doing. Use that moment to check in and reset.