You probably don’t notice it right away. It might creep up after you’ve been sitting at your desk for hours, chipping away at your daily to-dos. Or perhaps it’s when you’ve been carrying your backpack on one side or taking calls by squeezing your phone between your shoulder and ear.
Whatever the reason, sooner or later it hits you: Your shoulders are scrunched, your neck hurts, and your muscles feel tight.
“The neck and upper back area hold a lot of tension,” says Karena Wu, a physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in NYC. “The amount of time spent with forward head and shoulder posturing increases the stress on the soft tissue and joints in the area.”
In other words, sitting at a computer all day with your head and neck in the same position leaves you with tight, stiff, and sore shoulders. And sedentary jobs aren’t the only issue.
Stress can add to the problem: When you experience high levels of stress, your rib cage can drop slightly, causing your shoulders and upper back to round forward into a slouch.
Try these 16 moves — they’ll help with the stiffness and maybe even the stress.
While all the moves on this list will help loosen your shoulders, relieve tension, and increase flexibility, this should be your first stop. Think of it as the gateway to the rest of the exercises.
“This move helps someone find their good, upright postural position and moves the spinal column and soft tissues to increase circulation and blood flow,” Wu says.
From a standing position, slouch slightly forward. No need to overdo this part, Wu says, because we’re already biased to move in this direction. Now, overcorrect to an upright position with a slight bend to your upper back (without putting pressure on your neck or low back).
Our model, physical therapist Rebecca Young, suggests reaching your hand behind you to touch the area between your shoulder blades to make sure you’re feeling the movement in the right place: your upper back and shoulder blades. Repeat 3 to 5 times in each direction.
This move sounds easy enough, but we bet you’ll need to concentrate on isolating your shoulder blades (and not simply moving your shoulders up and down).
Start in a comfortable standing position with your arms at your sides. Move your shoulder blades up, then out (pushing away from your body), then down. You need to move only about 1 centimeter in each direction.
Maintain good postural alignment throughout the exercise. Hold each position for 10 seconds or longer.
1. Chin retractions
Go ahead, embrace your double chin. This move is especially great for people who hold their neck in the same position for long periods of time (such as staring at a computer for eight hours a day).
Move your chin forward, then slowly pull it back by slightly tucking it in toward your throat. Try to keep your chin parallel to the floor and straight (not tipping it up or down). Repeat hourly up to 10 times.
2. Neck rolls
Tilt your head to the right and slowly roll it down (chin to chest) and to the left (making a U shape). Then roll it to the right. Repeat 5 times in each direction. Only roll your head and neck sideways and forward — not to the back, since doing so increases the pressure on your cervical spine.
3. Shoulder rolls
Starting in a position of proper alignment, roll your shoulders up, then back, then down in a fluid motion. Repeat this movement about 10 times, and then reverse it, rolling forward about 10 times.
4. Neck stretches
Bend your right ear to your right shoulder. Place right hand over left temple and add a little extra pressure by gently pulling your head to the right.
Your left hand can rest at your side or reach behind your back, or you can hold the bottom of a chair to increase the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
5. Cow Face Pose
Reach your right arm straight up, bend your elbow, and let your hand fall behind your head. Move your left arm behind your back and bend the arm, letting the back of your left hand rest against your right shoulder blade (or as close to it as possible).
Reach to grab your right fingertips with your left hand. Repeat on the other side.
Make it easier: If you can’t reach the fingertips of the opposite hand, use a towel to assist, creating a bit of tension by gently pulling on the towel in opposite directions.
6. Cross-body arm stretch
Cross your straight right arm across your chest. Use your left hand to gently pull the right upper arm closer to your body. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, then relax. Repeat on the other side.
7. Shoulder rotation (“goal post” arms)
With your back to a wall, allow your shoulder blades to rest in a neutral position and bring both elbows out to 90 degrees (so the sides of your biceps are in contact with the wall).
Without moving your elbows, turn your right arm upward, so the back of your right hand touches the wall, and your left arm downward, so your left palm touches the wall (or they come as close as possible).
Slowly switch (right arm up, left arm down; then left arm up, right arm down) for about 30 seconds, trying to keep your arms at 90 degrees throughout.
8. Standing wall stretch
Place both hands on a wall so they form a 90-degree angle to your body. Walk your feet back until your arms are straight and bow, hinging forward at the hips. (Don’t push on the wall, and don’t allow your arms to raise up too high, to avoid a shoulder impingement.)
Keep your shoulder blades set back and avoid scrunching your shoulders around your neck.
9. Angular neck stretch
Turn your head 45 degrees to the right and look down in the direction of your armpit. Reach your right hand over the top and back of your head, with your elbow pointing in the direction of the armpit.
Add a little extra pressure by gently pulling your face down toward your armpit. Your left hand can rest at your side or reach behind your back, or you can hold the bottom of a chair to increase the stretch. Repeat the exercise up to 3 times on each side.
10. T, Y, and I movements
With your back to a wall, stand with your palms facing out. Slowly bring your arms up to make a T shape, keeping your arms and back in contact with the wall.
Continue to bring your arms up to make a Y shape, then an I shape, touching your thumbs overhead. Focus on keeping your shoulder blades flat against the wall (not allowing them to stick out or wing).
11. Low-back hand clasp
Bring your hands behind your back, with your thumbs pointing down, and clasp your hands, touching palm to palm. Your hands should be about even with your low back. Slightly arch your upper back, opening your chest and allowing your shoulder blades to gently come together.
Hold for 10 seconds, then reverse the clasp (if your left thumb was on the outside of your clasp, switch so that your right thumb is on the outside).
12. Arm circles
Standing perpendicular to a wall, make big, slow circles with one arm. Get as close to the wall as you can (coming into contact with it if possible). Repeat 10 times in each direction before turning the other way to rotate the opposite arm.
Maintain good posture throughout, especially when moving forward. Do not slouch or round your back forward.
13. Reverse prayer pose
Bring both your hands behind your back and allow your palms to come together in prayer position, feeling your shoulder blades open and keeping your back straight.
To make this stretch easier, bring your hands behind your back and hold left elbow with right hand and right elbow with left hand.
14. Thread the needle
Start on all fours. Lift your left hand off the floor and “thread” it through the space between your right arm and right leg, letting the back of your left hand and arm slide along the floor. Allow the upper body (thoracic spine) to naturally rotate toward the right, but keep your hips level.
Stop extending your arm when your hips begin to open to the right. (This may mean less range of motion than you could have if you continued to open your hips.)
15. Sphinx pose with arm extension
Lie facedown on the floor, with arms bent at your sides and palms on the floor about even with your chest. Keep your fingertips facing forward. Peel your chest up, leaving your hands in the same position and feeling an arch in the upper back only (no pressure on the low back).
Keep your elbows squeezed close to the sides of your body. Raise your right hand off the floor and straighten your right arm, bringing bicep in line with ear if possible. Focus on not letting your shoulder raise up and not crunching your neck.
Hold for about 5 seconds. Lower your right arm and repeat on the other side.
16. Sideline thoracic rotational stretch
Lie on your right side with your legs bent comfortably, your spine neutral, and your right arm straight and perpendicular to your body. With left arm on top of right arm, push your left arm slightly forward, lift it straight up, and rotate it back, making a large arch in the air.
Let your left arm fall as far as possible to the left side, without letting your hips move in the direction of your arm. Allow your nose and gaze to follow your left arm, slowly turning your neck to the left.
Move slowly, holding for a few seconds at the end of the stretch before returning to the starting position. Repeat 10 times. Switch to the other side.
“You have to remember that the shoulder is not just a joint on its own; it’s part of the neck, the ribs, the scapula — it’s a whole complex,” says Marianne Ryan, a physical therapist and author of the book Baby Bod.
Here’s a quick anatomy lesson (you’re welcome): The shoulder complex includes the humerus, the clavicle, the thoracic region of your spine, the rib cage, and, perhaps most importantly, the scapula (aka shoulder blade).
The upside to all this complexity is that it gives us a huge range of motion in our upper body (think: nailing Wheel Pose and throwing curveballs). The downside: The whole area depends on ligaments and muscles for stability — as opposed to the “ball-and-socket” stability our hips get.
When those muscles get overused (or misused), we’re left with limited motion and stiffness. “All four [shoulder] joints need to be working appropriately and efficiently in order to have pain-free, functional range of motion,” Wu says.
The best approach is to move frequently — forward, backward, and to the sides — throughout the day. But if your routine tends to leave you feeling stiff by 4:00 p.m., the 16 easy stretches above should really help.
Special thanks to our model, Rebecca Young, physical therapist at ActiveCare Physical Therapy. Rebecca wears a C9 by Champion top and Lululemon pants.