How to Do Neck Circles

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

woman stretching neck to the side while weightlifting

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Also Known As: Neck rolls

Targets: Neck, trapezius

Level: Beginner

Neck circles stretch your neck by flexing and extending the neck muscles. They can help relieve tightness and soreness in the neck and upper back muscles while decompressing the vertebrae that results from being tense. 

If you spend a lot of time sitting in front of a screen or find yourself tight after a workout, neck circles can help. Taut, tense neck muscles can interfere with your work or recreational activities if you’re feeling discomfort. Keeping your neck muscles flexible may help reduce and prevent neck strain.

Before performing neck circles, speak to a healthcare provider if you have any unusual pain, shooting pain, or tingling in your neck or if you have any medical conditions that might cause neck pain or injury.

Overall, neck circles are relatively simple and do not require any extra equipment. They also can be done at any time. Try neck circles whenever you feel neck tension or as part of your warm-up.

Benefits

Neck pain and stiffness can be caused by many factors, including a lifestyle that is mostly sedentary. Staring down at your phone or a screen for a long time also can put your body in positions that increase the likelihood of this tension.

Neck circles can help relieve tension and are an excellent way to help warm up your neck before a workout. They are especially useful when you will be moving your neck or tucking in your chin a lot, such as with boxing or martial arts.

Performing neck circles as part of a cool-down after lifting weights is ideal as well. Many strength training positions can cause you to tense your neck and trapezius muscles. Counteracting that with gentle post-workout stretching can bring movement back into the area.

Neck circles help relieve tension, but it's also vital to be conscious of your posture during the day and sleeping positions at night. Make sure your desk is set up correctly to avoid poor posture.

Step-By-Step Instructions

For the best positioning during neck circles, make sure you are standing. Although you can perform them in a seated position, you will get the best range of motion if your head can move without touching the back of a chair.

Start with your head straight, looking forward. Take a few breaths to relax and try to relieve any tension in your muscles in the neck and trapezius, which sit on top of your shoulders.

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms relaxed by your sides.
  2. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back. Keep your back neutral (don’t arch your spine).
  3. Tip your head gently to the right side, lowering your ear toward your right shoulder. Stop once you feel a stretch. Do not push past this point.
  4. Hold here while maintaining that position—shoulders down and back and core braced—for 1 to 2 seconds.
  5. Roll your head gently forward, dropping your chin toward your chest.
  6. Press your chin into your neck as if you are making a double chin. Hold for 1 to 2 seconds.
  7. Roll your head toward your left shoulder, pausing to hold for 1 to 2 seconds.
  8. Roll your head back, tilting your chin toward the ceiling. Keep your shoulders down and back throughout.
  9. Complete 3 to 5 repetitions in one direction and then roll in the other direction.

Common Mistakes

While neck circles are beginner-friendly and easy to perform, good form is essential. If you break form, you risk injury. Here are some common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Trying to Stretch Too Far

Sometimes deepening into a stretch is a good idea, such as with a hamstring stretch where pushing a little once you are warmed up is OK. When it comes to neck circles, however, stretching too much should be avoided.

Moving Too Quickly

To make the most of this exercise and ensure proper form, move slowly, holding the stretch over each shoulder and in the forward and backward position. Moving too quickly or rushing the movements can cause an injury.

Having Head Out of Alignment

Do not hold your head forward or backward. Your head should stay stacked over your neck, in between your shoulders, with your ears lined up above your shoulders. Avoid shifting your head forward or backward.

Hunching and Arching Back

As you roll your neck, avoid moving any other part of your body. Maintain a neutral spine without hunching it when you roll forward or arching it when you roll backward. Brace your core and move slowly to maintain your posture.

Shifting the Shoulders

Just as with your back, keep your shoulders in place throughout the movement. To start, roll them back and slide your shoulder blades down to retract and depress them. Keep them locked in this position without tension.

If you cannot perform this exercise without arching your back or breaking form, try only tilting your head from side to side and avoid rolling forward or backward. Work on increasing your core strength in the meantime.

Modifications and Variations

For most people, the basic version of this exercise is enough. But, you can increase or decrease the stretch of your neck circles if you prefer. 

To Decrease the Stretch

If tipping your head backward feels uncomfortable, you can perform half circles. Return to the starting position with your head centered above your shoulders. Instead of rolling back after tipping to the side, roll forward and tip to the other side.

To Deepen the Stretch

These variations will deepen the stretch once you are fully warmed up. To begin, bring your hand to the top of your head and use your fingertips to gently apply some pressure.

Use the pressure to tip a little further to the sides during the lateral flexion (side stretch) part of the movement. Be very gentle and do not yank or shove your head.  

You can do the same thing with the forward flexion of your neck. Place your hand behind your head with your fingertips above the base of your skull. Lightly put pressure on the area to tip your head a little further forward. Be very slow and gentle.

You also can use this movement for the reverse. During the neck extension, while tipping your head backward, place your fingers on your forehead and gently tip back.

Safety and Precautions

If you have no pain or discomfort during this exercise, it is safe to perform. However, it’s imperative to go slowly and smoothly and not make any jerky motions or stretch too far. 

Also, elderly individuals and those with heart conditions may want to avoid tilting the head backward. Doing so may cause the arteries in the back of the neck to become too narrow and restrict blood flow, leading to fainting.

If you have any bone or joint conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis, you may want to avoid tipping your head back. Perform the half-circle version instead. Alternatively, only tilt your head from side to side and avoid the forward and backward positions. Don't forget to breathe smoothly throughout the exercise.

If you catch yourself holding your breath, it could mean the movement is too advanced. If you are holding your breath because of pain or discomfort, you should stop the movement.

Try It Out 

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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