How to do the Overhead Side Reach Stretch

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

woman stretching

Getty Images / NickyLloyd

Targets: Lower back, core, neck

Equipment Needed: None

Level: Beginner

We’ve all had those mornings when we wake up with a tight neck, stiff shoulders, and an achy back. Fortunately, a quick stretch session can knock those aches and pains right out. The overhead side reach stretch in particular stretches your back and core, opens up your chest and shoulders, and treats your neck to gentle pressure that eases soreness. 


Performing this stretch can have a host of benefits.

Simple and Easy To Do Anywhere

You can do this stretch while standing up or sitting; while working at your desk or while cleaning your house; in a car, plane or train; and in virtually any other scenario. You don’t need any equipment and you don’t need a lot of space. You don’t even need to get on the ground for this stretch, which makes it a great do-anywhere exercise for quick relief from sore muscles. 

Can Be Gentle or Intense

The beauty of the overhead side reach stretch is that you can make it as gentle or as intense as you need on any day. Sometimes, you might feel unusually sore, so you can perform a gentle version of this stretch. Other times, if you’re feeling exceptionally bendy, you might challenge yourself to reach a deeper range of motion. 

Stretches Tight Back and Core Muscles 

When done correctly, the overhead side reach will thoroughly stretch your upper and lower back, as well as your core. You should feel a deep stretch throughout the sides of your torso in your obliques and latissimus dorsi

Relieves Tension in the Neck

If you let your neck drop into the stretch, you’ll feel a near-instant release of tension. Just be careful to drop your neck slowly, as quick or jerky motions may result in a painful pop at best or an injury at worst. 

Step-by-Step Instructions

Here’s how to do the overhead side reach stretch and enjoy relief from tension in your neck, back and shoulders. 

  1. Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart or a bit further (the wider your stance, the easier it will be to balance). Place your left hand at your side with your palm touching your thigh.
  2. Raise your right hand high above your head, fully extending your elbow and shoulder. Point your fingertips to the sky. 
  3. Keep your right arm up high and lean to the left. Keep leaning and lowering your left hand until you feel a tug on the right side of your torso. 
  4. Allow your neck to drop and sink into the stretch. 
  5. Stay here for five to 10 seconds before returning to your starting position. 
  6. Repeat on the other side. 
  7. Continue alternating for 10 to 20 reps. Complete two to three sets for stretch session that offers lasting relief from tightness.

Common Mistakes

Despite its simple nature, the overhead side reach stretch does have some common technique faults. Watch out for these three common mistakes when you try this stretch.

Lack of Core Control

Core control is a must during the overhead side reach. Because you’re pushing your spine out of its neutral position, you have to engage your core muscles to protect it and prevent injuries. 

Letting the Chest Fall 

This mistake is usually a result of poor core control. If you don’t engage your core during this stretch, your chest will likely fall forward and your shoulders will round. We want to open up the chest and squeeze the shoulder blades together during this stretch, rather than reinforce the postural habits many of us develop while sitting down. 

Straining the Neck 

The point of the overhead side reach is to loosen and relax your neck, not strain it even more! Pay close attention to the small muscles in your neck during this stretch. If you feel your neck straining, adjust your positioning. You may need to reduce the depth of your stretch or simply allow your neck to drop and relax.

Modifications and Variations

If you are finding this stretch to be too much or too little, try changing it up with the suggestions below.

Need a Modification?

The overhead side reach might feel too challenging for people with limited balance or core strength, but these modifications can help.

Stretch While Seated

If the stretch feels too difficult while standing up, try it while seated. Sitting down reduces the need for balance and stability but still allows you to achieve a deep stretch. 

Stretch Against a Wall

If core strength is the problem—for example, if you feel like you can’t support your body in the sideways lean—try doing the overhead side reach against a wall. Raise your arm up and stand with your side close to the wall. When you do the overhead reach, your torso will press into the wall, which helps support and stabilize your body.

Up for a Challenge?

If you’re really flexible and have great core strength, try to lower your non-working hand as far as you can go. If you can touch the floor without rolling your chest forward, you have phenomenal mobility!

For a different challenge, place your non-working hand behind your back. This simple change takes this stretch up a few notches in terms of balance and stability. The arm behind your back will also get a nice stretch. 

Safety and Precautions

Stretching may seem simple, but it’s still important to consider your safety. When you do the overhead side reach stretch, keep these precautions in mind.

Hold Onto Something for Balance

The overhead side reach stretch can get wobbly even for advanced exercisers. If you need to hold onto something, such as a wall, chair or even a friend, don’t feel bad about doing so. It’s best to do the stretch safely, and besides, there’s nothing wrong with modifying exercises.

Engage Your Core 

If there’s one single thing to keep in mind during all exercises, it’s core engagement. Engaging your core is an integral part to any dynamic movement, particularly movements like the overhead side reach, which take your spine out of its neutral position. If you don’t engage your core, you might hurt your back during this stretch. Keep it tight!

By Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC
Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC, is an advocate for simple health and wellness. She writes about nutrition, exercise and overall well-being.