10 Neck and Shoulder Stretches to Relieve Tension

neck and shoulder stretches

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Whether you’re sitting at the computer, scrolling through social medial, or stuck in traffic, there’s a good chance your neck and shoulders are stiff and sore at some point in the day.

Neck and shoulder pain can happen as a result of musculoskeletal injuries, overuse, poor posture, nerve-related causes, and problems with the spine. The good news is there are stretches you can do to help improve flexibility, increase range of motion, and decrease pain and discomfort.

In general, you can do most of these stretches daily, but pay attention to any discomfort. Remember, stretching should not hurt. If you have an acute or chronic neck or shoulder injury, you should consult with your doctor or physical therapist before starting any exercise program.

This stretching sequence requires the use of an exercise mat and towel. Make sure you have plenty of room and be near a wall, if possible. You will be standing and sitting as you perform these moves.

Here are 10 stretches that target the neck and shoulders specifically.

Thread the Needle 

Thread the needle is a deep stretch that can really loosen up tight muscles in the shoulder, neck, and upper back. This move targets the areas we seem to hold tension in the most. You can add this stretch to a warm-up, a cool-down, or do it as a stand-alone exercise for relaxation and pain relief. 

  1. Start on the floor in all fours with your hands flat on the floor and wrists under shoulders. Knees should be underneath your hips. 
  2. Lift your right arm up toward the ceiling as you open up your chest. Gaze up to the right side.
  3. Move the right arm under the chest toward the mat. Right hand will point toward left side. 
  4. Continue to thread the right arm under the left until the right shoulder rests on the mat and you feel a stretch. 
  5. Rest in this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat on the left side. 

Neck Rolls

Neck roll
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Neck rolls are a simple and convenient stretch that target the front, sides, and back of your neck. You can do this while standing in line, sitting at your desk, or waiting in traffic. Just be gentle with the roll and don’t force it. 

  1. Stand tall or sit with upright posture. Arms at your sides and gaze forward.
  2. Gently tip or lower your head to the left side until you feel a stretch on the right and hold for a few seconds.
  3. Roll your head back into an extended position. Look toward the ceiling. Only go as far as you can to avoid discomfort. Hold for a few seconds.
  4. Gently roll your head to the right side until you feel a stretch on the left. Hold for a few seconds. 
  5. Roll your head to the front so the chin is tucked towards your chest and gaze is down to the floor. You will feel a stretch in the back of your neck. Hold for a few seconds. 
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Cat-Cow

Cat cow
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The cat-cow stretch (Chakravakasana) is an essential pose included in most yoga sequences. This move takes your spine from flexion to extension, which gives your upper back, rear shoulders, torso, and neck a thorough stretch. 

  1. Start on all fours with your hands flat on the floor and wrists under shoulders. Knees should be underneath your hips and toes curled. 
  2. Keep your back flat, neck long, and look straight and out. 
  3. Inhale and arch into cow pose. Belly button drops towards mat. Lift your chin and chest and gaze gently toward the ceiling. Open your shoulders.
  4. Exhale and round into cat position, starting from the spine and moving up to the neck. 
  5. Bring belly button towards your spine and drop your head. Look towards the belly button.
  6. Repeat Cat-Cow stretch on each inhale and exhale. Do 10 Cat-Cow moves.

Seated Forward Bend

seated forward bend
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The seated forward bend or fold (Paschimottanasana) is another popular yoga pose that works well for most fitness levels. If you have low back issues or tight hamstrings, make sure to ease into this move, and focus more on the stretch in the upper back and rear shoulders. 

  1. Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you and arms by your sides. Sit up tall with your spine long.
  2. Exhale and come forward while hinging at the hips. Go until you feel a stretch in your upper back and shoulders. You will also feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
  3. Inhale and see if you can deepen the forward bend to place your hands on the sides of your feet. If this is too far, place them on your shins. 
  4. Hold in this position with the spine long and neck as a natural extension of the spine. Make sure that you feel a stretch in the back of the shoulders.

Overhead Side Reach

The overhead side reach is an excellent stretch for all fitness levels. Plus, you can do it standing or seated. In the end position, you should feel a stretch in your neck, lower back, core, and torso. 

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart and hands by your sides. 
  2. Put your right hand at your side by your hip. Raise your left arm above your head with fingers pointing towards the sky. 
  3. Engage the core muscles and lean to the right until you feel a tug on the right side. Drop your neck and let it sink into the stretch. 
  4. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. 

Seated Clasp Neck Stretch

For a deep stretch that also loosens tension in the neck, try the seated clasp neck stretch. Even if you have limited range of motion, you will still feel a stretch. Start with a lighter pull and stop if you have discomfort or pain. 

  1. Start by sitting up tall on a chair or the floor. 
  2. Engage the core, keep your chest high, and pull the shoulder blades down and back.
  3. Put your hands behind your head and clasp your fingers together with palms touching your head.
  4. Gently apply pressure to the back of your head and tip your neck forward. Avoid pushing. You want your neck to do most of the work, not your hands. 
  5. Go until you feel a stretch in the back of the neck and hold this position for 30 seconds. 
  6. Release and return to the starting position. 

Anterior Shoulder Stretch

anterior shoulder stretch
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The anterior shoulder stretch can help open your chest and pull the shoulders back and down. During the hold phase, you should feel a nice, gentle stretch in the front shoulder. Avoid this move if you feel any pain. 

  1. Stand up tall with arms by your sides. 
  2. Place your hands behind your lower black and claps the fingers together with palms facing each other. 
  3. Keep the elbows straight and gently lift your hands away from your body. Your shoulder blades will move towards each other. 
  4. Lift until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders. You should not feel pain. If you feel discomfort or pain, you may need to avoid this move. 
  5. Hold this stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. 

Shoulder Rolls

Whether you’re on-the-go, at work, or cooling down after a workout, shoulder rolls are a great way to relieve tension and pain in your neck and shoulders. 

  1. Stand tall or sit with upright posture with arms by your sides and pull your shoulders back and down. 
  2. Bring shoulders towards your ears as high as you can and roll them forward. Your upper back will round but torso remains tall. 
  3. Pull your shoulders back to the starting position and shrug up to do another roll. You will make small circles with your shoulders. 
  4. Complete 10 to 12 shoulder rolls in the forward position. You can also reverse the move and roll to the back. 

Towel Shoulder Rotation Stretch

The towel shoulder stretch may feel awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll begin to feel relief in the rotator cuff muscles. This stretch is often included in a rehab program when recovering from shoulder surgery or dealing with a frozen shoulder. 

  1. Hold a long beach or bath towel in your right hand. Drape it over your shoulder.
  2. Reach behind your back with your left hand and grab bottom of the towel. 
  3. Stretch the shoulder by pulling the towel up with your right hand while maintaining tension with the left hand. 
  4. Hold for a few seconds when you feel a stretch in the shoulder. 
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat. Make sure to switch hands and repeat. 

Wall Angels 

Wall angels are not a traditional neck or shoulder stretch, but they do help with thoracic spine mobility and posture. By indirectly targeting your neck, you may notice less pain and tension in your lower neck. 

  1. Stand with your back against the wall, feet shoulder-width apart, and about 6 to 10 inches from the wall. Rest your arms at your sides. 
  2. Raise your arms to shoulder height with elbows out to the sides. Your triceps will press into the wall. 
  3. Rotate your arms so your fingers are pointing up towards the ceiling and your forearms are pressing against the wall. 
  4. Slowly raise your arms above your head until your elbows are extended. Keep your back against the wall the entire time.
  5. Lower your arms to the starting position while keeping them against the wall. 
  6. Repeat. 
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