The 9 Best Stretches for Your Neck

Relieve tightness with these simple stretches

Between office work and Netflix binges, many of us could stand to give our bodies some extra TLC. Stiff muscles and achy joints — particularly in the neck and back — are a plague among people today as inactive lifestyles become the norm. Fight back against the symptoms of being sedentary with these nine neck stretches that’ll leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed. 

Neck Circles

Neck circles are a simple yet effective stretch for your neck. This dynamic movement gently works kinks out of the muscles that keep your head upright all day long. And, while it’s called a neck circle, this stretch reaches into your shoulder and upper back muscles, too (specifically the trapezius and rhomboids). 

Here’s how to safely perform neck circles: 

  1. You can start seated or standing for this stretch. Whatever position you choose, tighten your core and maintain a neutral spine (no arching or hunching). Position your chin forward and chest high. 
  2. Gently drop your left ear toward your left shoulder, feeling the pull on the right side of your neck. Only drop so far that you feel a deep stretch, not pain. 
  3. Slowly tip your head forward to begin making a circle. Pause for a moment when your chin reaches center. 
  4. Continue the circle by bringing your right ear to your right shoulder. Now, you should feel the stretch in the left side of your neck. 
  5. Continue the circle by tipping your head backward, pausing again when your chin reaches center and points up to the sky. 
  6. Complete the circle by returning your gaze to the starting position. Perform 8 to 10 circles. 

If you don’t feel comfortable tipping your neck backward (this can be painful for some people), stick to half circles, shifting from the left to the right.

Shoulder Rolls

Another dynamic stretch, shoulder rolls help to loosen up stiff muscle fibers in the lower part of your neck, as well as the sides of your neck. This is a great stretch for people who work at a computer, as it’ll alleviate the achiness that comes from hunching in front of a screen all day. 

How to do shoulder rolls: 

  1. You can begin seated or standing for this stretch. In either position, assume a tall, proud stance by straightening your spine and pulling your shoulder blades down. 
  2. Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears as high as you can without hunching.
  3. Once you reach your end range of motion, pull your shoulders back and down. 
  4. Squeeze your back muscles tightly before bringing your shoulders forward and upward again. 
  5. Complete 10 to 15 shoulder rolls, resting 30 seconds before going into a new set. 

Upper Trapezius Stretch

Your trapezius muscle is a large, dense muscle that begins in your neck, spans the width of your shoulders, and extends through your mid-back along both sides of your spine. You may know this muscle as your “traps.” It’s separated into three sections: the upper trapezius, the middle trapezius, and the lower trapezius.

The trapezius muscle enables you to shrug your shoulders and pull your shoulder blades back, and it’s often responsible for what we perceive as neck soreness. 

Here’s how to stretch your upper trapezius: 

  1. You can begin seated or standing for this stretch, as long as you start with a neutral spine and a tight core. 
  2. Place your right hand on your lower back with your elbow bent. This arm should make an “L” or “V” shape behind your back. 
  3. Place your left hand on top of your head. 
  4. Use your left hand to gently pull your head forward, creating a stretch from the base of your head through your upper trapezius. 
  5. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side. For an added bonus, practice deep breathing while holding this stretch. 

Thread the Needle

This dynamic stretch opens up your neck, shoulders, and upper spine. It’s a wondrous tool for those who find themselves battling poor posture and, consequently, stiffness in the upper body. Thread the Needle also doubles as a great warm-up exercise to do before workouts. 

Thread the Needle instructions: 

  1. Start on all fours on the ground. You may want to perform this stretch on carpet or with a yoga mat for comfort. Make sure your hips are stacked directly above your knees and your elbows, shoulders, and wrists make a straight line.
  2. Walk your hands forward several inches. Lift your right hand up and thread it beneath your left arm. 
  3. Sink into your range of motion here, pushing your hips back and down. This should look like child’s pose, but with your right arm placed differently. Hold this position for 30 to 45 seconds, and then switch sides. 
  4. Complete 5 to 10 repetitions on each side.  

Overhead Side Reach

If you’re feeling a bit achy on the sides of your neck, try the overhead side reach. This stretch targets more than just your neck — in fact, it’s more of a torso stretch than a neck stretch — but it does wonders for the muscle fibers extending from your jawbone to your collarbone. 

How to do the overhead side reach stretch: 

  1. Start by standing or sitting tall. Know that this stretch requires some strength in your core, so if you aren’t confident in your core strength, you may wish to do the overhead side reach in a sitting position. 
  2. Raise your right arm up high, palms forward. Keep your left arm in contact with your torso. 
  3. Allow your left ear to drop toward your left shoulder. 
  4. Bend your torso to the left, creasing at your natural waist. 
  5. Reach to the left with your right hand, extending as far as you can without becoming unstable. Hold the final position for five to 10 seconds and return to center. 
  6. Repeat on the opposite side and continue alternating for 10 to 12 repetitions.

Cat-Cow Pose

Known for its frequent appearance in yoga flows, cat-cow pose also makes a fantastic warm-up exercise for workouts, as well as a great standalone stretch for your spine. After a few reps of this dynamic movement, you’re sure to feel loosey-goosey in your upper body. 

Here’s how to do cat-cow pose: 

  1. Start on your hands and knees, aligning your shoulders, elbows and wrists into one straight line. Align your hips and knees as well. Start with a neutral spine.
  2. Inhale and round your back, pressing into the floor with your palms. Tip your pelvis forward and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Exhale and arch your back, tipping your neck back and looking up to the sky. Tuck your toes under and squeeze your shoulder blades together. 
  4. Return to center and repeat. Complete 8 to 10 reps. 

Thoracic Extension

Grab a chair or a foam roller for this stretch, which you can do dynamically or statically. Your thoracic spine, also called the T-spine, runs from the top of your rib cage to the bottom, and it’s a major contributor to your ability to rotate, flex, and extend your back.

Consequently, the T-spine is also responsible for much of the immobility that plagues sedentary people. 

Stretch out your T-spine with thoracic extension

  1. Set up a chair or foam roller. If using a chair, sit up tall. If using a foam roller, lie on your back with the foam roller positioned at your thoracic spine. 
  2. Position your arms above your head and inhale deeply. 
  3. As you exhale, press your back against your chair or foam roller and sink into your spine’s range of motion. Try to keep your navel tucked in and arch only your thoracic spine, not your lumbar (lower) spine. You should feel pressure against the back side of your rib cage.
  4. Inhale and return to center. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions. Don’t forget to focus on your breathing! 

For a more static version of the thoracic extension, hold each extension for 30 to 45 seconds and reduce the rep count to three to five.

Wall Angel

Another great stretch for the T-spine, wall angels require you to completely flatten out your upper spine and squeeze your shoulder blades together, which can create some much-needed space and laxity in your neck and upper shoulders. The positioning is similar to that of wall slides, except you won’t be using your legs for wall angels.

Try wall angels by following these steps: 

  1. Sit against a wall with your legs extended in front of you — make a perfect “L” with your body by sitting up tall. 
  2. Raise your arms laterally, making your upper arm horizontal with the ground, and press your triceps against the wall. 
  3. Rotate your arms so your forearms and the backs of your hands also press into the wall. Your arms should make the shape of a football goal post. 
  4. Slowly extend your arms overhead, keeping them in contact with the wall. 
  5. Lower them back to horizontal, maintaining contact with the wall through your arms and back. Your back should never pull away from the wall during this movement. 
  6. Repeat for 10 to 15 reps. 

This stretch might feel hard or even be impossible for people with very limited spinal mobility. If you can’t perform the wall angel stretch as written, try moving just one arm at a time. 

Seated Clasp Neck Stretch

End your neck stretching routine with the seated clasp neck stretch, a gentle static stretch that targets the base of your neck through your thoracic spine (mid-back). 

Try the seated clasp neck stretch: 

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Keep your chest tall and engage your core. 
  2. Clasp your hands behind your head and gently tip your neck forward, using the weight of your arms to pull your head down. 
  3. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, return to the starting position, and repeat five to 10 times. 

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.