Fitness

11 Neck Exercises That'll Help Relieve Tension

Don't feel bad about your neck.

All the benefits of neck exercises that'll convince you to do regular stretches.
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You might not realize how much you use your neck until it starts hurting. If you go to turn your head and experience sharp pain, or if you’re dealing with a dull ache that won’t go away, doing some neck exercises will help save the day — and return that tension hotspot to its former glory.

The benefits of neck exercises are just like those you’d expect from doing those that target other parts of the body — including increased strength, muscular endurance, improved range of motion, and pain reduction, says Helen Goldstein, DPT, NASM-CPT, a doctor of physical therapy with FlexIt. As an added bonus, neck exercises can improve your posture and relieve job-related aches, like the kind you might experience after sitting at a desk all day, Goldstein explains.

While you can develop neck tension or pain for a number of reasons, Goldstein notes that a common culprit is maintaining poor or improper alignment for extended periods of time (think forward head tilt). “Strengthening and stretching the neck, combined with doing the same for the muscles in surrounding areas [like the shoulders and upper back], can help correct your posture and therefore decrease the pain you may be experiencing,” she tells Bustle.

Tony Matoska, PT, DPT, CMPT, a physical therapist with Athletico Physical Therapy, says your neck pain should start to go away once you start exercising, as long as you stick to it. “Gentle stretches can be done numerous times throughout the day as needed,” he tells Bustle, while strengthening can be done two to three times each week. To get started, choose a few exercises from the list below, and hopefully, those aches will stop being such a pain in the neck.

1

Chin Tucks

Chin tuck exercises help improve poor posture, Goldstein explains, while gently stretching the tight upper cervical area on the back of your neck.

- Stand tall with your back against a wall.

- Retract your head straight back in an attempt to touch the back of your head to the wall.

- Make sure you’re not tilting your head up, but instead pulling your chin in to create a “double chin.”

- Hold for three seconds, then relax.

- Repeat 10 reps.

- Do 5 to 7 sets throughout the day, especially if you work at a computer.

2

Upper Trapezius Stretch

Goldstein also likes this move to loosen up the trapezius, aka the chronically overactive muscle in the neck and shoulders. It can get tight if you sit with your shoulders crunched up and high, she says, or if you try to do bicep curls with dumbbells that are too heavy.

- Stand tall with your shoulders back.

- Put your right hand behind your back with your elbows bent to set your shoulder blade in place.

- While keeping your gaze and your nose pointed forward, gently tilt your head toward your left shoulder.

- Breathe steadily and make sure you don’t lift your left shoulder towards your left ear.

- Instead, make sure your left ear moves down towards the left shoulder.

- Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat the exercise on the other side.

3

Wall Angels

Matoska recommends this exercise to relieve neck and upper back pain. Do it a few times a week, and it’ll help strengthen the muscles you need for good posture.

- Lean your back against a wall with your feet about one step in front of you.

- Keep your hips, back, and head against the wall.

- Place your arms against the wall at shoulder height with your elbows bent so your hands are directed towards the ceiling.

- Keep everything in contact with the wall as you slide your arms up as high as possible while trying to straighten your arms.

- Slide your arms back down and squeeze your elbows down to your sides while maintaining full contact against the wall.

- Repeat 10 to 15 reps.

- Do 2 to 4 sets.

4

Open Books

For this exercise, imagine that you’re opening your arms like the pages of a book. “It’s great for your neck, upper back, and chest, which often get tight after long periods of sitting,” Matoska says.

- Begin by lying on your side.

- Rest your head on a pillow for support.

- Keep your knees stacked and bent, so they are just below the level of your hips.

- Gently turn your head and reach your top arm open.

- Rotate until you feel a stretch. Make sure you breathe in deeply during the rotation.

- Hold for one to two seconds at the end range before returning to the start position.

- Do 20 to 30 reps, then repeat on the other side.

5

Quadruped Chin Tucks

This posture-correcting exercise is another one that’ll help reduce tension and pain in the neck and upper back, Matoska says.

- Begin on your hands and knees with hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.

- Press your hands to the floor to set your shoulder blades.

- Hold that position and perform a chin tuck so your neck is parallel to the floor.

- Hold for 5 to 10 seconds while breathing and release.

- Do 10 to 20 reps.

- Repeat 2 to 4 sets.

6

Neck Rolls

Next up, wellness coach Lesline Pitmann recommends doing gentle neck rolls to lengthen shortened muscles. “This exercise stretches the sternocleidomastoid muscle, decreasing neck pain and headaches,” she tells Bustle.

- Sit with good posture in a chair or on the floor.

- Drop your left ear to your left shoulder. Unclench your jaw.

- Bring your chin to your chest.

- Drop your right ear to your right shoulder.

- Slightly drop your head back.

- Repeat rolls 1 to 5 times.

7

Kickball Exercise

Chiropractor Ryan Todd Lloyd, DC, suggests combining a few exercises into this one move, which he calls a kickball exercise. “These exercises are designed to both mobilize the joints in the cervical spine, as well as actively strengthen neck muscles through the full range of motion of the neck,” he tells Bustle.

- Place an 8.5-inch kickball against the wall.

- Use the back of your head to hold the ball against the wall.

- Press into the ball for 3 seconds of flexion, then release for 3 seconds of extension.

- Next, move the ball against the side of your neck.

- Press into the ball for 3 seconds. Do both sides.

- Finish by pressing the ball with your forehead.

- Press for 3 seconds then release.

- During each move, focus on feeling your muscles activate.

8

Standing Cat-Cow

This exercise, from Mara Kimowitz, a stretch expert and founder of StretchSource and Pliability StretchAcademy, should feel really good if you have neck pain.

- Begin with your hands on a table, desk, or counter.

- Have your feet comfortably hip-width apart and knees slightly bent.

- For the "cat" phase, draw your belly button into your spine so that your spine begins to curve like a rainbow. Allow your chin to reach down and in towards your chest.

- Inhale and exhale a full breath.

- Return to the starting position.

- For the "cow" phase, arch your back and look up to the ceiling. Create a stretch and open through your clavicle and chest.

- Inhale and exhale a full breath.

- Return to the starting position.

- Repeat as needed to keep stress and pressure out of your head and neck.

9

Shoulder Rolls

If you do these exercises regularly, you should start to feel better, says Dawn Rivers, a yoga instructor and owner of Daybreak Yoga. “The thing to remember is it takes time and consistency to see a difference in posture and feel less pain.” Here’s an easy one she suggests doing throughout the day as needed.

- Sit up straight with a tall spine.

- Roll your shoulders forward and down toward the chest.

- Inhale as your shoulders go up and exhale as they go forward and down.

- Do 3 to 4 repetitions before rolling the shoulder up and back.

- Again, inhale as the shoulders go up and exhale as they go back and down.

- Repeat 3 to 4 times.

10

Seated Twists

As Rivers explains, these types of poses create short-term stress on the muscles, which causes them to relax. “When we strengthen the muscles of the neck, such as the trapezius and the erector spinae, which are exercised or moved differently than the norm, they grow stronger,” she says. Try this exercise for some relief.

- Sit on the floor or in a chair with a tall spine.

- Bring your right hand to your left knee and your left hand behind your body or on the back of the chair.

- Inhale to lengthen the spine.

- Exhale, twist, and look past the left shoulder.

- Do this for 3 to 4 breath cycles.

- Return to neutral to allow the spine to rest for a moment before twisting to the opposite side.

11

Standing Forward Bend

Exercises like these help improve the range of motion in your neck, says Kim Trimmer, M.Ed., C-IAT, ERYT-500, a yoga teacher, therapist, and owner of InsideOut Yoga. In turn, that can relieve tension-related headaches.

- Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees bent.

- Allow your head to drop forward, then your shoulders followed by your spine.

- Imagine you are tipping forward vertebra by vertebra.

- Roll back up with that same intention.

- Do this three times.

- On the third repetition stay in that forward posture for 10 to 12 breaths.

- Let your head be heavy. If imagery works for you, imagine all the tension from your neck and shoulders draining into the earth.

- Repeat throughout the day to ease tension.

Studies referenced:

Mahmoud, N. (2019). The Relationship Between Forward Head Posture and Neck Pain: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6942109/

Sal-o, PK. (2010). Effect of neck strength training on health-related quality of life in females with chronic neck pain: a randomized controlled 1-year follow-up study. Health Qual Life Outcomes. PMID: 20465854; PMCID: PMC2877013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2877013/

Sources:

Helen Goldstein, DPT, NASM-CPT, doctor of physical therapy

Tony Matoska, PT, DPT, CMPT, physical therapist

Lesline Pitmann, wellness coach

Ryan Todd Lloyd, DC, chiropractor

Mara Kimowitz, stretch expert

Dawn Rivers, yoga instructor

Kim Trimmer, M.Ed., C-IAT, ERYT-500, yoga teacher, therapist