Best Ways to Stretch Your Neck and Shoulders

A few gentle stretches every day can ease your tense shoulders and neck.

Woman practices gentle exercises to loosen shoulder muscles by placing her hand on top of her head and gently pulling.

Medically reviewed in March 2022

Is your neck achy? Are your shoulders sore? Think about how much time you've spent at your computer or on your smartphone today. Turns out, there's a strong connection between these behaviors and neck and shoulder pain. 

"The neck needs and craves movement," says Grant Cooper, MD, co-director of the Princeton Spine and Joint Center in Princeton, New Jersey. "If you spend a lot of time in one position—particularly a position that's tough on your neck, like hunched in front of a computer or phone—that's a lot of stress going through your neck." 

Then there's the fact that your neck has the job of holding up your head all day. "Your head weighs a little more than a bowling ball, so this also puts a lot of chronic stress on your neck," he adds. 

If your neck and shoulders need a little pampering, Dr. Cooper suggests using these neck and shoulder stretches.  

Tilt your head 

  1. Place your right arm over your head so that your right hand covers your left ear. 
  2. Gently and slowly tilt your head so that your right ear comes closer to your right shoulder. 
  3. Hold the pose for 20 seconds, and then slowly return to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat the stretch on the other side, pulling your left ear to your left shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. 
  5. Repeat this stretch three times on each side. 

Raise your palms 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Interlock your fingers and stretch them over your head with your palms facing toward the ceiling. Keep your shoulders relaxed (not bunched up to your ears). 
  3. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. 

Cross your chest 

  1. Bring your right arm across your chest. 
  2. Use your left hand to hold your upper right arm and help pull it across your body. 
  3. Hold for 20 seconds, and then repeat with the opposite arm. 
  4. Repeat this stretch three times on both arms. 

"When you're stretching, you should feel a pull in your muscles, but it shouldn't be painful," says Cooper. "If it's painful, stop and talk to your doctor, or pick a different stretch." 

Posture matters, too 
As important as it is to stretch out those tired, overused muscles, it's equally smart to watch your posture throughout the day. "Holding a 'bowling ball' atop your neck is tough enough. What makes matters worse is that most of us hold that bowling ball in front of our neck because of poor posture," Cooper says. If youimprove your posture, your neck and shoulder muscles can stay loose and relaxed. 

The benefits of massage 
Massage therapy for neck and shoulders could be great for loosening your muscles and relieving achiness, says Cooper, but it's not a cure-all. "I would recommend that if someone wants to try massage therapy, they think of it is as one method to use while they also make sure they're actively stretching and strengthening their muscles in the right way," he says.

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