We’ve all felt that annoying tightness or discomfort in our necks after a night of poor sleep or a day hunched over a screen. Neck stretches are the way to fix that…right?
Not exactly. If you want a long-term solution to neck stiffness or discomfort and a preventive way to stop it from happening in the first place, you have to focus on more than just your neck, Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York–based physical therapist and trainer, tells SELF.
“You have to address the whole system,” she says. “That means your cervical spine—your neck—and your thoracic spine [the middle of your back].”
Before you can work on alleviating that tightness, you first should understand what might be causing that neck discomfort.
There are actually a few things that could be going on to throw that area out of whack, leading to that all-too-familiar feeling of tightness and stiffness above your shoulders. Improper posture is a big one, Miranda says. This causes your head, shoulders, and middle back to pull forward, which triggers the muscles in that area to try to pull them back into alignment. As a result, they start to feel tight and stiff.
Shallow breathing is another potential trigger for neck discomfort, Miranda says. People—especially when they’re stressed—tend to be chest breathers, or shallow breathers, where they rely on their accessory breathing muscles, like the upper trapezius muscles and pectoral muscles, rather than the diaphragm (which allows deep belly breaths).
“The muscles in the neck and the shoulders become overworked, making them feel tense and your tightness feel worse,” Miranda says.
If you’re dealing with neck tightness or stiffness, working on sitting and standing in an aligned posture (ribs stacked right over your pelvis and your head stacked right over your ribs) and breathing diaphragmatically are key. But stretching plays an important role after that.
The best neck stretches—which again, don’t only target your neck—include both static and dynamic options. While we may think of neck stretches as something you just hold, mobility-based moves also play a super-important role, says Miranda. They help your body take the proper posture you learn during static stretches and apply it to movement.
For most cases of simple neck pain, tightness, or discomfort, trying some neck stretches—like in the routine below—can be enough to alleviate the stiffness and help you feel better. But if you have any more alarming symptoms, like numbness or tingling in your neck, arms, or extremities, you should connect with your doctor or physical therapist to see if there may be a more serious cause for your neck pain.
Hold each static stretch for at least 30 seconds, or 5-8 deep, diaphragmatic breaths in and out, and the dynamic moves for the time specified.
Demonstrating the moves below are Hejira Nitoto (photos 1, 3, and 6), a mom of six and a certified personal trainer and fitness apparel line owner based in Los Angeles; Shauna Harrison (photo 4), a Bay Area–based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF; and Caitlyn Seitz (photos 2 and 5), a New York–based group fitness instructor and singer-songwriter.