Close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath, and imagine your daily routine. Think about the positions you sit and stand in, as well as the movements you perform most often. Depending on your job, what you imagine may involve standing for long periods or sitting all day.
It’s possible that these positions and movements contribute to feelings of tension, imbalance, and discomfort throughout your body — perhaps especially in your neck. These issues can arise because your spine is at the center of most things you do with your body, and your neck is an important part of your spine.
Neck stretches aren’t just about potential pain relief. A strong neck will also strengthen your shoulders, improve your foundation for overhead lifts, and reinforce your deadlifts and squats. Here are 10 stretches to lengthen and strengthen your neck and spine.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Best Neck Stretches
- Side Bend Stretch
- Neck Flexion Stretch
- Head Drop Exercise
- Neck Retraction
- Neck Rotation
- Suboccipital Massage
- Hugging Stretch
- Scapular Retraction
- Standing Wall Chest Stretch
- Standing Wall Latissimus Stretch
The side bend stretch is a great all-purpose tool for spine health. It is accessible and can support a wide range of complex movements. This stretch engages the upper trapezius muscles. Strong and mobile traps are key components of powerful squats, deadlifts, and even bench presses.
While the side bend stretch seems simple, practicing it consistently may help you strengthen your back. Helping you get stronger at your full range of motion can be helpful for making your back more resilient during key moves like deadlifts and squats.
Benefits of the Side Bend Stretch
- Side bends may reduce stiffness in the cervical spine (your neck).
- This stretch may improve your ability to move different parts of your spine in isolation.
- Over time, this movement may help develop your backline strength, which carries over into your big barbell lifts.
How to Do the Side Bend Stretch
Gently pull your head toward your shoulder by applying a small amount of pressure on your ear with your hand. You will likely feel a stretching sensation along the side of your neck. Hold, breathe, and repeat.
Neck flexion is one of the main components of a healthy cervical spine. Bringing your chin down to your chest as an intentional stretch can help make you more resilient during long days of laptop and phone use.
This simple movement can offer quick relief from tension, help build strength, and maintain mobility. This stretch engages the levator scapulae muscle, which helps raise your shoulder blades. It also works with your rhomboids and pectoralis minor, both big players in upper body strength and stability.
Benefits of the Neck Flexion Stretch
- Lengthening the levator scapulae may help relieve neck muscle tension.
- This movement may help build your overall neck muscle strength.
- Flexion is a component of healthy neck mobility.
How to Do the Neck Flexion Stretch
Begin in a seated and upright position. Interlace your fingers behind your head and gently guide your chin as far down toward your chest as you can without causing discomfort. You will likely feel the stretch engage in the back of your neck, from the top of your head to the top of your shoulders. Remember to keep your breath slow and steady.
The head drop exercise is one of the most effective ways to create neck mobility. This movement helps build strength, stability, and proprioception. Cultivating your body awareness can be useful to maintain an upright posture and potentially help prevent injury.
This stretch engages the deep anterior neck flexor muscles. Tightness in this area can cause excessively rounded shoulders and forward head posture. Ridding your body of this kind of tension can help produce a more comfortable and powerful posture during your deadlift and squats.
Benefits of the Head Drop Exercise
- This exercise may help build neck stability and muscle control.
- Strengthening your neck flexors may help address forward head posture, otherwise known as text neck.
- Mobility in your front neck muscles may help improve your breathing.
How to Do the Head Drop Exercise
From a stable and upright position, place your hands on top of one another in the center of your chest. Slowly move your head up and back as far as you can comfortably go. Your gaze will be facing the sky or possibly slightly behind you. Remember to breathe here. Stay as long as you want. When you’re ready, you can return to your neutral neck position.
Neck retraction can be a great addition to your movement routine if you have chronic pain or stiffness in your neck. This movement strengthens the muscles that are responsible for holding your head up straight.
Refining this exercise will help you maintain proper spinal alignment in positions like those required in overhead lifts. Neck retraction engages the sternocleidomastoid muscles, which are essential for rotating your head and flexing your neck.
Benefits of the Neck Retraction
- Neck retraction can help improve your posture.
- Strengthening the sternocleidomastoid muscles can contribute to stronger overhead lifts.
- Lengthening your front neck muscles may help strengthen your shoulders.
How to Do the Neck Retraction
Lie face up on the floor or sit upright in a chair. While you keep your eyes level and focused, bring your head straight back so you feel your ears shifting gently above your shoulders. Keep your breath slow and steady. Stay for as long as it feels comfortable. When you’re ready, return to your neutral neck position.
Neck rotation is the jack of all trades when it comes to neck mobility. This complex movement can be scaled up or down according to your needs and experience level. Performing neck rotations also builds spinal awareness.
This movement engages most, if not all, of the muscles in your cervical spine. After a while, you’ll be better able to keep your neck reliably stable during heavy, dynamic overhead movements like the snatch.
Benefits of the Neck Rotation
- This movement is a great option for warming up and cooling down.
- Neck rotation may help increase your upper body’s range of motion.
- Rotation may also help develop your spinal awareness and control.
How to Do the Neck Rotation
You can do this stretch standing. If you have neck, spine, or back pain, you can also perform this in a seated or kneeling position. Face your belly, chest, shoulders, and head forward. Keep your shoulders still and gently turn your head to the right, so your nose aligns over your shoulder.
Stay here for a moment and breathe. At your own pace, you can return to your neutral head position. Be sure to do both sides.
Consider this your secret weapon. This technique may help you find relief from the most stubborn neck tension. That’s because it can help maintain optimal spinal alignment in your neck.
The suboccipital muscles engage directly with gravity at all times that you are upright, so gathering tension in this area is common. That tension can contribute to headaches and eye strain. This is a massage technique to release the suboccipital muscles.
Benefits of the Suboccipital Massage
- This movement may help lengthen your upper spine.
- Relaxing your suboccipital muscles may help alleviate headaches and eye strain.
- Self-massage may help improve your mind-muscle connection.
How to Do the Suboccipital Massage
From a stable and upright position, gently pull your chin down toward your chest. Bring your index and middle fingers together and place them at the base of your skull on both sides. You will feel two small bony protrusions at the base of your skull.
Keep your chin tucked and apply pressure to the bony part of the back of your head. Feel free to move your fingers in a circular motion or side to side. You will likely feel the sensation of this massage in the muscles on the back of your neck and head.
These muscles support the lower cervical spine and the top of the shoulder blades. This movement will create a high degree of mobility in your neck and shoulders when you do it consistently. That’s great news for lifts like overhead squats, jerks, and overhead carries, which require a tremendous amount of upper body mobility.
Benefits of the Hugging Stretch
- The hugging stretch may help lengthen your upper back muscles.
- This movement may help increase mobility in your shoulders over time.
- Improved shoulder and chest mobility may help increase your lung capacity over time.
How to Do the Hugging Stretch
Start in a stable position with your chest lifted and your shoulders relaxed.
Variation 1: Interlace your fingers in front of your face. Lengthen your arms in front of you with your fingers together until you feel a stretch pulling between your shoulder blades. Keep breathing. You can vary the angle of your arms (upward or downward) to explore the sensations in different areas of your back muscles.
Variation 2: Wrap both of your arms around your chest. Bring your palms to your upper back or your shoulder blades. Pull your shoulders toward one another in front of your chest to create a more intense sensation.
Whenever you’re ready, you can release your fingers and relax your arms.
Scapular retraction isolates your shoulder muscles so that they move independently from your neck and spine. This movement focuses specifically on improving the integrity of the muscles between your shoulder blades. It also engages the often-overlooked rhomboid muscles, which is critical for pulling heavier weights.
Improving your ability to perform scapular retraction will stabilize your neck muscles and create more strength in your shoulders.
Benefits of the Scapular Retraction
- This dynamic movement may help increase your overall upper body strength.
- Scapular retraction may help address rounded shoulder posture.
- Scapular retraction helps isolate the muscles in your neck and shoulders.
How to Do the Scapular Retraction
While seated, bend your raised arms at 90-degree angles. Relax your shoulders and neck, keeping your arms still. Squeeze the muscles between your shoulder blades to draw your shoulders together. Breathe and hold for as long as it feels comfortable. When you’re ready, return your shoulders to the neutral position.
The standing wall chest stretch engages your pectoralis major and minor muscles. It also stretches your biceps and intercostal muscles. That’s a recipe for potentially increased safety with overhead pushes and pulls alike.
Tightness in the muscles that reside on the front of your rib cage can be a contributing factor to neck pain, shoulder rounding, and spinal misalignment. This movement can help relieve those factors, as well as improve your circulation and upper body flexibility.
Benefits of the Standing Wall Chest Stretch
- Chronic and excessive tension in your neck and shoulders can fade with this stretch.
- The standing wall chest stretch helps strengthen your chest, side body, and back muscles.
- This stretch may help improve your squat performance since you’ll have to work hard to get your shoulders and elbows in the right position under the bar, especially for the low bar back squat.
How to Do the Standing Wall Chest Stretch
Stand directly in front of the corner of a wall so your gaze aligns with the line where the two walls meet. Bring about a hip-width distance between your feet. Place your right foot one step ahead of your left foot. Take a cactus arms position with your biceps parallel to your shoulders, your elbows bent, and your fingertips pointing toward the sky.
Place your forearms against the walls and gently press your right foot down to push your chest forward. Look up to lift your chest so you feel the sensation in the center of your chest and under your armpits. If you feel like adding more intensity to this position, keep your arms connected to the wall and gently lengthen your elbows to reach your arms up above your head.
You will likely feel this sensation in the space between your rib cage and your shoulder blades. Wherever you choose to stay, focus on keeping your breath slow, steady, and deep. Switch the position of your feet and repeat as needed.
As much as you might — and should — associate your lats with powerful pulls and even a strong bench press, your lats are also an essential component of your core. Your core creates the foundation for stability in your spine. This wall stretch engages the latissimus and triceps muscles.
Benefits of the Wall Latissimus Stretch
- Strengthening your lats may increase your neck muscle stability.
- Mobility in your lats is a major factor in your overall spine health.
- This stretch may help improve your deadlift performance.
How to Do the Wall Latissimus Stretch
Stand with the flat side of the wall parallel to your right shoulder. Reach your right arm into the air, bend your right elbow, and place it against the wall. Lean your upper body toward the wall to create a sensation in the right side of your body, from the tip of your elbow to the bottom of your rib cage.
You can adjust the position of your feet as desired, bringing them closer to or further from the wall. The position of your feet will determine how much pressure you feel in the stretch. Pull your belly toward your spine to activate your core muscles, squeeze your glutes to lift your chest up, and tuck your chin down to lengthen your spine. Stay here and breathe. Be sure to do both sides at your own pace.
Anatomy of the Neck Muscles
Your neck muscles help support your cervical spine. These muscles also facilitate movement in your neck, spine, shoulders, and back. Here are the main muscles connected to your cervical spine.
The levator scapulae are attached to the first four vertebrae in your spine, go down the side of your neck, and connect to the top of your scapula. They help you rotate your head, bend your neck to the side, and lift your shoulder blades.
The SCM muscles begin at a small bony point behind your ear called the mastoid process. It travels down the front of your neck and connects to your sternum and collarbone. This muscle rotates your head and tilts your chin upward.
The trapezius muscle spans from the base of your skull down your cervical spine into your middle back and out to your shoulder blade. This muscle extends your head upward and your neck backward, rotates your head, and lifts your shoulder blades.
Deep Cervical Flexors
The deep cervical flexors are composed of two small muscles on the front of your cervical spine. These muscles mostly stabilize your upper body and can flex your neck forward.
The suboccipitals are another group of four muscles that connect the top of your shoulders to the base of your skull. These muscles create neck extension and rotation.
Types of Stretches
In the same way that different stretches target different areas of your body, there are multiple ways to perform the same stretch. It all depends on your intention for that area and with each particular mobility session.
Static stretching is the form of stretching that most people know. It involves extending your target muscle and holding it for a length of time. There are two types of static stretching.
Active static stretching applies tension to the target muscle to increase the intensity. For example, extending your leg into the air and holding it there with no extra assistance is an active form of static stretching. In this case, the tension comes from squeezing your quads to keep your hamstring relaxed.
Passive static stretching applies external force to the target muscle to increase the intensity. For example, extending your leg into the air and using your hand to hold it up is a passive static strength. Here, the external force is your hand supporting your leg.
Dynamic stretching uses steady, controlled movements to gradually increase movement speed, muscle tissue length, or both. Strength athletes use dynamic stretches to activate and prepare their muscles to perform a specific function. For example, a sprinter may take consecutive extended, exaggerated strides to lengthen their hamstrings and quads.
Isometric stretching is another type of static stretching that deserves special attention. It occurs by creating controlled contractions in the target muscle for five to 15 seconds, then relaxing the target muscle for at least 30 seconds.
This is one of the fastest ways to integrate strength and flexibility since you’ll be contracting your muscles — hard — at their end ranges of motion. This method may also decrease the discomfort associated with stretching.
How to Program Neck Stretches
If you’re most accustomed to performing sets and reps with loaded barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells, the set and rep schemes for stretching might be unfamiliar to you. Here’s a cheat sheet for how long to hold different stretches.
- Static stretches are often held for at least 30 seconds and can last up to five minutes.
- Dynamic stretches can be performed for one set with up to 10 reps.
- Isometric stretches also involve one set with up to 10 reps, held in contraction for five to 15 seconds, and relaxing the muscle for 30 seconds.
So if you’re looking to perform a dynamic movement like a neck rotation, perform a set of up to 10 reps per side. For more static stretches like the wall latissimus stretch, opt for a set of up to 10 reps, holding each position for at least 30 seconds.
Regularly stretching the muscles in your upper body and neck isn’t just about potentially reducing pain and stiffness — though that’s a pretty good benefit. You’re also likely to experience more progress in the gym as your upper body mobility improves.
Expect your gains to come slowly over time and stay diligent even when you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Keep a solid mobility routine and you’ll get better at it gradually, just like you do on the gym floor.
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