Exercises to Relieve Upper Back Pain, Neck Pain

Exercises to Relieve Upper Back Pain, Neck Pain, and More

Regardless of the cause of your pain — hunching over a smartphone, sitting at a desk all day, or even injury — stretching and strengthening exercises can go a long way in your recovery.

Below, we’ve compiled 19 moves to help stretch and strengthen the muscles in your:

  • neck
  • shoulders
  • upper back
  • mid back
  • lower back

For the best results, try incorporating these stretches and exercises a few times per week.

How to warm up

Before starting your workout, perform some dynamic exercises to warm up your muscles. Ideally, leave static stretching until after your workout.

First things first: Loosen up the muscles in your problem area with a dynamic warmup that includes mobility exercises.

Before you start your workout, you want to prepare your muscles, ligaments, and joints for the work ahead. Therefore, adding in some dynamic stretching can help you warm up. You may also benefit from a 5–10 minute cardio warmup, such as walking, cycling, or a gentle jog.

While static stretches — where you hold a stretch in one position for a length of time — helps restore and maintain flexibility and promote range of motion, they should mostly be left until after your workout or included within a more dynamic warmup routine beforehand.

This is because prolonged static stretching (especially 60 seconds or more) may temporarily reduce your muscular strength and endurance, reaction time, and overall performance.

If you do want to add some static stretching to your warmup, try to limit the stretches to 10–20 seconds. Otherwise, leave it until your workout is completed.

Dynamic stretches for the neck, shoulders, and upper back

Select a handful of the following exercises and perform them before your workout for 30 seconds to 1 minute each.

Neck roll

Good for: neck and upper back

  1. Stand or sit facing forward. Begin by tilting your neck to the right. You should feel the stretch through your neck to your trap muscle.
  2. After a second or two, slowly roll your head counterclockwise.
  3. Pause for a second or two when you reach your left shoulder.
  4. Complete the rotation by ending where you started.
  5. Repeat these steps, rolling clockwise.
  6. Repeat this sequence 2–3 times.

Shoulder roll

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. Stand with your arms down at your sides.
  2. Roll your shoulders backward in a circular motion, completing 5 rotations. Then complete 5 rotations forward.
  3. Repeat this sequence 2–3 times.

Arm circles

Good for: shoulders

  1. Stand with your arms out to your sides, parallel with the floor, with your palms facing down.
  2. Slowly circle your arms forward, making small circles at first and eventually larger ones. Do this 20 times.
  3. Reverse the movement and do another 20 circles.

Overhead arm reach

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. Sit in a chair, facing forward, with your feet on the floor.
  2. Extend your right arm above your head and reach to the left. Bend your torso until you feel the stretch in your right lat and shoulder.
  3. Return to the starting position. Repeat 5 times, then do the same thing with your left arm.

Chair rotation

Good for: upper, mid, and lower back

  1. Sit sideways in a chair. Your right side should be resting against the back of the chair.
  2. Keeping your legs stationary, rotate your torso to the right, reaching for the back of the chair with your hands.
  3. Hold your upper body in rotation, using your arms to stretch deeper and deeper as your muscles loosen.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side.

Cat-Cow

Good for: mid and lower back

  1. Start on all fours with your neck neutral.
  2. Your palms should be directly under your shoulders, and your knees should be directly under your hips.
  3. On an inhale, tuck your pelvis and round out your mid back. Draw your navel toward your spine and drop your head to relax your neck.
  4. After 3–5 seconds, exhale and return to a neutral spine position.
  5. Turn your face toward the sky, allowing your back to sink toward the floor. Hold for 3–5 seconds.
  6. Repeat this sequence 5 times.  

Knee to chest

Good for: lower back

  1. Lie faceup on the floor. Bend your left leg and bring it to your chest. Hold for 5 seconds, then release.
  2. Repeat with your right leg.
  3. Complete this sequence 3 times.

Thoracic extension

Good for: upper and mid back

  1. For best results, you’ll need a foam roller or a chair.
  2. If you’re using a foam roller, position it under your thoracic spine. Allow your head and glutes to fall on either side. Extend your arms above your head to deepen the stretch.
  3. If you’re using a chair, sit facing forward and allow your upper body to fall over the back of the chair. Extend your arms above your head for a deeper stretch.
  4. Hold either position for 5 seconds, then release. Repeat 3 times.

Strengthening exercises

Strengthening the muscles in your back, shoulders, and neck is vital to reduce and prevent pain. Choose a handful of the moves below to target them.

Some of these moves involve dumbbells or resistance bands, and some use just your body weight. Pick a mix of both types, if possible.

Row

Good for: upper back

Use a resistance band or a light to medium dumbbell to complete this move.

  1. Affix the resistance band to a pole or another stable surface and grab each handle, extending your arms.
  2. Pull the handles straight back by bending your elbows, keeping them close to your body. You should feel your lats working.
  3. If you’re using a dumbbell, hold it in your right hand and brace yourself on a wall with your left hand, arm extended.
  4. Hinge at the waist to a 45-degree angle, allowing the dumbbell to hang down.
  5. Keeping your neck neutral and your knees soft, pull the dumbbell directly up with a tucked elbow.
  6. Perform 2–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Face pull

Good for: shoulders and upper back

Use a resistance band to complete this move.

  1. Affix the band to a stable surface above eye level. Grab each handle with an overhand grip.
  2. Pull directly toward your face, flaring your upper arms out to the sides and squeezing your shoulders together. Pause, then return to the starting position.
  3. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.

Scapular squeeze

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. While standing with your arms down by your sides, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for 5 seconds, then release.
  2. Repeat 3–5 times.

Wall angel

Good for: neck, shoulders, and upper back

  1. Stand with your back flat against a wall. You may need to step your feet out slightly to allow your back to completely soften against the wall.
  2. Extend your arms out to create a “T” shape against the wall, then bend your elbows to create 90-degree angles.
  3. Slowly move your arms up and down in a “snow angel” motion, ensuring that they stay flat against the wall the whole time.
  4. When your fingers touch above your head, return to the starting position.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.

Reverse dumbbell fly

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. Grab 2 light dumbbells and stand, hinged at the waist at a 45-degree angle, with your arms hanging straight down.
  2. Keeping your neck neutral and your gaze down, begin to lift your arms out to the sides and up.
  3. Squeeze your shoulders together at the top of the movement.
  4. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Lat pulldown

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. Sit or stand underneath a resistance band attached to a stable surface overhead.
  2. Pull down on the band until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  3. Pause at the bottom, squeezing your lats, then return to the starting position.
  4. Complete 3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Superman

Good for: mid and lower back

  1. Lie on your stomach with your arms extended above your head.
  2. Keeping your neck neutral, lift your arms and legs off the floor at the same time. Make sure you’re using your back and glutes to lift.
  3. Pause briefly at the top, then return to the starting position.
  4. Complete 3 sets of 10 reps of the superman exercise.

MIMI (Multi ion mask insert)

  • Can be worn with any facemask and provides additional heavy-duty protection.
  • Adult & Youth Sizes Available

Static stretches for after your workout

Try to incorporate some static stretching once your workout is complete.

Pec stretch

Good for: chests and shoulders

You’ll need a doorway for this stretch.

  1. Step into the doorway and place your forearms on the doorframe. Make sure your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Let the weight of your body fall forward slightly so that you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 3 times.

Child’s Pose

Good for: shoulders; upper, mid, and lower back

  1. Start on the floor on all fours.
  2. With your big toes touching, spread your knees as far apart as they’ll go and sit your glutes back onto your feet.
  3. Sit straight up with your arms extended above your head.
  4. On your next exhale, hinge at the waist and drop your upper body forward between your legs.
  5. Allow your forehead to touch the floor, your shoulders to spread, and your glutes to sink back.
  6. Hold for at least 15 seconds.

Butterfly

Good for: shoulders and upper back

  1. Place your palms on opposite shoulders and bring your elbows together to touch.
  2. Hold for 10–20 seconds, then release.
  3. Repeat 3–5 more times.

Upper trapezius stretch

Good for: upper back and neck

  1. While standing straight or sitting in a chair, take your right hand and place it on the back of your head. Take your left hand and tuck it behind your back.
  2. Using your right hand, gently pull your head toward your right shoulder.
  3. Hold this for 10–15 seconds.
  4. Repeat on the other side.

Levator scapulae stretch

Good for: neck and upper back

  1. While standing straight or sitting in a chair, turn your neck 45 degrees to the left.
  2. Bend your neck downward (imagine you’re looking into a shirt pocket). You can use your left hand for a greater stretch.
  3. Hold this for 10–15 seconds.
  4. Repeat on the other side.

When will the pain go away?

Each person will have a unique recovery process. If you need a specific treatment plan or are experiencing severe pain, consult a physical therapist or another healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program.

If you’re experiencing mild discomfort or an acute injury, the duration of the pain will largely depend on the cause of the problem and the type of injury.

Generally, you may notice improvements within a few weeks or months as your muscles become stronger and your injury heals.

However, every person will have a different recovery process. In some cases, seeking the advice of a personal trainer who can provide a specific exercise regimen might be beneficial.

If you’re experiencing severe neck or back pain, you should consult a healthcare professional and avoid starting any new activity.

When should I start exercising after injury?

It’s best to avoid exercise until your pain, stiffness, and swelling have improved. Exercising too soon can worsen your injury and prolong your recovery process.

Getting back to exercise too soon can worsen an injury, making your recovery process even longer. Therefore, it’s important to allow your injury to heal and slowly return to your regular activities.

It’s best to avoid exercise until you’ve noticed improvements in your pain, stiffness, and swelling.

A good sign is when you’re able to perform normal household tasks and daily activities with little to no pain and have full or almost full range of motion.

If you’re unsure, it’s best to talk with a healthcare professional before starting any exercise.

What else should I do?

Having a strong core may help to reduce lower back pain. You may also benefit from at-home treatments or professional therapies such as heat therapy, over-the-counter pain medication, massage, or acupuncture.

While it’s important to include neck and back exercises in your routine, you’ll want to include a variety of strengthening exercises for well-rounded fitness.

In particular, having a strong core has been linked to reduced lower back pain because the core is involved in stabilizing the spine. The core includes the following muscles:

  • transversus abdominis
  • rectus abdominis
  • internal and external obliques
  • erector spinae muscles (back extensors)
  • multifidus

A number of studies have linked core-strengthening exercise programs to improvements in lower back pain.

Additionally, you may benefit from other at-home treatments or professional therapies such as heat therapy (heat packs, hot bath, etc.), whole-body stretching, over-the-counter pain medications (such as ibuprofen or Voltaren), massage therapy, and acupuncture.

Finally, if you work at a desk, try to set up your space ergonomically, which may help alleviate pain and pressure on your neck and back.

Bottom line

Neck and back pain can be frustrating and debilitating.

In some cases, neck and back pain can be treated at home with daily stretching and strength training.

However, each person’s recovery is unique and may require a longer period of rest before resuming activity. For many, seeking the advice of a physical therapist may further help with recovery.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.