Sometimes at the end of a long, stressful day, your upper body might feel more like a claw than a human torso. Sitting for prolonged periods and looking at screens can have that effect of rounded tightness in the neck, back, and shoulders—which is why some after work stretches are sometimes just what the body calls for.
“Our lifestyles put strain on the low back, hips, neck, and shoulders,” Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d, previously told Well+Good. “These are the muscles that are likely to be tight or that can lead to injury because they are so tight.”
Tightness isn’t the only factor. There’s also muscle strain. Although we typically think of intense exercise when we imagine putting strain on a muscle, Brannigan explains that not changing positions for extended periods of time has a similar effect.
“You can have chronic inflammation from simply sitting at a desk all day,” Brannigan says. “Oftentimes, we may not experience the feeling of soreness, yet the muscles can be tight and inflamed. Repetitive stress of any kind can lead to inflammation, and this includes inactivity. People tend to associate high levels of activity with soreness and inflammation but being still all day, every day, is one of the worst things you can do for your body.”
What you can do to ease neck and shoulder tension
So what to do about this crunched-up feeling and chronic inflammation? Taking breaks and changing positions is your first line of defense. But you can also include intentional movement in your day designed to relieve the parts of you that need some extra TLC.
Of course, knowing how to target and reach those parts can be easier said than done. When we talk about tight neck and shoulder muscles, we’re also talking about the trapezius and chest muscles. Shortened chest muscles from slouching can cause you to further round your shoulders forward, creating a vicious cycle. So creating space and strength in your trapezius muscles, which run from the top of your neck down to the middle of your back, can help counteract this.
What’s more, tension or stress might cause you to shrug your shoulders up, which, thanks to those traps, can have effects throughout the upper body.
“There are a lot of connected muscles in that region that can be affected,” Ashley Taylor, DPT, a physical therapist at Coast Physical Therapy in La Jolla, California, previously told Well+Good.
A quick routine you can try before you even stand up
A new six-minute stretch sequence that trainer Nicole Uribarri created for Well+Good will help you target all these affected areas. The best part: You can actually do this series at your desk, sitting in your chair.
This could possibly help establish this stretch as a regular part of your day. Consider using the habit stacking technique, which involves attaching something that you want to make into a daily habit to something you already do. So, if there’s a way you always end your day—maybe you check your email one final time, or maybe the final act of work is closing your laptop—you can tell your mind that every time you do that task, you follow it up with this seated stretch series.
“This way, the current habit becomes a cue to engage in the new action,” clinical psychologist Melissa Ming Foynes, PhD, previously told Well+Good.
This could also help serve as a reset, where you create some separation between your work day and your evening at home.
“There’s this saying that ‘companies shouldn’t have the right to get their employees fresh during the day and send them home tired at night,’ but until the [working] world comes around to that reality, it’s really up to us to do these mini resets for ourselves,” wellness and meditation expert Susan Chen, founder of Susan Chen Vedic Meditation, recently told Well+Good. Movement is one great way to establish this bookend.
So before you hop up to leave your work day behind, stay seated, but turn away from your work setup. Then, you’ll want to get into an intentional and proper seated position.
“Bring your hips down towards the front edge of your chair,” Uribarri instructs. “Actively root down through your feet. So make sure that you can easily press your feet into the floor, stack shoulders over hips, sit up tall.”
Got that starting posture down? Great. You can watch the video above to go through this short series that will feel like the loving transition your body needs, or follow the instructions below.
Good Stretch: After work stretches for your neck, shoulders, and traps
Format: Six stretches done in a seated position
Equipment: One chair
Who is this for?: Anyone who wants to relieve neck and shoulder tension at the end of a long day.
Shoulder shrugs (3 reps)
- Inhale and pull the shoulders up towards the ears.
- Exhale and release.
Shoulder blade extensions and pull-aways (4 reps)
- Bring arms out in front of you.
- Interlace the fingers and round the spine, tucking your chin down and creative concavity in your stomach and chest.
- Sit up straight as you flip the wrists to face outward and bring the arms with interlaced fingers up and over your head.
- Flip your wrists back to the starting position as you bring the arms back down in front of you with a rounded spine.
Chest and pec openers (5 reps)
- Bring interlaced fingers behind your head with bent elbows.
- Open the elbows wide and lean back slightly to create space along the front of the chest.
- Keeping your interlaced fingers on the back of your head, sweep your elbows in front of your face.
- Tuck your chin into your chest and round down, feeling a release through the back of the neck.
- Open back up and return to the starting position.
Self-hugs (2 reps—one each side)
- Extend the arms out to the sides and reach out with fingertips, with palms facing forward.
- Let your shoulder blades slide down your back.
- Give yourself a hug, crossing your arms over the front of your body, with your right arm on top.
(Option: Take eagle arms. Keeping your upper arms and elbows in place, reach up with your forearms so they are wrapped around each other, wrapping your left wrist around your right wrist.)
- Move the elbows to the left as you look over the right shoulder.
- Return to center.
- Move the elbows to the right as you look over the left shoulder.
- Release and open the arms.
- Repeat with the left arm on top.
Shoulder and neck back interlaced fingers stretch (2 reps—one each side)
- Interlace your fingers behind your low back.
- Keeping your hands interlaced, bend your elbows slightly and bring the hands over towards the left side.
- Pull elbows back, sit up tall, and let your left ear fall towards your shoulder, creating length on the right side of your neck. Hold for one deep breath.
- Keeping your hands where they are, return head to upright position. Then let your right ear fall towards your right shoulder, creating length on the left side of your neck. Hold for one deep breath.
- Return to neutral: Bring head upright and re-straighten arms with interlaced fingers straight back behind you.
- Repeat with hands on the other (right) side.
Handcuff stretch (2 reps—one each side)
- Take the arms back behind you.
- Grab your right wrist with your left hand, pulling both arms down straight behind you.
- Let the left ear fall to the left side.
- Bring head upright, then let the right ear fall to the right side.
- Release hands.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Still looking for more neck and shoulder relief? Try this routine with a massage ball:
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