Spoiler: The tightness isn’t just coming from your neck.
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.
What you need: A yoga or exercise mat for comfort and a looped resistance band.
Seated clasped neck stretch
Upper trapezius stretch
Thread the needle
Behind the back drill
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.
1 Seated Clasped Neck Stretch
Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair, making sure your body is in proper alignment (your head should be stacked above your ribs and your ribs above your pelvis). Clasp your hands and bring both palms to the back of your head.
Gently press your hands down toward your thighs, tucking your chin into your chest.
Hold for at least 30 seconds, or 5-8 deep, diaphragmatic breaths in and out.
This stretch targets your trapezius and upper-back muscles. If the stretch feels too aggressive, pull with only one hand in the middle of your head instead, Miranda says.
2 Upper Trapezius Stretch
Start standing or sitting tall, and place one hand on your lower back, the other hand on the opposite side of your head.
Pull your head toward your shoulder, looking straight ahead, until you feel a stretch in your neck.
Hold for at least 30 seconds (or 5-8 deep, diaphragmatic breaths) and then repeat on the other side.
This stretch hits your upper trapezius. Because of the arm tucked behind your back and your other hand pulling your head, you get a more targeted stretch, Miranda says.
Lie faceup on the floor or a mat, your knees bent, and feet hip-width apart.
With your palms and feet pressing firmly into the ground, lift your hips off the floor. Clasp your hands together below your pelvis, extending through your arms.
Engage your core so your lower back presses against the floor.
Hold for two full diaphragmatic breaths cycles (deep inhales in, deep exhales out).
This stretch helps improve the mobility of your thoracic spine, or your middle back. Make sure you keep your chin tucked during this one, which helps your neck stay in a neutral position, Miranda says.
4 Thread the Needle
Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and hips over your knees.
Reach your right arm underneath and across your body with your palm facing up.
Bend your left elbow as you gently lean into your right side; you should feel a stretch in the back of your right shoulder.
Hold for one full diaphragmatic breath cycle (deep inhale in, deep exhale out) in that bottom position, then return to the starting position and repeat.
Continue for at least 30 seconds. Then switch sides.
This stretch helps improve the mobility of your thoracic spine.
5 Behind the Back Drill
Lie facedown. Place both palms down on the back of your head. Your elbows should be pointed out to the sides. This is starting position.
Extend your arms in the shape of the letter Y.
Reach your arms as wide as you can and circle them down to the sides of your body with palms down. As soon as you can no longer keep your palms down, flip your hands over to palms up and bring your hands to the center of your lower back. Pause at your low back for 2 seconds.
Circle your arms back in the reverse direction to return to starting position, holding your hands at your head for 2 seconds.
Continue for at least 30 seconds.
This stretch works the posterior muscles in the back of your body, like the scapula, rhomboids, serratus anterior, and trapezius. Activating these muscles is important for maintaining a proper upright and pain-free posture, says Miranda.
6 Banded Pull-Aparts
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold one end of a resistance band in each hand.
Raise your straight arms to shoulder height, palms down, with your hands about six inches apart. The band should have a small amount of tension, but not be taut.
Now pull the band apart, extending your arms wide to each side until your upper body is in a T position, keeping your hands at the same height. Pause for 2 seconds when the band is fully extended.
Return your arms to center.
Continue for at least 30 seconds.
This stretch works the muscles in the middle of your back and your rear deltoids.
Written by Christa Sgobba
This article originally appeared on SELF US.