You’re also not alone in this plight. Looking at screens and staying in one position for a long time without breaks make this achy sensation all too common.
“When you're tight from lack of movement, your muscles can feel stiff and you can experience poor posture,” Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT, the education coordinator for StretchLab, previously told Well+Good. That poor posture can only compound the tightness in a feedback loop of compression.
Dedicating a few minutes to stretching can help if you know what to target. East River Pilates instructor Brian Spencer’s 10-minute neck and shoulder tension-relieving stretch session can help you go from crunchy and folded inward to spacious and opened outward. Follow along with the video, or find his tips for how to relieve neck and shoulder tension through stretching and massage below.
How to relieve neck and shoulder tension with stretching and massage
Get your blood flowing before stretching
Think of it as the pre-game to the party. For your muscles to be able to lengthen and disentangle during a stretch, they need lubrication and to be neurologically alert. This is called moving from cold muscles to warm muscles—it’s a literal warm-up. You want to promote blood flow to the muscles in question so they don’t become even stiffer as a protective mechanism when they’re asked to stretch. Some jumping jacks, jogging in place, arm circles, or anything that elevates your heart rate slightly and gets your blood pumping should do the trick.
Use a massage ball (or tennis ball) to work on tension points
Since your ability or lack thereof to twist like a pretzel may make digging into the key muscles in your shoulders and upper back physically impossible, a massage or tennis ball can come in handy to help.
“Massage balls can help us get a little deeper into the connective tissue and muscles to release those tight structures than passive stretching can sometimes get,” Spencer says.
By using the leverage of the floor and the weight of your body, you can spend some time on the spots that are “giving you a little bit of feedback,” as Spencer puts it. “Just a little moment of like, oh yeah, I need a little love there,” Spencer says. “This should never be like a very deep, intense pain. That being said, if it is giving you a little bit of feedback, it's often where you need it the most.”
Target your trapezius muscles aka traps
The large muscles that span from the back of your neck down the insides of your shoulder blades are your trapezius muscles, and they are often the culprit when it comes to neck and shoulder tension.
“When we sit at our desk and the head pulls forward at our laptops and computers, the shoulders start to get very tense because those upper traps help to elevate the shoulders,” Spencer says. “We tend to go ahead and lean forward over our computers, bring the shoulders to our ears, and really add tension to these guys.”
Lying on your back, place the ball at the base of your neck and roll it across your shoulder and down the sides of your spine to help relieve tension in your traps.
Get into the shoulder blade
Allow that ball to find a nook on the inside of your shoulder blade, and then move your arms up and over your head and across your body so the ball slowly changes position. Working on joint mobility through those shoulder movements will actually translate into less crunchy-feeling muscles. For example, as you’re moving your arms up and over while working on the shoulder blades with the tennis ball, Spencer explains “these muscles help to elevate our shoulders and they can get very cranky with overhead movement. So finding this is really helpful for kind of trying to release that muscle group through lots of range of motion.”
This video with trainer Charlee Atkins, CSCS, is a great place to start learning how to release muscle tension with a small ball:
Don’t ignore the chest
Chest opening moves may not seem like they’re directly working on tight neck and shoulders, but they’re all part of the same ecosystem.
“Our pecs get really tight when we sit at our computers,” Spencer says. “Our head pulls forward and our shoulders draw together.” This shortens the muscles in your chest, which causes your shoulders and upper body to round inward even more.
This stretch session from Spencer starts with a nice chest opening series:
Connect to your breath
As you target areas of high tension, your muscles may want to clam up and tense against the massage ball. Spencer says breathing through those moments can help you make the most of these sessions.
“Really connect to your breath,” Spencer says. “That breath does help calm our nervous system. It also helps the muscles to know that it's okay to relax.”
Re-enforce the feeling of openness
After you’ve spent some time working out the kinks with a massage ball, Spencer recommends doing some basic neck and shoulder stretches like crossing one arm in front of the other, tilting your neck from side to side, and interlacing your fingers behind your head as you open up your chest, to create space in this high-traffic area.
“I always like to take some stretches after rolling out, kind of giving the muscles another chance to breathe,” he says.
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