Alleviate Pain and Correct Postural Problems through Stretching and Strengthening Your Neck and Upper Back
If you’re like most women, you may have clicked on this page to address issues of neck and upper back pain or tension, or perhaps you’re interested in general strength training and stretching of your neck and upper back. You are not looking to build your neck out like a bodybuilder; just to tone up and/or stretch out.
If the above is true, this page is intended for you. If you are one of those rare women looking to bulk out their neck area, more power to you! However, this particular article will not be the most helpful in achieving your goals: check out our Neck Building and Best Trapezius Exercises articles instead.
Neck and upper back pain, tension, and fatigue may have many sources; it may be non-specific, having no known cause, or it may originate from arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other conditions. Underlying postural problems are likely at play in neck/upper back pain and tension headaches.
Upper body posture problems are all too common in our society where so many of us have desk jobs or sedentary habits where we sit slouched in front of screens for large portions of the day. A forward-jutting head combined with forward-rounded shoulders is referred to as “kyphosis” or “upper crossed syndrome”. Recommended reading for those with suspected postural distortions include our articles on Upper Body Posture Problems and General Posture Problems. This article includes a quick self-test for upper body posture problems in the section below on “Posture Problems and Neck Exercises.”
Scientific studies have shown that stretching combined with strength training for the neck and upper back is more effective in correcting postural problems and alleviating pain than other interventions such as endurance training, stretching, and fitness counseling alone.
If your neck and upper back issues are severe, please don’t rely on the internet alone for help! See your doctor right away to determine what’s going on.
Read on to learn about basic neck and upper back anatomy, common upper body posture problems, exercise guidelines, and the best neck and upper back exercises women can perform to strengthen their neck and upper back muscles, providing relief from neck/upper back pain and headaches.
Jump to the Best Neck and Upper Back Exercises for Women or continue reading to learn more.
Basic Neck and Upper Back Anatomy
There are many muscles operating on the neck which flex the neck forward, extend the neck backward, flex the neck from side to side, and rotate the head to the right and left. These muscles include the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, splenius capitis, splenius cervicis, levator scapulae, and scalenes. Many of these muscles also act on the shoulder blades as well.
The most important muscles for our discussion in this article are the trapezius, the sternocleidomastoids, and the rhomboids.
The trapezius (AKA the traps) is a large diamond-shaped muscle covering the rear aspect of the neck and upper back. The trapezius is comprised of three portions: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius. Of the three, the upper trapezius is the most involved in neck movement, while the lower and middle portions move the shoulder blades.
The upper traps have two important neck functions: extending the neck (pulling the head backward), and flexing the head from side to side. In many people who sit at a desk all day, the upper traps become tight while the middle and lower trapezius become weakened and elongated through sitting slumped forward for long periods of time. The traps may also become weakened through overtraining the chest and neglecting the upper back. The key to correcting weak traps lies in strength training exercises.
The sternocleidomastoid muscles oppose the action of the upper trapezius. You have two sternocleidomastoids, one on each side of your neck. Originating on the mastoid process (that bump on the skull behind your earlobe) and inserting into the top of the clavicle and sternum, the sternocleidomastoids have three key neck functions: flexing the head forward, rotating the head in either direction, and flexing the head from side to side. In those with the postural distortions mentioned above, the sternocleidomastoids will be short and tight, pulling the head excessively forward. To correct tight, tense sternocleidomastoids, you must stretch them.
The rhomboids are not a neck muscle, but an upper back muscle. If you have postural distortions, you will want to strengthen your rhomboids. Your rhomboids pull your shoulder blades together and downward, referred to as retraction. Pull a drawer open to get a sense for this motion, or as you stand, pull your shoulder blades back and down as if you were attempting to tuck them into your back pockets. Retracted shoulder blades during exercise and daily life are essential to optimal posture, which will help to alleviate of neck and upper back issues. For more on strengthening the back muscles, see our back exercise videos page.
The neck and upper back have complex anatomy, being intimately related with other muscles of the shoulder girdle and rotator cuff. We can’t cover everything in an article of this nature, so just be mindful that there is more going on in the upper back than we are discussing here. For our purposes, knowing about the traps, rhomboids, and basic neck muscles is enough.
If you’re looking for more key back exercises, including those for the lower back, check out the best back exercises for women page.
Postural Problems and Neck Exercises
Optimal form and posture are especially important when performing the best neck and upper back exercises for women.
Try the Align at the Wall exercise for a quick postural check:
Stand with your back against a wall and assess your body position. Does your head naturally sit back against the wall, or does it jut forward? Do your shoulders round forward up and away from the wall, or are they naturally drawn back and down? Focus on standing straight, bringing the back of your head and the backs of your shoulders to the wall; that’s optimal posture. Your ear, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle should all form a straight line. Hold for at least 30 seconds with eyes closed, sensing and feeling your body in optimal posture. Establish and maintain optimal posture during all exercises and throughout your day. The more you practice, the more natural it will become. Your improved posture will make you look better and feel better!
If you find your head juts forward or your shoulders are indeed rounded, this is clear evidence of a postural problem. Luckily, this postural distortion is generally correctable through strengthening areas in the neck and upper back which are elongated and weak while stretching areas of the neck showing signs of tension and shortening.
Postural problems are often caused by desk jobs or a sedentary lifestyle in general, as well as poor training habits. Many people develop or exacerbate postural problems by overtraining the front of the body, especially the chest, while neglecting the upper back and neck region.
See a physician, physical therapist, or personal trainer for help with correcting postural problems. If your postural distortion or pain is severe, your first stop needs to be a physician.
Exercise Guidelines for the Best Neck and Upper Back Exercises for Women
Use light weights and proceed cautiously when strength training the neck. Most people will want to avoid the neck strengthening machines found in some gyms due to the high incidence of neck injury and exacerbation of posture problems. Instead, stick to the simple dumbbell exercises and stretches discussed in this article.
Learning and maintaining proper posture during any strength training exercise, whether you’re directly working the neck and upper back or not, is the most important aspect of combating and preventing postural distortions. If you struggle to find or maintain proper upper body posture, use the Align at the Wall exercise often throughout the day and especially during workouts to do self-checks. The more you practice good posture, the more natural it will become.
If you don’t wish to add neck bulk, don’t overdo these exercises, and use light weights with higher reps (12-20) to build strength and endurance rather than muscle size.
You can do the stretches every single day, multiple times a day if you like. Allow 48 hours between strength training sessions to allow the muscles to rest and recover.
Best Neck and Upper Back Exercises for Women
With these best neck and upper back exercises for women, we will focus on stretching as well as strengthening. These aspects are equally important in the health of your neck.
Begin and end your neck exercises with stretching and rotating your neck to lubricate your joints, increase range of motion, and ease excess tension.
All exercises, including stretches, are safest and most effective when preceded by a light cardio warm-up for 5-10 minutes. Go for a short jog, walk, or bike ride before doing your neck and upper back exercises.
Exercises to Stretch Tight Neck and Upper Back Muscles
To stretch your sternocleidomastoid muscles, a common site of excess tension, turn your head as far as possible in one direction, then gently lean your head to the side as if attempting to bring your ear to your shoulder. You can reach out at a downward diagonal angle with the opposing arm to deepen the stretch if you like. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then switch sides.
Lateral Neck Flexion Stretch
This is another great stretch to alleviate neck tension. Lateral neck flexion will stretch many of the neck and upper back muscles that are often tense and short, including the upper trapezius, scalenes, and levator scapulae. Without turning your head as in the stretch above, simply bend your neck to one side as if attempting to bring your ear to your shoulder. Keep your chin straight ahead; don’t let it droop down. You can use your hand to pull your ear toward your shoulder, but please be gentle! You can also bend your opposing arm at a right angle behind your back, pointing your fingertips in the direction your head is bending to deepen the stretch. Again, be gentle. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then switch sides.
Gently moving your neck in half-circles will warm up the muscles and lubricate the joints, helping to prepare your neck and upper back for strength training.
Begin by bringing one ear toward the shoulder just like you would do to begin the lateral neck flexion stretch above. Letting the chin drop toward the chest this time, roll your head forward and then to the opposite side, bringing the other ear toward its neighboring shoulder.
Don’t roll the neck backward, as this can place the neck under excessive strain. Instead, just do half circles from side to side. Slowly roll for 30 seconds to one minute.
Rolling your shoulders back and down in slow circles will also help warm up the neck and upper back area to prepare you for strength training. Rolling forward is not necessary; the goal should be to open up the chest by rolling the shoulders back and down.
Start by isolating the shoulders, keeping your arms at your sides. Roll slowly back and down at least ten times. Then, make the movement bigger by adding the arms, rolling your arms in big slow circles, always back and down. If your range of motion allows, touch the backs of your hands together as your arms come in front of your chest and as you roll overhead back to deepen the stretch. Do at least ten of these big shoulder rolls.
Learn more ways to stretch the neck, upper back, and the rest of the upper body in our Upper Body Stretching article.
Exercises to Strengthen Weak Neck and Upper Back Muscles
Once you have gotten your neck and upper back stretched and warmed up, you can move on to the best neck and upper back strengthening exercises below. The best neck and upper back exercises involve strengthening the trapezius, the rhomboids, and the deep cervical flexors. If you don’t want to add bulk to your traps, be sure to use light weights and perform high reps (12-20) on the exercises requiring weights. This will build muscular strength and endurance instead of muscle size.
Bent Over Rows
Also called iso-lateral rows, Bent Over Rows are a fantastic horizontal pulling back exercise, targeting mid-back muscles such as the rhomboids which are important for posture.
To set up for Bent Over Rows, lay a dumbbell next to a weight bench or equivalent platform. Place one knee and one hand on the bench and the other leg on the ground directly behind your dumbbell.Grasp the dumbbell and pull it straight up toward your shoulder, keeping your elbow close to your body and allowing a slight natural torso rotation at as you reach the top. Lower the dumbbell under control and repeat. Perform 12-20 reps with each arm.
Engage your core at all times and maintain a neutral spine.
Dumbbell shrugs work the upper and middle trapezius, the levator scapulae, and the rhomboids.
Standing straight with feet shoulder width apart, grasp the dumbbells by your sides with palms facing in. Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears while and slightly back. It’s very important to shrug back, pinching your shoulder blades closer together. This motion activates the rhomboids, which are commonly loose and weak. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting point.
In this video, shrugs are demonstrated using a hex bar. The motion is the same for dumbbell shrugs.
Upright rows are not the best exercise for everyone, but if you have good shoulder flexibility and strength, upright rows are a very effective way to target the upper, middle, and lower trapezius. Stay away from this exercise altogether if you have shoulder problems.
Standing straight with feet shoulder width apart, hold your dumbbells or barbell directly in front of your thighs. Keep the dumbbells close together or use a close grip on a barbell to keep the work in the traps rather than the deltoids. As you inhale, pull the resistance straight toward your chin as high as you can, lifting your elbows at the top of the movement. Lower the resistance slowly back to the starting point as you exhale. Perform 12-20 reps.
Dynamic Prone Cobra
The final best upper back exercise we will go over is the dynamic prone cobra. Like “the chicken (covered next),” the prone cobra requires no equipment.
Unlike “the chicken,” it’s best to allow 48 hours between sessions to allow the muscles to rest and recover. The prone cobra will work out your middle trapezius and rhomboids in particular.
To perform the prone cobra, lie flat on the floor on your stomach with your arms stretched overhead and hands in a “thumbs up” position.
Using the upper back muscles, “peel” your chest and feet up off the floor. As you do so, bring your arms down to your sides as if you are doing a breaststroke while maintaining “thumbs up” hands. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together and downward to emphasize the rhomboids. Keep your shoulders back and down at all times. Hold for a couple seconds, and then slowly return to the starting position. Perform several repetitions of this exercise.
You can also do prone cobras on a stability ball to further challenge your core stabilization muscles.
“The Chicken” is a great move for strengthening the deep neck flexors, which are often weakened. You may look a little goofy pushing your head straight back and forward like a chicken, but I promise it’s an effective exercise!
Put your back to a wall as described in the Align at the Wall exercise described above in the section on Posture Problems. Draw your head straight back against the wall while tucking your chin in and down. Hold in this position for a few seconds, release back to a neutral neck position, then repeat several more times. As you get used to the motion, standing against the wall will no longer be necessary. You will be able to perform “the chicken” anywhere, anytime, whether you have a wall handy or not.
You can do this exercise several times throughout the day, unlike the exercises above requiring dumbbells.