Neck and Upper Back Pain Fixes

Let’s face it…Even if we are pretty active, we spend a great deal of time hunched over a computer. Which generally leads to bad posture and upper back and neck pain.

Because most people sit looking at a computer screen all day, muscles get out of their proper alignment. For instance because you hunch over the computer, your upper traps may become active (aka you may be tense a lot with your shoulders up by your ears). If your upper traps are overactive, most likely your lower traps will be underactive. Muscles therefore aren’t working the way they should be.

When muscles aren’t properly aligned and working the way they should be, other muscles compensate, leading to injury.

Below are some great trigger point release, stretches and strengthening moves you can do to alleviate minor aches and pains in your neck, shoulders and upper back. These moves will release and stretch any muscles that would be tight from sitting all day. They will also strengthen those muscles that are underactive.


NECK – Be careful when rolling out your neck. Use a very softer ball and stand against a wall with the ball between the wall and your neck. Do not go over your vertebrae. Dig in lightly to any tight spots. Look side to side and up and down to release any trigger points.

UPPER TRAPS AND SHOULDER BLADES – Stand with your back to a wall. Place a tennis ball right behind your trap (just to the side of your neck). Roll the ball out toward your shoulder and then back in. Then roll it down your shoulder blade and back up. Hold on any tight spots. You can even stretch your neck away from the side of the ball and then relax to help dig out the trigger point. As you work your way down your shoulder blades, you may even cross one arm (the arm on the side with the ball) across your chest to allow you to really work under the shoulder blade. Hold on any tight spots and relax and breathe.

CHEST – A big foam ball works best if you do this on the ground. Take the foam ball and place it in your chest near the shoulder joint, but not on the shoulder joint. Lie face down on the ground with the ball in your chest. Reach your hand overhead and then bring it back down by your side. You can even reach out to the side and then bring your hand back in. Hold on any tight spots. You can also do this standing with a smaller ball against a pole, door frame or corner of a wall into a hallway. Place the ball on the wall in your chest near your shoulder joint. You should put it in the side of your chest that isn’t blocked by the wall so you can stretch your arm out in front of you. Stretch your arm out in front of you at shoulder height. Then raise it over head and lower it back down to the ground. Move the arm around to help dig out any trigger points.

LATS – You can use a foam ball or a ball. I prefer the roller because I can hit my lats and also roll out my upper back and work on thoracic extension. Lie on your side with the roller under one armpit. Rock forward and backward and then move the roller down your side toward your belly button. Work down your lat to about the end of your ribs. Rock forward and backward as you move to really dig out the lats. If you use the blue ball, you can actually start in your chest and then roll the ball under your armpit and up between your shoulder blades. It is a great move if you want to hit your back, lats and chest all in one!

lat foam rolling

THORACIC EXTENSION – Take a roller and roll out your upper back. Let it roll from about your ribs to your shoulders. You can lean a bit to either side to change exactly where the roller hits. You can also use a ball to roll out your upper back. I like the roller though because after your roll out your back you can do a nice little stretch. With the roller in your upper back, drop your butt down to the ground and then lean back over the roller, trying to drop your head to the ground behind you. Change where the roller is in your upper back and then drop your butt to the ground and extend back over again. Really works on thoracic extension since we seem to be in thoracic flexion for 8 hours a day while sitting in front of the computer screen!

thoracic extension

For more great foam rolling techniques, check out the Redefining Strength video library.


THREE WAY STRETCH – You can do this move seated or standing. Reach one hand behind your back and then grab that wrist with the other hand. Pull the arm behind your back toward the opposite side. Then lean your head to the side you are pulling to. Do not tense your shoulders and bring them up toward you ears. Relax into the stretch. Then change the direction of your gaze. Look up and hold for a second or two. Then look straight ahead. And then look down. Move your chin as you look and not just your eyes. Changing the direction of where you look, will change exactly which muscles in your necks and upper back that you stretch.

neck desk stretch

HEAD NODS — There are three types of head nods I like. The “yes” head nod where you look down toward the ground then lean your head back and look up at the ceiling as if doing a big nod yes (move slowly trying to open up your range of motion). The “no” nod where you look side to side, trying to look as far both ways as possible as if you doing a big slow no nod (do not move to quickly and make yourself dizzy). And the “rooster”  nod where you pull your chin back in toward your chest as if trying to create a double chin and then you extend your chin back out (it kind of reminds of the rooster head movement). All should be done slowly and with the shoulders relax. If you feel your shoulders creeping up by your ears, stop and relax them. You may even want to slightly reach down toward the ground with your hands to keep them relaxed.

WALL SLIDES –  An oldie but goodie, this one works on thoracic flexibility. Stand against a wall with your core tight and your butt and upper back firmly against the wall. Place your forearms against the wall with your elbows bent. Then try to reach your forearms and hands up the wall as far as possible without losing contact with the wall. Don’t let your head, butt or upper back move from the wall either and try to keep your core tight. Slide your hands up and down, increasing the range of motion if you can with each rep.

wall slides

KNEELING THORACIC EXTENSION – On your hands and knees, reach one hand down your neck and spine. Fingertips should be pointing down your back toward your butt. Then rotate your core so that your elbow goes under your arm on the ground. Then rotate open driving the elbow up toward the ceiling. Try to focus on just opening up your back and not really shifting your weight in your lower body. Then rotate back closed and repeat.

thoracic extension

CAT/CAMEL  – You can do this move standing or on your hands and knees. The basic move is that you round your back as much as possible and then you extend back the other way as much as possible. So on your hands and knees. Round your back up toward the ceiling. Then drop down and arch your back driving your belly button toward the ground and even looking up toward the ceiling with your head. If you do this standing, you will round forward as if hunching over your desk. Even bring your hands and arms forward as you round. Then extend open, opening your arms and even looking up toward the ceiling. Really exaggerate the extension if you can.

back stretch

UPPER BACK AND LAT – Probably my favorite stretch of all time shown to me by Mark at the gym. Kneel on the ground. Then lean forward and rotate onto one side. Drop the side of your head and shoulder down to the ground. Reach the bottom arm out in front of you. Then reach the top hand back and overhead. Really try to rotate your chest open toward the ceiling. Hold and then repeat on the other side.

upper back and lat stretch

LAT STRETCH – Child’s pose can be a great way to stretch your lats and your upper back. You can also simply place the side your hand on a bookshelf or desk and then straighten your arm and bend over (if needed) and walk away. Even rotate a bit so you are looking under the arm on the desk or wall and then away from the arm. Feel a nice stretch down your arm and into the side of your back. Hold and repeat on the other side.

back stretch

CHEST STRETCH – A doorway, pole or corner is great for this stretch. Place your hand or forearm on the side of the doorway. Step through the doorway until you feel  a stretch down your chest and into your shoulder. Do not rotate toward the arm in the doorway. Try to face straight ahead. Hold and then switch.

chest stretch


SCAPULAR PUSH UPS – These are hard for many people to do so you may want to have someone watch your form the first time. This is a very small range of motion. Set up in a push up position from your knees or toes. Create a nice straight line with your body. Then pinch your shoulder blades back and together and press your chest out. Then relax. It is really only a few inches of motion. DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CORE TO MOVE. Many people will drop their hips and move their core or bend their elbows. All you are doing is pinching your shoulder blades back and together. Do not let your shoulders shrug up by your ears.

scapular push ups

SCAPULAR WALL HOLD – An essential move if you sit at a desk all day. Stand with your back to a wall. Bend your elbows with your arms at your side. Drive your chest out and pinch your shoulder blades down and together. Do not let your shoulders shrug. Lean back into the wall. Only your elbows and maybe your head should touch the wall. Walk your feet away from the wall only if needed to increase the resistance. Press your chest out and draw your shoulder blades together as you hold. You create the tension and this move will only be difficult if you really activate the muscles.

scapular hold

CORNER ROW – A dynamic scapular hold. Stand in a corner in the same position as the scapular hold. Place one elbow on each side of the corner. Drive up into the scapular hold and then relax back into the corner and repeat. Do not let the shoulders shrug up as you row out. Also the farther from the wall your feet are, the harder the move will be.

back row

LAT TOWEL PULLDOWN – You can do this move with or without a towel. It is very much like the wall slides except you aren’t against a wall. Reach your hands up with your elbows bent. Your hands should be on either side of your chest with your palms facing forward. You can hold a towel tight between your hands. This sometimes helps to remind you to keep tension between your shoulder blades and activate your lats. Reach your hands up overhead, keeping tension on the towel. Then pull the towel back down, pulling with your lats as you pinch your shoulder blades down and together. Repeat, keeping tension between your shoulder blades and using your lats to pull.

lat pulldown

BAND SCAPULAR FLY – For this one you need a light resistance band. Hold the resistance band with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Arms should be straight out in front of you at about shoulder height or right below. Keeping your arms straight, open your arms out to the side. Pinch your shoulder blades together as you open. Do not let your shoulders shrug up. Then once you open the band to your chest with your arms straight, bring your arms back together so your arms are about shoulder-width apart again and there is no slack in the band. Repeat.

back flyes

Many of these moves can even be done in your office when you need a quick break from looking at the computer screen. I tell clients all the time that at least every hour or so they should get up and do a couple quick stretches and a scapular hold for a minute or two. Great way to reverse the effects of hunching over AND a great way to become even just a little bit more active!

Here is actually a great move to extend EVERYTHING that is basically flexed all day at the computer.

back stretch

Kneeling bridge

NOTE: Anyone love…I mean hate…burpees? Look out for some cool burpee variations to come later this week!

Posted on August 13, 2013, in Injury, program development, Recovery and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is just what I needed! My back has been really tight lately for some reason (probably teeny tiny airplane seats!) so now I have some new stretches to play around with. 🙂 Thanks!

  1. Pingback: Tips to Relieve Low Back Pain | Man Bicep

  2. Pingback: When Pain Doesn’t Mean You Should Skip Your Workout | Man Bicep

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