The Best Exercises to Stretch and Strengthen Your Neck

Working at a makeshift desk, constantly looking down at your phone while FaceTiming, reading a book in your lap—whatever you’re doing during your days in isolation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it likely involves a rounded posture that doesn’t do the body any favors. “Neck and shoulder pain are probably the most prevalent types of discomfort we’re seeing right now,” says Todd Sinett, DC, chiropractor and founder of Tru Whole Care in New York City, who has seen an increase in neck and shoulder complaints over the past two months. “It’s a direct result of our lifestyles.”

To help curb some of the aches that accompany poor posture, we asked Sinett to share how to ergonomically set up your workspace, plus stretches and strength moves to assist in sidestepping discomfort.

How to Set Up Your WFH Office to Promote Better Posture

If you’ve recently created a makeshift home office, it might not support a strong, tall posture that keeps aches at bay. But with just a few simple changes, you can set yourself up for a more comfortable day. For starters, Sinett says to make sure you’re sitting square to your desktop or laptop monitor. That means your face, shoulders, and hips face directly toward the screen, rather than on an angle.

Also, aim to keep your head right over your shoulders—don’t push your chin forward to see the screen and try not to lean forward, either. “For every inch your head reaches forward, you add extra pounds of pressure to the neck and shoulders,” Sinett says. Over a long period of time, this can lead to some serious aches.

Next up, check that your computer is at eye level. You shouldn’t be looking down at your monitor, Sinett says, as that will just put your spine in a bent-over or rounded position, also adding strain to the neck and shoulders. While you might not have a standing desk, get creative by stacking books or place your computer on a box on your desk.

Finally, after setting up your workstation to promote pain-free alignment, consider relaxing your jaw while you work. “Another cause of neck pain is people clenching their teeth and not being aware of it,” Sinett explains. So, aim to relax your face and let your jaw hang loose. He also suggests adding some heat to your cheeks to help release jaw muscles—do so by placing a warm washcloth on the jaw muscles or those on the sides of the face. Mouth guards are also smart for those who seriously clench their teeth, as a reminder to stay relaxed.

5 Stretches to Ease Neck and Shoulder Aches

Sinett, who also created the Backbridge, a rounded foam pad that places your spine in extension, suggests a few exercises for a similar posture that counteracts a hunched position. At any point in the day, aim to add some range of motion to the neck by doing slow rolls, clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Perform the five stretches below several times throughout the day, too. “Do them proactively—the more you stretch out, the better your body can handle being on the computer for a long time,” Sinett says.

1. Neck stretch: Sitting tall at your desk, feet hip-width apart, shoulders over hips, bring your ear toward the same side’s shoulder. Hold for about 10 seconds. Then, with ear to shoulder, turn your head to look down toward the floor. Hold for about 10 seconds. Then, with ear to shoulder, rotate to look up at the ceiling. Hold for about 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

2. Thumbs to pits stretch: Sitting tall at your desk, feet hip-width apart, shoulders over hips, bring your thumbs to your armpits, and squeeze your elbows down by your sides. Lift your chest up and back, creating a slight back bend. Gaze up toward the ceiling and pull shoulders down your back. Hold for about 10 seconds, then reset and repeat.

3. Standing ab stretch: Standing with feet hip-width apart, reach your arms overhead, palms facing each other. Look up toward the ceiling as you reach your arms behind you, bending through your back. Squeeze your glutes for more stability and pull your shoulders down your back. Hold for 10 seconds, release, then repeat.

4. Upper back foam roll: Sitting on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, lie back on a foam roller so it’s perpendicular to your spine, right below your shoulder blades. Lift your hips and slowly roll downward so the foam roller rolls up toward the top of your shoulders and base of the neck. Continue slowly rolling up and down for about 30 seconds.

5. Vertical foam roller stretch: Lie vertically on a foam roller, so it sits parallel to the spine with your head, neck, and shoulders all resting on the roller. Bend your elbows and place your hands behind your head, pressing your elbows toward the floor. You should feel a stretch in your pecs. Hold for about 10 seconds, then bring your elbows together in front of you and repeat. You can also try this one with a rolled-up towel or yoga mat.

3 Strength Exercises That Protect Your Shoulders and Neck

To support your shoulders and neck, it’s important to do a few back-strengthening exercises—especially those that work extension, says Sinett. At least a few times a week, do these three exercises for 30 seconds each—longer and more often if you can.

1. Cobra: Lying face-down on a mat or floor, place your elbows directly under shoulders, forearms on the ground, palms flat. Press your forearms into the floor as you lift your chest up, keeping your gaze toward the floor and shoulders away from ears. Hold for a count of 5, then lower back down and repeat.

2. Superman: Lying face-down on a mat or floor, extend your arms overhead, palms facing the floor. Lift your arms, chest, and legs off the floor simultaneously, engaging the entire back of your body. Holding at the top, pull the elbows down to form a goal post position. Pause, then extend the arms back out and lower back down to the mat. Repeat. Keep your gaze toward the floor, neck in a neutral position.

3. Swimmers: Lying face-down on a mat or floor, extend your arms overhead, thumbs facing up. Slightly lift your arms, chest, and legs off the floor simultaneously, engaging the entire back of your body. Hold this position as you lift opposite arm and leg farther off the floor, then lower back to starting position. Repeat with your other arm and leg and continue alternating. Keep your gaze toward the floor, neck in a neutral position.

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