6 simple upper body stretches to relieve tension

Whether you work long hours on your feet performing strenuous activities or sit down at a desk for the majority of the day using a computer, both can have negative impacts on your posture and joints if you aren’t careful.

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Whether you work long hours on your feet performing strenuous activities or sit down at a desk for the majority of the day using a computer, both can have negative impacts on your posture and joints if you aren’t careful. Bad posture, improper form, lack of mobility, repetitive tasks and not taking adequate breaks can create tension in your muscles, which takes its toll on your body over time and makes you more prone to strains and injuries. But constantly monitoring your movement and posture when you’re busy putting others’ needs above your own is easier said than done.

Muscle rigidity can also form when you’re stressed, due to increased blood pressure which causes muscles to tense up. Tension lingers for long periods of time but in most cases will ease after the stress has gone. When you combine all these everyday factors, it’s inevitable that you will experience tension at some point. In more serious cases, tension can be painful and may require regular physiotherapy, massages or anti-inflammatories to manage until the muscles are fully relaxed, but this level of rigidity is usually a side effect of an old injury.

Take a deep breath… and relax

One thing you can do on any given day to loosen up, prevent and relieve tension is stretching. It’s rewarding, free and has a variety of benefits. It burns calories, relaxes and improves flexibility to name a few. Below are six gentle stretches you can do anywhere, but for maximum effect you should remember to stay hydrated to support your muscles and be more conscious of your positioning throughout the day. We’re only focusing on the upper body in this article, which is where the majority of tension builds up during the working day.

Please note, while these exercises are safe to do at home or work, we don’t advise trying them if you have an injury in the specified body part. The exercises mentioned can be used to help prevent future injuries and relieve tension, and should not be used to treat existing injuries unless otherwise instructed by a trained professional. Consult your GP if you’re unsure before trying them.

Here’s a few quick tips to help you get started

  1. Maintain the correct posture all the way through.
  2. Take slow breaths throughout each stretch.
  3. Inhale as you start moving for a deeper stretch.
  4. Try and be symmetrical with your movements so both sides of your body benefit equally.
  5. If it hurts, stop! You might be doing it wrong or you might have an injury.
  6. Give your body regular breaks from stretching, or focus on a different area.

1. Neck stretch: Shoulder roll

When using a computer or mobile device, it feels more natural to drop our head forward to get a better look at the screen, but continuously hunching forward puts additional stress on our necks. After all, the average human head weighs five kilograms and our necks have to support this. The shoulder roll is an exercise that can relieve stress in the upper body and can help prevent tension-induced headaches.

  1. Sit in a chair and grip the bottom of the chair with both hands.
  2. Lean your head forward and relax.
  3. Slowly roll your head up toward one shoulder and hold for 10 seconds.
  4. Return to the centre position and repeat on other side.
  5. Relax again and lift your chin back to starting position.
  6. Try and do this up to three times on each side.

2. Neck stretch: Side rotations

The neck is a complex and delicate body part which is vulnerable to a lot of stress and tension. If you’ve recovered from a previous injury in your neck or shoulders, or you’ve developed an uneven posture, often other muscles in this area will work overtime to help keep your neck straight to stabilise your head. However, having one side of your body picking up the extra slack delays the overall healing process, and the muscles in your neck can become tense and more prone to injury.

To reduce tightness in the sides of your neck, slowly move your head side-to-side. This sounds easy but it will also help increase mobility in your neck and could prevent sprains or spasms.

  1. Start with your head upright.
  2. Slowly turn your head to one side until you feel a stretch in the opposite side of your neck.
  3. Keep this position for up to 30 seconds.
  4. Return to the starting position and turn to the other side.
  5. Repeat up to 10 times on each side

3. Shoulder stretch: Shoulder shrugs

Sitting, typing and general bad posture can put a lot of stress on the shoulders and neck, making the surrounding muscles tight with tension. You can do shoulder shrugs standing or sitting by lifting your shoulders up towards yours ears in a shrugging motion. Shrugs will send your blood up through the muscles in your upper back, like your trapezius, to help loosen you up.

  1. Ensure your back is straight and droop your arms down at your sides.
  2. Raise both shoulders together up toward the ears.
  3. Give them a squeeze and hold for 1 to 2 seconds.
  4. Gently return your shoulders back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat up to 10 times.

4. Torso stretch: Seated trunk rotations

If you sit for long periods of time, your lower back may begin to feel tight or achy. This is because our bodies weren’t designed to stay in the same position for too long. Luckily, you can stretch and strengthen your core at the same time with minimal effort, to improve balance, movement, flexibility and extension. After doing this regularly, you might even find it easier to bend forward or backward.

For extra support, take a seat on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and keep your back straight. The stretch you feel as you gently twist your stomach can help relieve tension in your lower back. It’s important not to over-rotate and you should feel comfortable the entire time.

  1. Sit in a chair facing forward and keep your feet firmly on the ground.
  2. Grab each forearm just below the elbow to support your upper body.
  3. Slowly twist your upper body in one direction until you feel a stretch.
  4. Hold pose for 10 to 30 seconds.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat on other side.

5. Lower back stretch: Seated beginner backbends

Multiple factors cause our spines to curve forward as we age, and the bad posture we assume from hunching forward at our work desks can have a major influence. Gently bending backwards in your chair can counteract tension that builds up over time in our upper and mid-back and helps reset your sitting position. Gentle backbends support your spinal extensors, neck muscles and chest.

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands on your lower back. Your fingers should face down with your thumbs wrapped around your hips.
  3. Push your hands into your lower back and hips, take a deep breath and begin bending backwards with your chest leading the way.
  4. Start to exhale and arch your spine inwards, keeping your hands pressed against yourself. Your eyes should naturally be facing upwards at a 45 degree angle.
  5. Hold this pose for five deep breaths.
  6. Gently return to the starting position and repeat up to five times.

6. Wrist stretch: Grip & release

Jobs that involve repetitive hand movement and other common work tasks like typing, can over time cause a strain on your wrist. Carpal tunnel syndrome is one potential condition that can result from wrist strain and can be painful, in addition to restricting you in doing everyday things. There are several different ways to reduce stress and strain on your hands to help prevent carpal tunnel, including taking regular breaks, switching up your routine, keeping warm and stretching.

One stretching exercise you can do is to make a fist and open your hand up. It sounds simple but you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get tired. This helps to increase circulation, strengthen your hands and fingers, and increase your range of motion.

  1. Make a fist without squeezing tight, wrapping your thumb across the outside of your fingers.
  2. Hold this position for up to one minute.
  3. Open your hand and point your fingers straight out, or spread your fingers apart for variation.
  4. Repeat with both hands at least four times.

Originally published on August 4, 2021
Article updated on August 12, 2021

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