The 5 Best Neck Strengthening Exercises to Relieve Pain

Why is exercise essential if you have neck pain?

Exercise leads to improved posture, range of motion and functionality of your body, and it can also help treat the underlying source of your neck pain by strengthening key supportive muscles and restoring flexibility.

Not surprisingly, repetitive strain injuries have become increasingly common during the pandemic as so many of us are working from home and spending most of our days sitting in front of computers and devices.

Desk work is associated with neck pain specifically originating from the trapezius muscle. This increased tension will also affect joints of the neck, and many types of neck pain can be traced back to poor posture at desks and even during commutes.

It’s a vicious cycle as poor sitting posture leads to neck pain and once neck pain develops, it can make your posture even worse.  The spine is our body’s central support system, it keeps us upright and connects the different parts of our skeleton to each other.  It’s important that it be optimized, since the nerves that exit the spine carry important electrical signals from the brain to every muscle and organ in the body.  For instance, a study showed people with chronic neck pain demonstrate a reduced ability to maintain an upright posture when distracted.

The same study further revealed, however, that after following a specific exercise program, people with neck pain had an improved ability to maintain a neutral cervical posture during prolonged sitting, suggesting it may help break the poor posture/neck pain cycle.

Other research has similarly shown that exercise is incredibly beneficial for treating neck pain including:

  • Research in the Journal of Applied Physiologyfound that repetitive strain injury caused by desk work can be reduced using certain strength training exercises.
  • A study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatismshowed that strength training targeting the neck and shoulder muscles is the most beneficial treatment for women with chronic neck muscle pain as opposed to a general fitness routine.

These five specific strength exercises are best at targeting the neck and shoulder muscle groups involved in causing chronic neck pain.  Both studies mentioned above involved the same five exercises using dumbbell weights.  If, dumbbells are not available, using resistant bands would be acceptable alternative.

I recommend starting with 2-3 lb weights, and increasing to 5-8 lb weights depending on the exercise and your strength.

  • Dumbbell shrug Stand upright with the hand weights at the side of your body. In one even motion, lift your shoulders up towards your ears and lower them again slowly. At the same time, try to relax your jaw and neck.
  • One-arm row Stand with one knee on the bench and lean on the same-side hand on the front of the bench. With the free arm you pull the weight up towards your lower chest. When the weight touches your chest, lower it in a controlled motion.
  • Upright row Stand upright with your arms stretched and the hand weights in front of your body. Lift the weights in a straight line as close to your body as possible, until they reach the middle of your chest and your elbows point up and out. During the whole exercise, the hand weights should be placed lower than the elbows.
  • Reverse fly Lie down on a bench in a 45° forward bent angle or hinge forward at your hips in a 45° forward bent angle, keeping your back flat and your core firm with the hand weights hanging towards the floor with your palms facing each other. Lift the weights outward and upward until they are horizontal, and then lower the weights in one controlled motion. During the exercise, the elbows should be slightly bent.
  • Side Laterals / Lateral raise / shoulder abduction Stand upright with the hand weights at the side of your body. Lift the weights outward and upward until they are horizontal, and then lower the weights in one controlled motion. During the exercise, the elbows should be slightly bent.

For maximum benefits perform the exercises 3X per week keeping a non exercise day in between. (ie, Mondays, Wednesdays,  Fridays) and alternating between exercises 1, 2, and 5 on one day, and exercises 1, 3, and 4 the next.

Perform 2 sets of each exercise with 8-12 repetitions for each set.  Increase at your own pace to 3 sets for each.

Feel free to increase the weight once you can comfortably execute all three sets.

After approximately four weeks, reduce the number of repetitions of the last sets in order to increase the weight.

Additional tips

Always be sure to properly warm-up, breath out on exertion, use a gentle yet guided grip and keep your spine neutral and core stabilized at all times.

Stop immediately if you experience pain or discomfort.

This information is not intended to be your prescription.  Always consult your Doctor of Chiropractic or Allied Healthcare and/or Fitness Professional to determine suitability for you.

Dr. Joanne Hubley is an award-winning Doctor of Chiropractic, Fitness Design Expert, Former Professional Figure Skater, Life-Long Multi-Sport Competitive Athlete, Model & Official for the World IFBB-Physique America and Founder of the uniquely innovative LIVA Health Centre, offering multi-specialty support for your Best LIFE – contact us for a Live or Virtual appointment and more innovations for a LIFE worth Celebrating


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