Strengthening Exercises for the Upper Back and Neck

It only takes one day of sitting in front of the computer at work to appreciate the importance of strengthening your neck and upper back muscles. These muscles not only contribute to proper sitting posture, but they also provide stability to the spine. Strengthening these areas can also help you avoid neck pain, which is experienced by approximately 30 to 50 percent of adults each year (see reference 1). Try several different exercises to target these important areas.

Strengthening the muscles in your neck and upper back can help prevent pain in these areas (Image: Staras/iStock/Getty Images)

Cervical Retraction

This easy to do exercise helps strengthen the muscles in the neck that prevent forward head posture.

How To: Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and your arms relaxed. Retract your head backwards as though you are giving yourself a double chin. Make sure not to shrug your shoulders or nod your head up or down as you do this. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds and then relax.

Prone W's are performed by lying on your stomach and lifting your arms in the air. (Image: Andy Nowack/iStock/Getty Images)

Prone W’s

This exercise strengthens multiple different muscles around the shoulder blades in the upper back.

How To: Lie on your stomach with your arms out to the side and your elbows bent at 90-degree angles, as if you were making a touchdown signal. Lift both arms in the air in this position and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Make sure to keep your neck muscles relaxed and avoid shrugging your shoulders. After keeping your arms in the air for 5 to 10 seconds, lower them back down again.

Cervical Deep Flexion Lift

This exercise targets the deep cervical flexion muscles in the neck which help to stabilize the spine and improve posture.

How To: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your arms resting at your side. Begin by nodding your chin downwards towards your neck and holding it there. Then, lift your head one to two inches off the ground without losing your initial chin tuck. Hold your head in this position for 5 to 10 seconds before lowering it back to the ground and relaxing your chin. Your shoulders should remain relaxed as you do this exercise.

Wall Slides

Wall slides target the rhomboid and trapezius muscles in the upper back. These important muscles help to keep your shoulders in the down and back position.

How To: Stand with your feet 4 to 6 inches from a wall and lean back against it. With your shoulders and elbows making 90-degree angles, place both arms against the wall. Slowly slide your arms six to 12 inches upwards and back down again. As you do this, try to keep your wrists, elbows and forearms in contact with the wall at all times.

Rows over an exercise ball challenge the muscles of your upper back. (Image: Demid/iStock/Getty Images)

Exercise Ball Rows

Rows target your rhomboid muscles which run from your lower cervical and upper thoracic spine to your shoulder blades (See reference 3, table 1).

How To: Lie over an exercise ball with your chest resting against it. Hold a 1- to 2-pound dumbbell in each of your hands. With your elbows bent, slowly lift your arms towards the ceiling like you are rowing the oars of a boat. As you do this, squeeze your shoulder blades together without allowing your shoulders to shrug. Hold this for 1 to 2 seconds and then lower your arms back to the ground.

Resistance Band Wall Walks

This is another challenging way to target the muscles in your upper back that retract the shoulder blades.

How To: Tie a resistance band around your forearms and place them against a wall at chest level. Your forearms should be vertically oriented and situated just outside your body. Begin by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then, move your arms up the wall a few inches at a time alternating between the two. As you do this, do not allow your forearms to tilt inwards. After moving each arm upwards four to five times, slide them back down again in one to two inch increments until you return to your starting position.


Building strength in these muscle groups can take time and dedication. When strengthening the muscles of the neck and upper back, perform 10 repetitions of each exercise. This should be done two times per day. It may be helpful to work with a physical therapist when initially beginning an exercise regimen, especially after sustaining an injury.

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