Desk stretches to ease aches and pains

Emma Mitchell
Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
18 April 2023
Next review due April 2026

Working from a desk all day can put strain on our muscles and joints. Sometimes your shoulder, neck or back muscles might be sore after a long day sitting down. Aches and pains can make us feel uncomfortable and affect our productivity.

If you have aching or tight muscles, why not try the desk exercises below. They can all be performed at your desk and can help to ease any strain.

An image of a man relaxing at his desk

1. Seated spinal rotation

  • While seated, cross your arms over your chest.
  • Grab your shoulders.
  • Rotate your upper body from the waist, turning gently from left to right as far as you can.
  • You should feel a tension on both side of your lower back as it stretches out.
  • Hold for three to five seconds and repeat three to five times.

an illustration of a seated spinal rotation

2. Posterior shoulder stretch

  • Hold one arm across your body.
  • Pull your elbow into your chest.
  • You should feel your shoulder gently stretching.
  • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.

an illustration of a shoulder stretch

3. Shoulder rolls

  • Gently bring your shoulders up and roll them backwards.
  • Let them slowly fall down.
  • You should feel tension being released as your shoulders drop.
  • Repeat this movement five to six times.

an illustration of shoulder shrugs

4. Sitting back extensions

  • Sit straight with your feet together.
  • Put the palms of your hands into the small of your back.
  • Lean back over your hands, feeling your lower back stretch out.
  • Repeat this exercise three to five times.

an illustration of a sitting back extension

Neck rotations

  • Keep your head upright.
  • Gently turn your head from side to side.
  • As you turn your head, try to move it past your shoulder.
  • You should feel the muscles on the outside of your neck gradually stretching.
  • Hold this stretch for three to five seconds and repeat three to five times.

An illustration of a neck rotation

Upper shoulder and neck stretch

  • Sit on one hand.
  • Tilt your head away from the hand you’re sitting on.
  • Tilt your head slightly forward, towards your shoulder.
  • You should feel the muscles in your neck and shoulder being stretched.
  • Hold the stretch for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat three times on each side.

an illustration of an upper shoulder neck stretch

Backward shoulder extension

  • Stand up and stretch your arms out behind you.
  • Clasp your hands together and gently lift your arms.
  • You should feel the pressure in your shoulders ease.
  • Hold this movement for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times.

an illustration of a shoulder extension behind the back

Overhead shoulder extension

  • Hold both arms above your head.
  • Link your hands with your palms facing upwards.
  • Reach as high as possible.
  • You should feel your shoulders stretching.
  • Hold this stretch for three to five seconds, repeating three to five times.

an illustration of a shoulder extension on top of the head

Making sure you’re sitting properly

Stretching at your desk throughout the day can help to reduce muscle tightness and strain. But, it’s also important to sit properly. This can help to prevent back pain and other musculoskeletal problems. The tips below can help you set up your workstation.

an illustration of the correct seating at desk

  • The top of your computer screen should be level with your eyes.
  • Your screen should be around an arms-length away from you.
  • Your keyboard should be below your elbows.
  • Sit right back in your seat, so your lower back is supported by your chair.
  • Your seat should be at a height that supports your thighs at the front and back.

Keep items within reach

Arrange your desk so that things are each to reach. Otherwise, if you need to lean across your desk a lot, this can cause strain on your muscles. And, you won’t get the same back support from your chair.

Take a break

It’s important to take short, regular breaks throughout the day. This can help to reduce muscle tightness and strain. Try to:

  • regularly stretch your hands, wrists, and fingers
  • give your eyes a break every 20 minutes, by looking into the distance for 20 seconds
  • every 20 minutes or so try to stand up and move

Here, Bupa Physiotherapist Mike Livesey, demonstrates a good workstation setup and some desk stretches to try at home.

If you have neck or back pain, a physiotherapist or GP can give you more advice and support.

If you have a muscle, bone or joint problem, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get advice from a physiotherapist usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Emma Mitchell
Emma Mitchell
Physiotherapist at Bupa UK



Lucy Kapoutsos, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Exercises for the fingers, hands and wrists. Versus Arthritis. Accessed March 2023
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