How to Do Muscle Relaxation Exercises

If you are like most people, you are probably dealing with too much stress! Our bodies were designed to deal with stress by girding us up for battle. As one part of this stress response, we experience an increase in muscle tension.

This excess muscle tension is a waste of energy, contributes to fatigue, and can result in chronic pain. Think about boxers — they dance around the ring as a way to keep their muscles loose so that they can concentrate all of their power when they want to land a punch.

A woman relaxing on a yoga mat
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The good thing is that there is a great workaround for the problem of being tense all of the time. Muscle relaxation exercises are simple techniques for calming your body in response to life stress. Learning to systematically relax the muscles in your body will keep you better equipped to deal with your day to day challenges. These exercises may be of particular value if you have a health problem that is worsened by stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, or chronic pain.


1. Take a deep inhale, make a tight fist with your right hand and hold it for a count of three. On an exhale, think the word “relax” and release all the tension in that right hand. Take a moment or two to focus on the difference in the sensations of a tense muscle versus that of a relaxed muscle.

2. Using the same technique, one by one, tense and relax the muscles in your face. Add tension on the inhale, then think the word “relax” as you exhale and let the muscle slacken.

  • Forehead: Frown like you are angry or puzzled. Exhale and smooth it out.
  • Eyes: Screw up your eyes like a baby crying. Then exhale and release the tension.
  • Jaw and cheeks: Clench your teeth and jaw as if in anger. Exhale and relax. Feel a sense of warmth and relaxation throughout your entire face.

3.Tense and relax the muscles in your torso.

  • Shoulders: Point them up to the ceiling on the inhale. Exhale, let them relax and hang loose.
  • Chest: Tighten the chest muscles on a deep inhale, and then let the tension deflate on the exhale.
  • Abdomen: Tighten your belly as if someone is going to punch you, then let your belly go slack. Feel a spread of warmth throughout your entire torso.

4. Tense and relax your arms. Make a fist with both hands, tightening your biceps, triceps, and forearms. Let the tension go, leaving arms that are hanging loose and heavy at your side.

5. Legs are last. Point your toes to the ceiling, tighten your thighs and calves at the same time, before letting all of the tension go. Feel the last bits of tension draining from your whole body, out through your legs and into the ground.

Pro Tips

Enjoy the experience! If any particular body part still feels tense, go back to it, tighten it and then let it loose. It may take a few weeks of practice for you to achieve a complete sense of relaxation.

Practice! Practice the exercises twice a day and sit quietly for about 10 minutes. Do not practice in bed — you want to teach yourself to relax, not teach yourself to fall asleep! It is a great idea to practice right before bed. A relaxed body will sleep better.

Choose what order works for you. Although there are a variety of ways to progressively relax your muscles, I like to start at the top of the head and then work my way down. This allows me to feel like the tension is “draining” from my body.

Take it to the next level. After two weeks, you may no longer need to tense the muscles first. Just focus on each body part, actively relaxing the muscles.

Road test it. Once you are proficient in the exercises, you can start to use them whenever you feel tense. Monitor your tension level throughout the day. If you feel yourself tightening, take a few deep breaths, think the word “relax,” and encourage your body to return to a state of relaxation.

Record it. Some people find it helpful to make an audio recording of the instructions for progressive muscle relaxation. If you do, make sure you keep repeating the keywords: relax, warm, heavy, loose.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A reviewEXCLI J. 2017;16:1057–1072. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480

  2. Simms RW. Is there muscle pathology in fibromyalgia syndrome?Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 1996;22(2):245–266. doi:10.1016/s0889-857x(05)70271-4

  3. Zargarzadeh M, Shirazi M. The effect of progressive muscle relaxation method on test anxiety in nursing studentsIran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2014;19(6):607–612.

  4. Norelli SK, Krepps JM. Relaxation Techniques. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from:

  5. Li Y, Wang R, Tang J, et al. Progressive muscle relaxation improves anxiety and depression of pulmonary arterial hypertension patientsEvid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:792895. doi:10.1155/2015/792895

Additional Reading
  • "Stress Management" Mayo Clinic website

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.