Neck Rolls for Flexible Muscles and Pain Relief

Neck pain and stiffness are far too common, with nearly everyone experiencing some neck strain at times. Pain related to a tight neck may reduce your ability to work or even enjoy your leisure time. Learning the simple technique of neck rolls is one way to keep your neck flexible and reduce minor pain due to neck strain. 

Certainly, there are a few precautions to consider before doing any form of neck exercises. It's important to talk to your healthcare provider if you have pain that is moderate or severe or if you develop any symptoms that suggest your pain is more than a normal neck strain. These might include pain which is accompanied by tingling or numbness of your hands or arms, shooting pain such as occurs with nerve impingement or simply having a gut feeling that something more serious is going on. If you have any medical conditions which could predispose to neck problems you should also see your healthcare provider right away.

Neck strain is becoming more common in our digital world, and can often be related to things such as excess texting or having a forward neck posture due to long hours on a computer. 

Neck rolls are easiest to learn if you can visualize the activity step by step. Let's look at how to do a proper neck roll from beginning to end.


Begin the Neck Roll With Your Head Facing Straight

Woman looking straight ahead at gym

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The start position for the neck roll is with your head is straight, and your gaze forward.  

Again, only do these exercises if you have first talked with your healthcare provider.

Before you begin the movement, notice any tension that may be present in your muscles, especially the trapezius, which is located on top of your shoulders.


Roll Your Head to One Side

Neck roll exercise first step
John Freeman / Getty Images

From the start position, very gently tip your head to your left.

Paying attention to how your neck feels during this movement will help you do it safely. If this movement is painful, or your neck just doesn't feel right, stop the exercise altogether as this may not be the stretch for you. If you are certain you do not have a serious neck problem, you may wish to try the neck roll exercise but modify it so that you are doing a "semicircular" adaptation (moving your head only about halfway in each direction) of this exercise.

The rule of thumb is: Stay in a pain-free range of movement.


Roll Your Head Back

Second step in the neck roll exercise
John Freeman / Getty Images

Very gently, roll your head back into an extended position with your eyes facing the ceiling.

As with the movement that goes to the side, monitor for pain or discomfort, and adjust your intensity accordingly. This part of the neck roll challenges and strengthens the muscles on the back of the neck, and stretches those in front.


Roll Your Head to the Other Side

Third step in the neck roll exercise
John Freeman / Getty Images

With your head back, very gently roll your head to your right.

Again, monitor for pain or discomfort and adjust so that you remain in a safe zone of motion.

A roll to the side will stretch the neck muscles that are located on the side away from which you are moving, and contract  (strengthen) those on the side towards which you are taking your head.


Roll to the Front

Fourth step in the neck roll exericse
John Freeman / Getty Images

Next, gently roll your head so that your chin faces down and a little toward the front of your neck.

This movement stretches the muscles at the back of your neck and contracts (strengthens) those in front.


Return Your Head to the Start Position

Woman looking straight ahead at gym

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

With your head down, complete the final movement of the neck roll by bringing your head back up to the start position where your gaze is forward.

When doing your neck rolls, pay attention to a few additional points in order to get the greatest benefit of these exercises:

  • Keep your movements slow and fluid (not jerky or rigid).
  • Perform deep breathing throughout the exercise. If you note that your breathing changes, figure out at which point in the neck roll this occurs, and if it is related to pain.

Strengthening and Protecting Your Neck

Woman practicing yoga on a dock

Fat Camera/Getty Images

In addition to doing neck rolls, there are other ways in which you can strengthen and protect your neck.

  • Maintain good posture. Misalignment such as forward head posture can strain your neck muscles and is common if you spend a lot of time on a computer or behind the steering wheel of a car.
  • Pay attention to your sleeping position. If you sleep on your back, it's often recommended that you use a thin pillow. That said, those with conditions ranging from allergies to sleep apnea may be unable to sleep in this position.
  • Check out some easy moves to reduce pain and tension in your neck.

In addition, you may wish to talk to a physical therapist who can design a neck exercise program to meet your specific needs.

Learn more about how physical therapy for neck pain can teach you how to properly align your neck and shoulders and help to eliminate neck pain. The goal is to both return you to your previous level of function and prevent further neck strain in the future.

Many physical therapists feel that a core exercise program both in reducing your risk of neck strain and improving your overall health.

Bottom Line

There are many activities in our daily lives that can contribute to neck pain and stiffness. Learning how to do neck rolls and taking a moment to examine your neck alignment can both reduce your discomfort and reduce your risk of pain in the future by improving flexibility. As a final note, you may wish to take a look at things to stop doing if you have neck pain.

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.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.