Self Myofascial Release Techniques for Neck and Shoulders

Every exercise program, whether for sports performance enhancement, general fitness, or for physical therapy reasons, should include three types of training. These are cardiorespiratory, resistance training, and flexibility (mobility training). According to the American Council on Exercise, an effective fitness program needs all three elements.

And all three play a role in back pain prevention and management.

Foam rollingWoman using a foam roller in gym
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Exercise and Pain

You might not automatically associate aerobic exercise with a decrease in back pain, but the association is there. A 2015 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation looked at eight studies focusing on the effects this type of fitness training had on scores on a number of well-respected pain and disability patient surveys. The researchers found that aerobic exercise indeed helped decrease chronic low back pain and associated disability.

Strengthening core, back, and hip muscles may help support your posture in a healthy alignment, and as such can provide a foundation for avoiding injury, re-injury, and pain related to imbalanced muscles that surround your joints. Check out this informative page for some ideas on what to do.

When we refer to flexibility, in essence, we’re talking about joint range of motion. Joint range of motion measures the degree of movement in all the directions possible for a specific joint. The exact movements will be different on a per joint basis. These variations may depend on a number of things including the type of joint, in other words, the design and construction, plus your age, your gender, and more.

Although a joint, for example your shoulder joint, may be built for a lot of movement, often tight muscles, the presence of scar tissue or other factors will limit how much range of motion, and therefore flexibility, you can effectively demonstrate. You’re considered flexible when you have available the full amount, or at least most, of the movement for which a given joint is constructed.

But most adults don’t have an overabundance of joint flexibility. For them, regularly including mobility training as part of every workout may go a long way toward overcoming pain and disability.

Stretching, Fascia, and SMR for Whole Body Mobility Development

One way to accomplish this is to stretch. For a long time, stretching individual muscle groups after a workout was the most commonly recommended strategy. But as the decades progressed, and more research was done, not only were new muscle stretching techniques identified and recommended, but the entire concept of flexibility began to transition into a whole-body mobility model. These days, mobility training is sometimes about muscle relaxation, while at other times, it’s about releasing fascia, the net-like covering that surrounds and is woven into nearly every one of your body’s structures, from bones and muscles to organs and glands.

And this is where self-myofascial release techniques (SMR) come in. Self-myofasical release techniques are things you can do for yourself that make changes in the coverings around muscles and other soft tissue.

Why would you want to make these changes? Many people claim they relieve pain, improve posture, and develop more mobility.

SMR techniques run the gamut from foam rolling to lying on tennis balls, golf balls, medicine balls, and weird looking gadgets available at some fitness outlets.

SMR Techniques for Neck, Shoulders, and Upper Back

Much has been written about foam rolling for hips, calves, low back, and even feet. But if your neck is tense, your upper back hurts or your shoulders don’t quite “hang” right, you may benefit from a self-myofascial release session that targets the upper body.

If that describes you, and you are game for an alternative way to increase your flexibility, the SMR exercises below are easy to follow. All you need is a foam roller and a tennis ball or two.

SMR for Rhomboid Muscles

Have you ever felt like your upper back muscles—the ones located between your shoulder blade(s) and your spine are wadded up and tight? If so, you may benefit from SMR to your rhomboid muscles. Your rhomboids connect your shoulder blade to your spine and play a role in kyphosis, or rounded upper back. Sometimes these muscles get tight because they are weak, and other times they get tight because of muscle imbalances around the joints that work the shoulder, neck, arm and/or head. A combination is possible, too.

The rhomboids also pair up with another important posture muscle called the levator scapula, so when you do SMR on your rhomboids, you’ll likely indirectly affect this muscle as well.

Tight rhomboid muscles can change the way your shoulder blades rest on your upper back, which in turn may lead to limited shoulder mobility, pain and/or rotator cuff tendon degeneration.

To work over your rhomboids you can use either a foam roller or a tennis ball. If you’re using a foam roller, simply lie down on the roller, which should be placed lengthwise under your spine. Cross your arms in front, hooking them loosely at the elbows, so that each hand touches the opposite shoulder. This position helps move the shoulder blade out, away from the spine. Relax and breathe for a few minutes.

You can add some movement to the initial set up by rolling on the foam roller. Start at the inside edge of one shoulder blade and roll towards your spine and then back again. Keep breathing throughout the movement.

After about 15-30 seconds of rolling, switch sides.

For more specific targeting of the rhomboid muscles, try the rolling action using a tennis ball instead of a foam roller.

Tennis Balls for Your Sub-Occipital Muscles

Many people have what is known as forward head posture, where, over time, the position of the head has migrated forward. This less than ideal posture issue often forms in response to kyphosis and upper back rounding.

Forward head posture can be due to long hours sitting at the computer and especially interacting with the screen. It can also come about from sedentary occupations such as truck driving. More causes, for example, routinely adjusting your head and neck to accommodate being extra tall, exist, as well.

Even a small excursion forward of your head from your neck can stress muscles and other soft tissues. To address this, you might consider having an experience with your tennis balls from time to time. Here’s what to do:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your arms either by your side or crossed in front of you as you did with the rhomboid exercise. Let your comfort be your guide when deciding on a position for your arms.
  • Take a breath or two, relax, and settle into the floor.
  • Place a tennis ball at the bone located at bottom of your skull in back. Find the “point” where you can feel that something’s happening or changing in the soft tissue under the ball, but where it’s not too much for you to take in. Spend a few moments relaxing and breathing with the tennis ball in that spot. Repeat on the other side.

And a word about the location: The area to place the tennis ball is called the bottom of your skull, also known as your occipital bone. A group of muscles known as the sub-occipitals attach here and can get very tight when your head is not aligned with your neck.

Another muscle to be sure to "get" with your tennis balls is the semispinalis capitus. This muscle helps keep a normal cervical curve intact and, like the sub-occipitals, helps to extend your head back. It also is responsible for tilting your head to the side. Like the sub-occipitals, the semispinalis capitus muscle attaches along the bottom of the skull.

To make your experience with the tennis balls under your skull more convenient and restful, you can construct your own SMR device. It’s really easy.

Simply put two tennis balls in a sock, and position that beneath the bottom of your skull, with one tennis ball on either side of your neck. Using your SMR device will likely give you more stable experience overall, which may help further relax the targeted muscles.

Improve Your Thoracic Spine Mobility With SMR

The thoracic spine, which corresponds and offers connection points to your ribs, is in a good position to provide support for your neck, shoulder girdle and the weight of your head. This position also enables the upper back to assist with injury prevention or management.

Because of this, why not take advantage of the thoracic spine’s platforming capacity by restoring any lost mobility that may have taken place in this area? If you are like many people, tight muscles in your thoracic spine limits a number of motions, namely your ability to twist, tilt, flex, and extend. Foam rolling is a particularly good SMR tool for mitigating tension in the muscles that normally power those movements.

Lie on your back, with the foam roller positioned crosswise and horizontally at the level of the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Take some deep breaths, and relax!

When You Should and Shouldn’t Try Foam Rolling

While SMR is very popular in both the fitness world and in therapy circles, there are times when it’s not an appropriate practice. If you’ve recently sustained an injury or you have an existing chronic pain condition such as fibromyalgia, foam rolling, resting on tennis balls, and the like may not be for you. The best way to know for sure is to have a conversation with your qualified licensed health professional—either your MD or physical therapist. Other reasons to stay away from SMR include having bony joints and/or circulation problems. Again ask your healthcare provider or PT for guidance if you’re unsure.

But if you’re cleared for foam rolling, it may be a great way to reduce scar tissue from past injuries or surgeries, calm down overactive muscles, improve posture, and of course, to improve flexibility and increase whole body mobility.

6 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. Long A. Elements of an effective exercise program. American Council on Exercise.

  2. Meng XG, Yue SW. Efficacy of aerobic exercise for treatment of chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2015;94(5):358-65. doi:10.1097/PHM.0000000000000188

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.

  4. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic reviewInt J Sports Phys Ther.

  5. Singla D, Veqar Z. Association between forward head, rounded shoulders, and increased thoracic kyphosis: A review of the literature. J Chiropr Med. 2017;16(3):220–229. doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2017.03.004

  6. National Academy of Sports Medicine. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Additional Reading

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