As part of our body+care campaign, we are looking into specific areas of the body and how we can learn to take better care of them, through exercise, stretching, movement and of course, self-care.

We know that looking after yourself goes way beyond a regular bodycare routine, which is why we’ve called on friend of This Works, Sports Scientist, fitness coach and industry menopause specialist, Rachel Hubbard, to discuss how we can specifically target the upper body including the neck, shoulders and chest area with exercises and stretches that help to improve mobility, bone health and help to prevent osteoporosis.

Discover why the upper body is so important and learn how to care for it with these informative how-to videos and step-by-step stretches that can be done from the comfort of your desk, the sofa or even your bed. 

why is it important to look after the upper body?

Have you ever thought about how hard your upper works and everything it allows you to do? From helping you complete simple daily tasks like reaching high cupboards, preparing a meal and getting dressed to lifting your children, hugging your family members and playing sports – our arms, shoulders, neck and chest muscles play essential roles in everyday movements. Maintaining strong and healthy muscles in your neck, shoulders, and chest is crucial for overall well-being and functionality. Here, we'll explore how to look after these muscle groups and suggest functional exercises to help strengthen and condition them effectively.
By incorporating a combination of stretching, strengthening, and functional exercises into your routine, you can help prevent muscle imbalances, alleviate discomfort, and improve performance in daily activities and sports. Remember to listen to your body, start slowly, and gradually progress as you build strength and endurance in these important muscle groups.

keeping your neck in check 

The neck has a wide range of movements, allowing us to nod, rotate, tilt and flex our head.
The head is where most of our sensory input takes place, there is a complex network of muscles that work together to support the skull, and they all play a vital role in our everyday life.  Taste is one of the most pleasurable senses we have, and where we start to eat, the neck muscles support and stabilise the head so that our jaw can work correctly.
By turning our heads, we can process what we see in our environments, lean in to smell something or search for a nearby sound. The neck muscles play a significant role in the postural position of the head and the throat – by keeping the head and neck aligned with the rest of the body, these neck muscles help to prevent unnecessary compression or obstruction of the airways and help to ensure optimal functioning of the thyroid and parathyroid gland.  
They also help to support the seven cervical vertebrae of the neck and their strength helps to protect the spinal cord from potential harm through uncontrolled movements by controlling the way we move in a smooth and controlled manner.  The neck muscles can assist with breathing through support for the thoracic cavity during respiration.
The neck muscles are often “hypertonic” meaning that they hold more tension than other muscles in the body. This ‘over contraction” of the neck muscles may occur due to the signalling from the nervous system such as stress-induced tension or compensatory mechanisms to maintain posture – we may have muscle imbalances on one side to the other causing localised pain and discomfort, headaches or impact on our daily living such as sleeping well, driving a vehicle, and reducing our ability to concentrate. 
The neck muscles include the sternocleidomastoid, trapezius, levator scapulae, and scalene muscles, which support the head and facilitate movements of the neck.
To care for these muscles, it’s important to practice good posture – especially when working at a desk! Maintain proper alignment of the head and neck whilst sitting by having your feet firmly on the floor, supporting your back and raising your computer to eye level. 
When standing, roll the shoulders back and refrain from staring down at your phone for long periods to avoid strain on the neck. The best sleeping position for your neck is on your side or your back, with a flatter pillow that is not too soft or too hard and properly supports the neck. 
Performing exercises with resistance bands or using your bodyweight such as neck flexion and extension, lateral flexion and rotation exercises can help strengthen the neck muscles, and you also need to work on flexibility to gain a balance of how these muscles work together. 

neck stretches

Feeling the effects of staring down at a laptop, front sleeping or bad posture? Try these gentle stretches for the sides and back of the neck to improve flexibility and alleviate stiffness.
Always remember to do some mobility exercises, such as shoulder rolls, arm opening and closing, to warm up this area – stretching these muscles when cold can cause cramping but easing them out with gentle movements to begin with will really help. 

for the side of the neck:

Step one: Slowly tip your head to the side until you feel the stretch down the side of your neck.
Step two: Hold for a few seconds – add light pressure of fingertips to increase the stretch on ease off.
Step three: Do not lift the head back up too quickly as it might cause the neck to go into spasm.

Step four: Repeat on other side


for the back of the neck:

Step one: Tip your head forward down onto your chest until you feel the back of your neck being stretched.

Step two: Gently place your fingertips on the back of your head and as you relax forward, bend your knees, and pull your stomach in tight.

Step three: Curl only until you are in a C-shape and can feel the stretch halfway down your spine.

for the trapezius muscles:

Step one: Place your thumbs on the base of your skull and your finger on top of your head.

Step two: Press your thumbs onto your head and circle in an anti-clockwise motion – this should feel a bit sore! Do this for 30 seconds.


a shoulder to rely on

Our shoulders are somewhere that can carry a lot of our mental and physical baggage – they help support the neck and are responsible for our widest range of motion (from throwing a ball to brushing our hair) their versatility also makes them more susceptible to overuse injuries as well as sprains and strains.
The shoulder muscles, including the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis), serratus anterior, Teres major, levator scapulae rhomboid and trapezius – these muscles help to provide stability, mobility and coordinating to the shoulder joint providing fabulous functionality to our upper body. 


shoulder exercises

When caring for these muscles, it’s important to warm up to avoid injury. We can do this by incorporating shoulder mobility exercises and dynamic stretches into our routines including arm circles, shoulder rolls and shrugs. When exercising, we should focus on two types of movement; stabilisation exercises and strengthening exercises. Stabilisation helps balance and posture, and these include external and internal rotations, scapular retractions and shoulder blade squeezes.
For strengthening, we should look at compound push and pull movements like shoulder presses, rows, and pull-ups into your routine to engage multiple shoulder muscles simultaneously and promote balanced development.
After exercising, cool down and relax with muscles with some simple stretches such as cross-body arm stretch, behind-the-back shoulder stretch, and overhead triceps stretch, to target different areas. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds and focus on deep breathing to enhance relaxation.

take stress off your chest 

The chest muscles, pectoralis major and minor, may contribute  to some of the movements of our shoulder joint, through flexion, adduction, and rotation of the arm.
The pectoralis (more commonly known as ‘pecs’) are large muscles that not only allow for big movements like pushing or pulling across your body. Pec Minor also helps to stabilise our shoulder blade and is an important postural muscle. 
They play an important role in respiration by helping us to raise the chest and ribs. This elevation is necessary for your lungs to fully expand as you take in and breathe out air.– Our chest muscles can become over tight, leading to problems with posture and associated neck and shoulder pain and discomfort – it is important therefore to pay attention to the chest muscles as they help the other! 

chest exercises

When doing any form of exercise, it’s always important to warm up the muscles beforehand to prevent injury – a good way to do this is with movement and gentle stretches. Incorporate doorway stretches and chest openers into your routine to maintain flexibility and help to prevent tightness.
Good technique and form make a big difference when working with the chest and shoulder. Take things slowly and approach your exercise with a quality over quantity mindset – exercises are effective in the long run when you practice technique – even if this means lighter weights or doing less reps initially.
Begin your exercises by engaging the chest muscles with exercises like push-ups - these can be modified to be down with your knees down, or even against a wall until you build the strength to do a full push-up. Bench presses and dumbbell flys are great exercises that can be done from the comfort of your home with just a set of dumbbells. If you prefer to work out in a gym, cable crossovers are great for building strength and definition.


important notes for effective exercise

When it comes to movement a variation of techniques including mobility, resistance and strength is best to not only target different areas and concerns but also for wellbeing. Yoga and Pilates are great options for to improve flexibility, mobility, and balance and stability.
Many Pilates exercises incorporate the chest muscles in their functional movement – such as double leg stretch, Criss Cross and Leg pull front, whilst lovely exercises such as mermaid and shoulder bridge can help open the chest and can help lengthen and align the spine while targeting the upper body muscles.
Flexibility training is most effective when incorporated into your routine daily, but it is important to be patient and consistent with your efforts and understand that increased flexibility takes time! Listen to your body and avoid pushing into pain or discomfort when performing stretches or mobility exercises. 



osteoporosis prevention and management

Osteoporosis is a common bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decrease, or when the quality or structure of bone changes. This can lead to a decrease in bone strength which can increase the risk of fractures. It develops slowly over the years and these changes to the upper body are often passed off as a ‘normal’ part of ageing with a signature ‘hunched over’ look that makes us look as though we are shrinking, but a recent strategy report by the Royal Osteoporosis Society indicated that this is one of the markers for osteoporosis.

Unfortunately, women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men and the early onset of menopause (before the age of 45) can increase the risk, and studies show that as many as 1 in 5 women may have 3-5 bone fractures before being diagnosed iii.. Maintaining upper body strength is imperative not only for improving our posture but also for safeguarding our bones and muscles as we grow older. An imbalance in the shoulder and neck region, commonly referred to as "upper cross syndrome," can disrupt gait and balance, increasing the risk of trips and falls, and we see that wrist and shoulder fractures can sometimes happen when we attempt to break a fall by extending the hand.  

Whilst we must not underestimate the importance of bone loading exercises in osteoporosis prevention and management, it's essential not to overlook the significance of posture and balance exercises. Although bone loading with heavy weights gives us great results, it typically requires 9-12 months of consistent exercise before significant changes are measurable. Meanwhile, exercises targeting posture and balance play a fundamental role in maintaining activity levels, enhancing quality of life, averting falls, and alleviating osteoporosis-related discomfort.

Studies show that short-term upper body resistance training like push-ups, chest presses and pull-downs  can significantly improve strength performance metrics in premenopausal women when observed over a 10-week intervention iv. Although minimal changes in bone mass density were noted, this could be attributed to factors such as the time required for bone mass to develop, as well as variables including nutrition, age, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Given that approximately 12 months are necessary to see improvements in bone mass, it is crucial to persist in enhancing balance and upper body strength through targeted exercises aimed at improving posture, balance, and mitigating the risk of falls.

Most recent studies (2024) concluded that resistance training had positive effects on the physical fitness of postmenopausal women.v While debate persists regarding its impact on bone mineral density and related anthropometric variables, the study recommends a frequency of three exercise sessions per week, each lasting 60 minutes, to enhance the quality of life, functionality, and for disease prevention in this demographic. Resistance training tailored to menopausal women often states that heavier weights are needed to see changes in muscle mass – but we all need to start somewhere, and using lighter dumbbells or resistance bands is an easy way to ease into working on our upper body.

We mustn’t only focus on exercises that enhance bone mineral density but work on fall prevention too. Exercises like Pilates are geared toward improving posture, muscle re-education, strengthening and most importantly, improving confidence. This positive and proactive approach to physical fitness is integral to promoting overall health and an improved quality of life, particularly among women.