For nearly 10 years, I’ve lived with chronic neck and shoulder pain. While it’s not present 100 percent of the time, my upper right deltoid—stretching into my trapezius and the base of my neck—has been plagued with a knot so stubborn, even deep-tissue massage can’t fully work it out. It’s a deep, throbbing tightness that, in some cases, aches so badly that it feels like it’s burning or clawing its way over my shoulder and down into my collarbone.
Whenever long hours at my desk exacerbate the pain, I might fight back with short sessions with my Theragun Mini, longer bouts with my HigherDose Infrared PEMF Mat (which helps a lot if I actually do it daily), and I’ll try any stretches promising relief on Instagram. Although all of these methods can help soothe my shoulder pain, there’s one stretch in particular that’s been surprisingly beneficial. Allow me to introduce you to the this trap-centric PNF stretch—perhaps it can help you, too.
What is a PNF stretch—and why does it help?
“PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation,” Pantano explains. “It is a stretching technique that involves alternating cycles of muscle contraction and relaxation to improve flexibility and promote muscle relaxation or release.”
While there are PNF stretches for the entire body, the version that works best for knotted shoulders targets the traps.
“This PNF stretch for the upper trapezius muscle works by combining muscle activation and subsequent relaxation,” Pantano says. “The initial contraction activates the upper trapezius muscle, while the subsequent relaxation allows for a deeper stretch. This cycle reduces tightness.”
How to perform the PNF stretch for your traps
Pantano says this stretch can be helpful for anyone who experiences upper trap tightness, or chronic neck and shoulder pain. Sound familiar? To reap the rewards of a trap-centric PNF stretch, follow the steps below.
- Hold a dumbbell or weight in your hand on the affected side. (If both shoulders are tight, just do one at a time, then repeat on the other side.)
- Shrug your weighted shoulder toward your ear. Hold here for 10 seconds to activate the upper trapezius, Pantano says.
- Relax and return the shoulder to a neutral position.
- With your arms by your sides, lean your head to the opposite shoulder to feel a stretch on the affected side.
- Perform two to three repetitions on each side.
As simple as it seems, this slow contracting and stretching sequence can melt away intense shoulder pain for lasting relief. “You can incorporate this PNF stretch into your regular stretching routine,” Pantano says. “Start with two to three repetitions on each side and gradually increase the number of sets as your body adapts.” Just make sure to listen to your body and avoid overstretching, as that could cause more pain, she warns.
Craving more? Try this 15-minute stretch session that’s all about the shoulders: