Mobility Exercises for Desk Dwellers: Exercises for the Office or Cubicle

By Angie Hurley, CSCS, CAT(C)

If you’re sitting like this right now reading this, STOP! …and continue reading :)

Desk dwellers often experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) due to sustained postures and repetitive motions (NIOSH, 1997). Fifty percent of all work-related MSDs involve the back, neck, shoulders, and upper limbs (Collins, Van Rensburg, & Patricios, 2011).

Some common MSDs include back pain, muscle strains, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, epicondylitis, and thoracic outlet syndrome (WSPS, 2011).

No particular positioning or posture is inherently ‘bad’ but, when sustained for long periods of time, postures can create prolonged static contraction of muscles, tension on ligaments and muscles, decreased tissue flexibility, altered spinal curvature and weakened para-vertebral muscles leading to increased risk of injury (Janwantanakul et al, 2008).

Other factors that increase your risk of an MSD include lack of physical activity and obesity (Collins, Van Rensburg, & Patricios, 2011).

3 Ways to Prevent Work-Related Injuries

Prevention of the aches and pains associated with long hours at a desk is possible! Frequent changes of position, stretch breaks, and movement are key! To prevent work-related injuries:

  1. Adjust your workplace to make it tailored to your individual ergonomic needs, i.e., appropriate workstation height or even install a standing desk,
  2. Take frequent breaks to change postures and positions, and
  3. Do preventative stretching and exercises.

Preventive Exercises for the Office

Try some of these exercises in your office or cubicle to prevent some of the most common work-related musculoskeletal disorders. A few reps, multiple times a day can help. Set a 60- to 90-minute timer to remind you to switch your posture up; stand, do a stretch, or take a quick walk. If you already have a suspected injury, make sure you see a qualified professional for an accurate assessment!

Wrist flexor stretch

Target: flexor muscles of the forearms, carpal tunnel syndrome, golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis)

Instructions: palms up, finger tips on the edge of the desk, straighten the arms and push palms to be perpendicular to desk
A little something extra: Ensure the fingers are straight to maximize this stretch – the flexor group of the forearm has many muscles that pass through the carpal tunnel and into the hand, so straightening the fingers ensures we’re also stretching the muscles that go beyond the wrist joint. Hold/reps: 30 seconds/every 90-120 minutes.

Wrist flexor stretch stretches the flexor muscles of the forearms

Wrist extensor stretch

Target: extensor muscles of the forearms, tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)
Instructions: Palm down, make a fist, knuckles on edge of the desk, straighten arms
Hold/reps: 30 seconds/every 90-120 minutes.

Wrist extensor stretch stretches the extensor muscles of the forearms

Military sets

Target: reduces internally rotated shoulders and rounded (kyphotic) thoracic spine, thoracic outlet syndrome
Instructions: sitting tall, shrug shoulders up, roll them back, then draw them down out of the shrug (see pic below for final position)
A little something extra: use a mirror, or your front facing phone camera, to see how your posture is changing
No hold. Perform dynamically/20 reps

Military sets help reduce tension in the shoulder, mid/upper back, and neck area.

Double chin tucks

Targets: forward head posture (see pic 1 below), lengthening of the posterior neck, shortening of the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and other anterior neck musculature. Tension headaches, neck pain.
Instructions: sitting tall (head towards the ceiling), shoulders set back, glide the chin back to create a double chin. Do not tilt the head back or forward. (See pic 2, below).
A little something extra: Fit these in while brushing your teeth! It’s a great time to have the mirror as a cue and multitasking won’t interfere with keeping those pearly whites shining. Another great reminder is every time you sip your coffee or water.
Hold/reps: 3 second hold/10 reps

Pic 1: To avoid forward head posture like this, try double chin tucks as well as changing your work station to promote healthier sitting posture
Pic 2: Double chin tucks help stretch the back of the neck and relieves tension on the neck and upper back.

Trap stretch

Targets: upper traps, where many ‘hold their stress’
Instructions: Sitting at your desk, tuck your right hand, palm up, under your right hip to sit on the hand, bring your left ear to your shoulder. Sitting on your arm helps pin the shoulder blade so we get a better stretch. If you do not feel much stretch, you can use your free hand to apply a gentle overpressure on your head.
A little something extra: if we bring our ear to our shoulder and look down to our arm pit we will change the stretch to also include the levator scapulae. If we bring our ear to our shoulder and jut the chin to look over the shoulder, we will target the muscles of the anterior neck.
Hold/reps: 10 breaths/2 per side

The trap stretch helps relieve tension in the upper shoulders where many people hold their stress

Dowel swings

Targets: Pec major/minor, rotator cuff, increased shoulder range of motion
Instructions: standing with a wide grip, use a controlled swing to bring the arms around to the back, and return to the front. Try to gradually narrow your grip on the item.
A little something extra: perform with a resistance band, towel, or if at work – your scarf or tie!
Hold/reps: perform dynamically, controlled tempo throughout entire range of motion/8-15 reps.

Starting position. Dowel swings stretch the pecs, rotator cuff, and shoulders
Midpoint position. Dowel swings stretch the pecs, rotator cuff, and shoulders
End position. Dowel swings stretch the pecs, rotator cuff, and shoulders

Doorway stretch

Targets: pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, shoulder and upper spine mobility
Instructions: Standing in your doorway, feet together, with both arms up so forearms are on the door frame, elbows bent at 90 degrees. Take a step through the doorway with chest out. 
A little something extra: Slide the arms up the door frame until the elbow is at 135 degrees. Slide the elbows down the door frame until the elbow is at 45 degrees. This ensures all 3 heads of the pectoralis muscle are targeted.
Hold/reps: 5-10 breaths/2 per side

Doorway stretch for the pecs and upper spinal muscles

Banana stretch

Targets: latissimus dorsi, intercostals, obliques
Instructions: standing next to your doorway (or cubicle wall), cross the outside leg over the inside stance leg. Use the inside hand to stabilize, while reaching to the door frame with the outside arm forming a curved, or banana, shape.
A little something extra: in this stretch if you lean back at the hips you will get more iliopsoas with the above mentioned muscles, and if you lean slightly forward at the hips, you will get more quadratus lumborum, a low back muscle that runs from the top of the hip, to the spiny process of the lumbar vertebrae, to the bottom of the rib cage.
Hold/reps: 10 breaths/2 per side

Banana stretch stretches the lats, rib muscles, and obliques

Child’s pose

Targets: erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, thoracic spine extension
Instructions: from your hands and knees, sit back onto your heels, press the chest to the ground and reach forward with your hands. After several breaths try to walk your hands further out while keeping your hips low on your feet.
A little something extra: A reach! Add in walking your hands over to 10 and 2 o’clock for more lateral stretch.
Hold/reps: 30 seconds each at 12, 10, and 2 o’clock

Child’s pose stretches the lats and spinal muscles

Seated figure 4

Targets: glutes, internal rotation mobility of the hip
Instructions: Seated at your desk, cross an ankle to rest at the opposite knee. From this position, sit tall and bend forward at the hips, not by rounding the back, to enhance the stretch.
A little something extra: calf raise the leg that’s on the ground to push the crossed ankle higher Hold/reps: 20 seconds/ 3 per side

Seated figure 4 stretches the glutes and hips

Kneeling lunge

Targets: Quadriceps and hip flexors
Instructions: in half kneeling position, where the knees are both at 90 degrees, squeeze the glutes while tucking the pelvis in, and push the hips forward.
A little something extra: Using a ballerina reach with the same arm as the down knee, reach overhead and back to target the high hip flexors as well.
Hold/reps: 30 seconds/2 per side

Kneeling lunge stretches the quads and hip flexors

I hope this article help improve your posture and helps you feel better. Happy training! ~Angie

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