The Exercises and Stretches Every Desk Worker Should Have Bookmarked

Plus: other exercises and stretches to fight the muscle tightness and weakness that comes along with sitting all day.

Millions of Americans sit behind a desk for eight hours or more five days per week. Some may also have a long commute in a car or on public transit. Then, after a long day of work, who doesn’t want to come home and sit on the couch? Let’s face it: We sure do a LOT of sitting.

All this sitting can do damage to your health and contribute to unwanted pounds piling on. Being in a seated position not only makes muscles tight, but it also leads to weak and overstretched muscles, which can cause pain and discomfort. But one way you can work against the effects of your desk job is by taking a few minutes out of your day to stretch and strengthen the muscles affected by sitting. My tips for which muscles to focus on and what exercises to do, below.

Muscles to Focus On

»» Hips and Hip Flexors
Being in a seated position causes the angle between your torso and thigh to become smaller, which causes the muscles in the front of your hips to shorten. By sitting and shortening the muscles over a long period of time, your hip flexors will begin to tighten. This can cause several issues, including lower-back pain. Tight hip flexors can also be problematic for people who have desk jobs but also run for exercise. Since these muscles are used during running, the combination of having tight hip flexors with overuse can often lead to injury. One stretch than can help with tight hip flexors to avoid these issues is the kneeling hip flexor stretch. This stretch really opens up the hips and can help undo the damage of a long day at work.

»» Chest and Anterior Shoulders
Not only do most of us sit all day, many of us also sit at a computer, which leads the body to lean forward and slouch the shoulders. This can lead to tightness in the chest and front of the shoulders, and many people, especially men, prioritize exercising the muscles of the chest when they work out. Here’s where the problem comes in: By working out a muscle that is already very tight, you put those muscles in danger of becoming injured. One stretch to loosen up a tight chest and shoulders is the doorway pec stretch. Keeping the muscles of the chest and shoulder loose may help prevent injuries associated with the shoulder, especially if you frequently perform chest exercises or participate in activities that involve explosive forward-arm movements, like throwing a football.

»» Lower Back
Surprise! Over the course of eight-plus hours, we can get a bit lazy in our posture. This can cause the shoulders to hunch forward, but it also causes the back to round, putting extra stress on the lower back and vertebrae. There are several different stretches you can perform for the lower back. One stretch that can help alleviate tightness in the lumbar spine is the lower back twist. This stretch can be done while laying down or when sitting in your chair. One important thing to remember with all stretches, but especially stretches involving the spine, is to not force the issue. Like, do not stretch with a goal of hearing a pop or crack in your spine. By pushing the stretch this far, you could end up doing more damage than if you simply left it alone. Just stretch until you feel the muscle is, well, being stretched. If you feel like the spine needs to pop back into place, it will most likely happen naturally as you stretch and relax that area. For more serious lower back problems, consult with your doctor.

Muscles That Get Weak

»» Glutes and Hip Extensors
Now that you’re all loose and limber, let’s work on strengthening muscles that are getting weaker as you sit at your desk. The glutes and hip extensors are responsible for moving your hips in the opposite direction that they’re in while sitting (think: kicking your leg straight back). Strengthening these muscles will help avoid muscular imbalances of the hip that are common with prolonged sitting. A great beginner exercise for strengthening the glutes and hip extensors is the glute bridge. This exercise can be done with no equipment and takes up a very small amount of space. As you progress, you can move onto more weight-bearing movements like the squat or straight leg deadlift.

»» Upper Back
The muscles of the upper back oppose those chest muscles we talked about earlier that tighten up while sitting. The rhomboids and lats are the main muscles that are weakened by sitting and that can cause — dun, dun, dun — poor posture. A great exercise for strengthening the muscles of the upper back is the bent-over row. By strengthening these muscles, you’ll pull the shoulders and chest back, straightening out your upper body and earning better posture in the process. For some who have had a desk job and have worked the chest and neglected the muscles of the upper back, it might be a good idea to ease the load you place on the chest during workouts and focus more on strengthening the posterior muscles of the upper back.

»» Abdominals
The abs aren’t just for looks. They keep the core strong and take stress off the lower back. By taking more stress off the lower back, you’ll have an easier time maintaining proper posture. While many exercisers will do hundreds of crunches to get stronger abs, they aren’t necessarily the best exercise. The plank will help strengthen the muscles that are responsible for core stabilization, which is what gives you good posture. If you feel a traditional plank is too hard, there are plank variations you can perform to build up to a plank with proper form.

These were just a small portion of exercises and stretches you can do to help alleviate the damages of sitting all day. The easiest way to limit the damage is to try to sit for less time during the day or take breaks from sitting every once in a while. Try getting up and doing a quick stretch and putting your body in the opposite position it’s in when sitting. By moving around and putting your body out of the seated position, you’ll alleviate some of the pain and tightness that happens at the end of the day. If you’re looking for a more advanced approach to alleviating the pains and discomforts that come from sitting, consult with a fitness professional who can set you up with an exercise program that will address these issues directly. If you are an avid exerciser, make sure you add these exercises and stretches to your routine to avoid any injuries that may be caused by muscular imbalance and tightness.


Brian Maher is the owner of Philly Personal Training, a private personal training studio in the Rittenhouse Square area. He and his staff of personal trainers offer packages to busy individuals looking to make lifestyle changes by improving their overall fitness and wellness.  Read all of Brian’s posts for Be Well Philly here.

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