Check Your Neck (Before You Wreck It)

by Max Shank on May 3, 2013

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I’m imagining this is you, exercising.

I can’t tell you how many people walk into my gym with neck and/or shoulder pain. Okay I can, it’s a lot—probably half. There are a couple of factors that cause this:

  • Forward head posture
  • Poor Breathing
  • Lack of disassociation between neck and shoulders during exercise

Let’s break down the problem that’s causing your forward head posture.

  1. Lack of thoracic spine mobility
  2. Shoulders rounded forward (tight pecs)
  3. Cervical immobility

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Fortunately you’ve been given tools on how to deal with thoracic immobility (Joint by Joint approach). This could include foam rolling, lying rib pulls, or one of many other thoracic mobilizations.

Tight pecs can be simply addressed by some SMR (Self Myofascial Release) via a lacrosse ball against the wall:

and followed up by some wall slides:

Cervical spine immobility can be caused by a number of factors. For the sake of simplicity, the scope of this article will cover fascial tightness and lack of joint awareness or motion. Fix it by rolling out the levator scapula (between your shoulder blades and your spine) and your traps with the lacrosse ball. Next step is to take care of your awareness of good neck position.

Do this by gliding your face forward and backward (think funky chicken), trying to maintain length through your spine. Do 5 reps nice and slow. You’ll be amazed at how uncoordinated it is at first.

(Editors note: I doubt this will do anything for your gobbler). Finish with some good rotations left and right, through a full range of motion—think about lifting through your crown.

Next step is breathing.

We all start knowing what to do here and somewhere along the line it gets pretty messed up. Most folks breathe through their mouths (not ideal) and the shoulders elevate with every breath. Also not good when you consider we take an average of 20,000 breaths per day. You can imagine how 20,000 dysfunctional breathing shrugs might have an impact on your neck health.

  • Quick fix #1: Start breathing through your nose. Seriously that’s it. We’re designed to inhale and exhale through the nose, start doing it. All the time.
  • Quick fix #2: Breathing exercise: Lay face down with your forehead on your hands so you’re comfortable. Place an ankle weight (book, medicine ball, small child, etc) on your low back around your sacrum. Breathe for 5:00 (through your nose) trying to lift the weight with each inhale. The weight gives you instant feedback and gives you something to push into, making it much easier.

Combining these 2 things will not only increase orthopedic health, but also increase performance by improving your kinetic efficiency. However, it’s a total waste if you keep breaking yourself in the gym:

Disassociation between neck and shoulders during exercise is imperative if you want to maintain optimal strength and athleticism. Bench, check your neck. Rows, check your neck. Weight overhead? Check your neck.

The point is that you should be able to rotate your neck left and right freely during exercise. This is most easily experimented with during pushups or one arm presses.

Pushup:

  • Assume pushup position
  • Rotate neck left and right (if your ROM feels strained, try to lengthen your neck)
  • Drop into a pushup
  • Rotate left and right (“check your neck”)
  • Pushup back up

Overhead Press:

  • Bring dumbbell or kettlebell to the shoulder
  • “check your neck”
  • Press dumbbell or kettlebell overhead
  • “check your neck”

You should be able to move freely during almost any exercise or stretch you’re doing. Not only will it save you a lot of trouble dealing with neck and shoulder pain, but it will also elevate your performance by improving your upper body coordination, making you stronger.

-Max Shank

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About Max Shank, Master RKC: Max Shank is not only an extremely gifted teacher, but one of the most well-rounded and capable athletes in the world. From excelling in Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu to performing impressive feats of strength in weightlifting and gymnastics, Max has… Read more here.

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  • Can you expand a little on the disassociation between neck and shoulders? Why do we tend to associate them?

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