Neck exercises have many benefits, especially if you have neck pain or bad posture. Neck exercises can also help in the healing process of neck injuries. Before we talk about specific exercises for the neck, let’s take a closer look at its anatomy. The structure of the neck is made up of bones (vertebrae), cartilaginous discs, muscles, and nerves. In addition to protecting the cervical spine, the neck muscles support the weight of the head, turn and lean the head from side to side, and tilt it up and down. The muscles of the neck also assist in chewing and swallowing. A healthy neck has a slight C-shaped curve to it. Your head should sit comfortably in the center of your shoulders. Generally speaking, the neck has a much more limited range of motion than other parts of your body, something which makes it prone to injury and strain.
Whiplash is one of the most common injuries for which neck exercises are suggested. We can also injure or strain our necks by cradling phones between our ears and shoulders and by carrying heavy shoulder bags. Forward head posture is also a big player in neck pain. Many people spend hours with their heads craned out in front of their shoulders, something which puts added stress not only on the neck, but also on the chest and back. Because of this domino effect, your neck exercise routine should also include some exercises for the chest and back. If you are just getting back to exercising after an injury, or just short on time, you can start out short and sweet with a quick 10-minute full body workout.
Neck Exercises for Neck Pain and Better Posture
The neck exercises for pain and better posture are essentially the same, though if you have suffered an injury, you should always consult with your doctor before doing any exercise. The first thing you need to be aware of is your posture. Learn to make some minor adjustments to your posture and you will be amazed at the amount of pain relief you get from that. Neck exercises are actually a combination of breathing techniques, strengthening, stretching, self-massage, and cardio-vascular training.
One of the best exercises you can do for your neck is learn how to breathe properly. Most people are, literally, painfully unaware of how to breathe – meaning that improper breathing is one of the major causes of neck pain. Try this simple exercise: place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Now take a deep breath. Where do you first feel the expansion: in your chest or in your belly? You should be breathing into your belly first. If you are not, then you are likely to experience pain in your neck. Here’s why:
When you breathe deeply into the belly, it should extend, the breath should rise with the chest expanding, as the rib cage is lifted, making room for the lungs to fill with oxygen. Some neck muscles, acting as secondary breathing muscles, aid that lifting process. Breathing directly into the chest, on the other hand, causes secondary breathing muscles to become primary breathing muscles. These muscles become painfully overworked, which can also cause referred pain in the chest, the shoulder, both front and back, and down the arm and into the hand. You should always breathe this way. It’s better for your neck and better for your body as a whole.
Strengthening Exercises for the Neck
Your strength training exercises and stretches will also include upper back and chest exercises. Neck strengthening can reduce both current pain and chronic pain flare-ups, especially those flare-ups associated with disc injuries. Think about it this way: a lot of the pain associated with disc injuries is due to vertebral disc compression. If you build up the small intervertebral muscles which support the discs, you are creating more space between those discs, thus relieving that pressure.
This exercise will stretch and strengthen your neck muscles and help to bring your head back into proper alignment with your shoulders. Your upper back and shoulders will also benefit from this exercise.
There a few ways you can do the chin tuck:
From a neutral seated position, tuck your chin and pull your head back and hold for two seconds.
To guide the movement, pretend someone is pushing your chin into your neck.
From a lying position, do the same with your chin. Tuck your chin until you feel a slight stretch in the back of the neck. Hold it for 2-3 seconds.
Stand about 3 inches away from a wall or door jamb. Again, tuck your chin straight back and pull your head back and hold it against the wall or door jamb for two seconds.
You can even do this exercise while driving your car, using your headrest as the target for your head.
The neck tilt is a good counter-pose to the chin tuck. Repeat each of these 5-10 times.
Tuck your chin and look down. Gently stretch the neck slightly by pulling your shoulder blades down while lifting the crown of the head towards the sky. Hold for 5 seconds.
Gently tilt your head to one side. Give yourself another gentle stretch by pulling your opposite shoulder away from your ear. Hold for 5 seconds
Do a slight chin tuck, pulling your head into alignment with the spine. Turn your head to one side and hold for 5 seconds. Turn your head to the other side and hold for 5 seconds.
You can do all of these tilt and turn exercises several times a day.
This is one of the most recognized yoga poses. The cobra works your neck and back extensor muscles, the muscles which help you maintain good posture. Though some consider this a more advanced exercise, it is really only as advanced as the practitioner. The movement does not have to be intense to be effective.
- Lie on your belly with your hands placed next to your rib cage at about breast level.
- Your shoulder blades should be rolled back and down away from the ears, with your elbows pointing back.
- Extend your legs behind you and point your toes.
- Keeping the shoulder blades stable, on an inhale, press your hands into the floor as you gently lift your upper body off the floor – only a few inches at first.
- You can press your tongue onto the roof of your mouth to help stabilize and strengthen the neck muscles.
- Hold for a few seconds, continuing to breathe.
- Exhale as you release with control.
- You can try contracting your buttocks for better stabilization.
Yoga is well-known for helping with posture and pain relief. You can even take special yoga courses specifically designed for the neck and shoulders.
This is not a large movement. Your head is about as heavy as a bowling ball, so even the slightest lifting of the head from a lying position is enough to work your neck muscles.
- Lie back.
- Inhale and lift your head about 2 inches.
- Hold for 2-3 seconds.
- Exhale and release.
- Do this 5-10 times.
- From a standing or seated position, hold your arms straight out to the side.
- Tuck your chin.
- Bend your elbows and face your palms out.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 5-10 seconds.
- Squeeze your elbows together and hold for 5-10 seconds.
- Repeat this several times.
- From a standing or seated position, hold your arms out in front of you and make a fist.
- Tuck your chin.
- Pull your elbows straight back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Release slowly back to starting position.
If you have a tension band, you can wrap it around a tree or pole to make this exercise more load bearing.
Hydro-Therapy for the Neck
Almost everyone knows about applying heat to injuries, but what a lot of people don’t know about is alternating heat and cold. Cold hydrotherapy uses ice packs. Cold helps reduce inflammation around the injury, something which aids the healing process. Ideally, ice or a cold pack should be applied to the injury immediately, in 20-minute intervals for the first 24 hours.
The application of heat causes nutrient rich blood to flow into the injury site, again something which stimulates the healing process. You can use a hot water bottle, heated hydro-packs, or sit in a hot shower.
Cardio-vascular training, or aerobic conditioning is good for the neck and back because it increases blood flow, something which helps loosen tight muscles and increase range of motion. Cardio also increases endorphins, our body’s natural pain reliever. Traditional cardio-vascular training will produce endorphins after about 30 minutes of training. High-intensity-interval-training will do it much quicker, but if you have neck pain, you need to modify the jumping to keep it low-impact.
Self-Massage for Neck Pain
Neck exercises should include massage. Massage helps to relax taut muscles and release trigger points. All you need is a foam roller.
Here’s the basic technique:
- Get a foam roller about 6-inches in diameter.
- Lie down on it lengthwise, with your butt at the bottom end of the roller. Keep your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and your arms out to the side for support.
- Allow your chest and shoulders to open by keeping your arms and hands low, raising them slowly along the floor as you feel the opening sensation.
- Place the foam roller in the curve of your neck, almost like a neck pillow. Now move your head back and forth until you find those sweet spots where you want to hang out. Be very gentle when you do this on your neck.
Once you learn how to use a foam roller to relieve pain, you will wonder how you ever lived without one.