Neck strain after a workout is fairly common, and though bad form plays a role (more on that later), it’s not as much what you’re doing at the gym, as what you’re doing in your day-to-day life that’s at the root of your pain, says Sherry McLaughlin, physical therapist and founder of the Michigan Institute for Human Performance (MIHP) in Troy, Michigan.
McLaughlin says to understand neck strain, you first need to understand the concept of short and tight muscles versus long and weak muscles. “Every muscle in the body has an antagonist, a muscle that does the opposite action. If a muscle is short and tight, the antagonist becomes long and weak,” she says. “Think of the typical sitting posture where someone is slouched. In this position, the head moves forward, and in order to engage the world with level eyeballs, your neck will naturally extend.”
Eventually, that type of posture makes the muscles in the back of your neck short and tight, and the ones in the front of your neck long and weak. If you do a crunch or another exercise that requires lying on your back, those muscles in the front of your neck are the ones that need to work to hold your neck up. “If they are in this weakened position, then your neck will tend to feel strained and susceptible to injury,” says McLaughlin.
Not taking time to rest your muscles and improper form can also lead to neck strain, says Janine Trembicki, certified ACE personal trainer and owner at J Ashley Fitness, in Westport, Connecticut. “From my training, the neck strain I see most is from overuse of the neck and shoulder muscles," she says. "Other reasons could be shoulder tension while performing exercises and not keeping you head neutral with your spine.”
Fixing that strain in your neck
To decrease neck strain after a workout (or in general), you need to go beyond the neck itself, says McLaughlin. “The best way to fix neck strain is to fix the posture of the spine below it,” she says. “The straighter your middle back is, the more naturally your head will sit on your shoulders without the front neck muscles being in a long, weak position. This is achieved by stretching your chest muscles and strengthening your upper back muscles” with exercises like rows and reverse flies.
Depending on the workout, there are certain techniques that help reduce neck strain. For example, McLaughlin recommends gently tucking your chin in and setting your head on top of your shoulders prior to doing any heavy weightlifting. If you’re doing core work, Trembicki says to avoid pulling on your neck, which reduces muscle load in your core and increases it in the neck.
“It is also important in Pilates, yoga, and during core exercises to protect your neck, take breaks, and be sure your neck is in line with your spine,” says Trembicki. “When lifting weights, you want to be sure you aren’t holding tension in your shoulders or neck when performing the moves. In cardio exercises, such as spin, you want to keep your alignment of the neck and spine to prevent these injuries.”
And don’t forget that warming up before a workout reduces the risk of muscle strain throughout the body. “A solid warm-up is so important before any form of exercise,” says Trembicki. "Prime the muscles so they are ready for the work they are about to take on."
If you do experience neck strain, McLaughlin says active interventions that involve pectoral stretching and thoracic spine [i.e. mid-back] mobility can provide relief, as well as prevent neck strain when done regularly. And whether you’re a novice or fitness buff, if you just can’t kick the pains in your neck, consider working with a trainer, coach, or physical therapist.
“My biggest tip for reducing neck strain, in whatever form of exercise you prefer, would be to have someone guide you during your workout to be sure you’re performing the exercises with correct form,” says Trembicki. “Once you have the form down, then you can do them on your own.”
3 moves to help with neck strain after a workout, courtesy of the MIHP Wipe Out Pain Series
1. Wall Wash
Stand six inches from a wall, facing it, with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. Place your hands on the wall. Slide your right hand up the wall directly over your head as you shift your weight to your right leg. You should feel a stretch on your right side. Return to the starting position and repeat on your left side. Alternate right and left for two sets of 12 repetitions.
2. Sidelying Angel
Lie on your right side and bend your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle. Hold your knees together with your right hand, and let your left shoulder blade drop toward the floor with your arm outstretched. Slowly move your left arm in an arc up toward your head and then down by your side. Repeat several times on each side.
Start sitting on the front edge of a chair with your back straight and chest up tall. Lightly cross your arms in front by grabbing the opposite elbow, then do the following six times each: Lift your arms over your head and then lower back them down. Lift your arms over your head and bend from side to side. Lift your arms over your head and rotate your torso to the right and then to the left.
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