Imagine carrying around a 10-pound bowling ball in your hand all day. This is what your neck does for you day in and day out.
And even more than just needing the strength and endurance of carrying 10 pounds around for all the hours that you are upright, your neck has to be coordinated and controlled enough to help you walk, drive, read, react to unexpected surprises, and engage in any kind of physical activity without hurting yourself.
You have your cervical vertebrae, deep muscles that stabilize as well as provide fine muscle control for coordinating ourselves in space, the connections to the vestibular system for keeping upright, and coordination with the eyes for literally everything you do.
Many of the symptoms of dizziness, nausea, and headaches are due to incredibly complex interrelationships between the neck’s musculoskeletal structure and the nervous system. Because of this I’ve been hesitant to even write this article, for fear of either dumbing it down too much or making it so technical that it is inaccessible.
The main takeaways should be that working toward a good combination of strength, flexibility, and motor control in your neck will help so much in preventing and alleviating common problems in this area.
Of course, there are more specific strategies that are best taught by a qualified health care provider. But you can do quite a bit for yourself with a little bit of knowledge and a good amount of consistent practice.
Public Service Announcement
Before we get into the nitty gritty, here’s an obligatory PSA: We’re not doctors, and this article and the suggestions below are no substitute for being seen by a real-live professional in person.
If you’re having ongoing aches and pains that don’t seem to improve with rest, you really should make an appointment to see a doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible.
Good, now let’s continue.
How the Neck Works
You don’t need to memorize the complete anatomy and physiology of your neck to get started on improving its function, but it’s helpful to have a good general understanding of what’s happening “under the hood.”
A bit of knowledge removes some of the mystery so you can visualize and be aware of the various structures and actions of your neck.
Of course, health care specialists can spend years studying this, but a few paragraphs and minutes of your time are all that’s necessary for most people’s needs.
If your eyes glaze over at the names of the muscles, feel free to skim over them.
Bones of the Neck
There are 7 bones of the neck, with different shapes and sizes. These make up the “cervical spine,” which begins at the very top of your spine, just below your skull.
|Area of the Neck||Function|
|Upper Cervicals (C1-C2)||Mainly rotation. This area accounts for 50% of the total rotation of the neck.|
|Mid and Lower Cervicals (C3-C7)||Flexion, extension, side bending, and the remaining 50% of rotation.|
Muscles of the Neck
|Muscle Area||Names of Specific Muscles|
|Deep Anterior (front) Neck Muscles||• Longus Colli
• Rectus Capitis Anterior and Lateralis
• Longus Capitis
|Superficial Anterior (front) Neck Muscle||• Sternocleidomastoid|
|Deep Posterior (back) Neck Muscles||• Cervical Multifidi|
|Superficial Posterior (back) Neck Muscles||• Erector Spinae|
|Muscles Connecting Neck and Shoulder Blade||• Levator Scapulae
• Upper Trapezius
|Suboccipital Muscles||• Rectus Capitis Posterior Major
• Rectus Capitis Posterior Minor
• Obliquus Capitis Inferior
• Obliquus Capitis Superior
You can already see there is a complicated array of bones and muscles in the neck, and this is just a cursory overview. People knowledgeable about the anatomy will notice I’m skipping over some muscles and not detailing other structures such as ligaments and nerves and all of the particulars.
This is on purpose. Feel free to consult anatomy texts if you want more information, but for now this is primarily all you need to know.
Instead of going into all those details, let’s focus more on common issues in the neck, and then we’ll get into the actions and responsibilities of the architecture of the neck and what it means for you.
What Causes Neck Pain?
Because the neck is made up of such a complex system of small and large intertwined muscles, ligaments, nerves, and bones, and owing to the fact that you are carrying your brain around in it, the area can be very sensitized to irritations.
One of the most common complaints are sensations of “tightness” throughout the neck and upper shoulder girdle. The various tensions and stresses of our daily lives can contribute to a reaction of the nervous system and muscles to “stiffen” as a protective mechanism.
This tightness is a “feeling” that can be lessened with proper exercise and stress reduction techniques. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or is “all in your head,” it simply means that it is capable of being changed relatively quickly when you begin working on it.
One of the reasons that this self-protective tension persists is from the often limited ways we use our necks.
Most people do not take their neck through its full range of motion in day-to-day activities, and as we all know, the “use it or lose it principle” is quite real.
As mentioned before, there can be musculoskeletal origins for such symptoms as headache, pain, dizziness, etc. And of course there can be other causes for those issues as well, so please see your health care provider before doing anything else!
Simply put, we need a strong and mobile neck to see where we’re going, keep us out of pain, and perform well in life and in any physical activity we’re interested in.
Below we’ll go over some essential daily movements to help address and prevent some common issues.
Neck Exercises to Improve Strength, Flexibility, and Motor Control
For the following exercises, you’ll follow a simple progressive regimen of 5-10 repetitions of 3 sets each.
Holds start at 10 seconds, and you’ll work your way up to 60 seconds total. So if you start at 10 seconds you’ll have 6 sets, 15 seconds is 4 sets, 30 seconds is 2 sets.
When you practice these, you’ll see that it doesn’t take very long and the benefits far outweigh the short amount of time it takes to perform the exercises. Start a daily routine if possible, reducing to 2-3 times a week as you improve in your strength, flexibility, and motor control.
A note on terminology: The suffix “ed” refers to a position, and “ion” refers to the movement – retracted being the pulled back position of the neck, and retraction being the motion of pulling the head back.
|Supine (lying on back)||• Rotations
• Sidebent Rotations
• Rotated and Sidebent with Lift Up
• Upper Cervical Flexion (roll chin towards chest but keep head on the ground, axis of rotation is through your ears)
• Upper Cervical flexion while sidebent at 45 degrees
|Sitting||• Chin to chest, rotate
• Chin to chest, sidebending
• Rotated with sidebending
• Sidebent with rotation
• Clasp hands behind back, rotate 45 degrees and tuck chin down. This is the levator scap stretch. Do one on each side.
• Clasp hands behind back, and sidebend. This is the upper trap stretch. Do one on each side.
|Quadruped (all fours)||• Retraction
• Retracted with rotation
• Retracted, rotation and a bit of sidebending
|Prayer Position||• Low trap raise with scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation|
Actions to Help Your Neck Do its Job Well
We need to move our head in a multitude of directions and angles throughout the day, whether it’s simply sitting at a desk working on the computer and looking all around in everything you need to do, or playing a pick up game of basketball on the weekend.
The straightforward motions of Rotation, Sidebending, Flexion (forward bending), and Extension (backward bending) take your neck through its full ranges and any restrictions there can be quickly felt when you try to go through your normal routines.
But you also need the ability to combine these motions for proper neck function.
- Rotation and sidebending together when you look up and to the side at something overhead without moving your whole body.
- Or flexion and rotation as in partially sitting up in bed to turn and glare at your alarm clock going off.
This is why the exercises we’ve shown above highlight different variations of combined motions. They are often neglected, so their practice will give you a good way to restore proper movement and control of your neck.
Just as we iterate in the GMB Method, you want to properly address Strength, Flexibility, and Motor Control in their appropriate intensities and emphases.
Depending upon the particular body area and your personal needs, there are different approaches for these components.
Strength Concerns in the Neck
The strength emphasis should be on deep muscles holding correctly while global muscles move the neck and head to where you want to go.
It’s not about being able to lift 100 pounds with your head. While athletes in the fighting sports (boxers, wrestlers, MMA) or other heavy contact sports such as football may require more intensive neck strengthening work, for most of us, once you are at a certain level of strength it is more important to develop your full control over that strength for optimum neck health.
The primary need for strength is for the sensation of stability, to keep all the sensitive structures “feeling” secure and stable.
The feeling of cricks in the neck and tweaks are more often reactions from a perceived insult and irritation to the neck, causing the small muscles to react by contracting and attempting to stop motion.
Flexibility Concerns in the Neck
The flexibility emphasis is more on the global muscles that span from the head to the shoulder girdle, the aforementioned Levator scapulae and upper Trapezius muscles.
Motor Control Concerns in the Neck
In my opinion, motor control is the primary concern in the neck (and throughout the spine actually).
This means being able to control your motions in a full range in different angles and positions. The hitches in your range of motion are less often a lack of flexibility, and more often than not an indication of inappropriate control over the motion that you do have, leading to “holding patterns” as a compensation for the perceived lack of stability.
For this reason, the exercises I’ve shown primarily focus on control.
Keep Your Neck Healthy and Functional
Regular practice of the exercises in this article will help you make sure your neck is resilient and functioning optimally. And if you’ve had stiffness or tension or other minor complaints in the neck, these exercises can be of help in resolving those issues.
The best way to keep your neck—and all your muscles and joints—healthy and functional throughout your life is to keep them moving as much as possible.
But some movements are better than others, especially when it comes to fixing nagging issues.
We created our free Body Maintenance Guide to show you how to take care of the most common problem areas throughout your body, from your neck to your feet.
It includes movements and tips to help you fix aches and pains, loosen tight spots and restrictions, and move with more freedom and confidence in everything you do. All so you can do more of what you love.
Free Your Body From Pains and Restrictions
Fix your aches and tight spots with our free Body Maintenance Guide so you can do more of what you love.