Neck pain is no laughing matter! When your neck is sore, it makes strength training and other forms of exercise harder and more uncomfortable. In fact, you may have to modify some strength-training exercises to avoid worsening the pain. Depending upon the severity of your neck pain, you might even have to eliminate some exercises and replace them with movements that place less strain on your neck. It’s also a good idea to check with your physician before strength training with neck pain to make sure you don’t have an orthopedic issue that makes training unsafe.
Most cases of neck pain with movement are due to strained neck muscles due to poor posture, bad form when exercising, or sleeping with your neck in an awkward position. If you’ve had neck discomfort in the past and haven’t corrected the underlying problem, like poor posture, you may end up with it again.
On the plus side, consistent strength training helps relieve neck discomfort over time. In fact, sports medicine physicians and physical therapists often recommend supervised neck strengthening exercises to people with certain types of neck pain, but see your physician if you develop numbness or weakness in your arms or hands or lose coordination in your hands These could be a sign of a more serious neck problem, like a herniated disc in the cervical spine. Herniated discs may be caused by an acute injury or the result of degenerative changes or arthritis.
One of the more common causes of neck pain is a muscle strain due to poor posture. Do you sit at your desk in hunched over position or flex your neck down to look at a tablet or smartphone for hours each day? That could be the culprit. The average person’s head weighs 11 pounds, but when you flex your neck forward only 15 degrees, the added force on your neck increases to 27 pounds. You flex your neck around 15 degrees when you look at a smartphone.
People also strain their neck muscles during weight training by using poor form or jerking the weights rather than moving them in a controlled manner. Other factors that contribute to neck injuries include twisting the upper body during lifting, lifting with poor posture, and not holding the neck in proper alignment when strength training.
Now let’s look at how to safely strength train with neck pain after your physician gives the okay.
Upper Body Strength Exercises You Should Modify
Exercises that can worsen neck pain include overhead presses, lateral raises, bench press, pull-ups, and push-ups. The risk is higher if you use heavy resistance. You can still get an upper body workout safely by doing bent-over rows, an exercise that’s safer for your neck. Any kind of exercise where you hold weight and rotate your body should be off-limits when you have neck pain. With bent-over rows, you hold your neck in a fixed position, making it a safer option. As long as you’re using good form, biceps curls and triceps kickbacks are reasonable options as long as you don’t experience neck pain when you do them. The key is to maintain appropriate posture and alignment and the best way to assure that is to use lighter weights than you’re accustomed to.
Abdominal Training and Neck Pain
Certain core and abdominal exercises can cause neck pain to flare up, especially if you’re sloppy with your form. A prime example is abdominal crunches. When you do an abdominal crunch, you probably place your hands behind your head for support but as you rise up, you flex your neck forward. Flexing your neck can exacerbate neck pain.
Until your neck heals, it’s best to work your abs with exercises that don’t require you to lift your head off the floor from a lying position. A good example is the plank. However, make sure you hold your body in correct alignment. Your head, neck, torso, and legs, down to your feet should be in a straight line. If you let your head or neck fall down when you plank, it can trigger neck pain.
If you insist on doing abdominal crunches, try using a towel to support your neck rather than your hands. Roll up a towel and place it behind your neck while holding the end of the towel in each hand. When you crunch, let your neck relax against the towel for extra support when you lift up. Avoid jerky movements. Keep your movements smooth and controlled.
Other abdominal exercises that place strain on your neck include toe touches, leg lifts, and any exercise that requires you to bend your neck forward.
Other Tips for Strength Training with Neck Pain
Always use pain as your guide. If your neck feels uncomfortable, that exercise isn’t for you, at least until your neck heals. The goal should be to safely work around the pain without worsening it. Lighten up on the weight until your neck feels better too. For upper body exercises, you’re more likely to flex your neck if you’re struggling to lift a heavy load. So, aim for lighter resistance and higher reps so you can maintain good control of the weight.
Always start your strength training sessions with a warm-up to make sure your neck muscles and the other muscles you’ll be working are warm and supple. At the end of your workout, do a series of neck stretches and range-of-motion exercises. Since neck pain comes from bad posture and prolonged sitting, do them at work when you’re sitting too to ensure the muscles don’t stiffen from holding one position too long. Make sure your work set-up is ergonomically friendly too.
Most importantly, listen to your body and don’t push through discomfort. Use it as a signal you need to modify an exercise or not do that movement. Hopefully, you’ll never experience a neck injury that sticks around for a long time. If the discomfort worsens or doesn’t improve after 3 to 4 weeks, see your physician.
- Mayo Clinic. “Neck Pain”
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Neck pain: Core exercises can help”
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