Ouch! Neck pain makes workouts harder and everyday activities harder. Being physically fit and regular strength training may lower your risk of developing neck pain, but it doesn’t make you immune to a stiff or achy neck. You can develop neck pain for several reasons. Arthritis in the neck joints, trauma, bad posture, cervical spondylosis, cervical stenosis, a herniated disc, or a pinched nerve in the neck are possible causes.
However, one of the most common reasons bodybuilders and those who weight train develop neck pain is a muscle strain. A pulled or strained muscle can make the movement of the neck uncomfortable and even restrict it to where it’s hard to turn your head. One common way people strain their neck is when they strength train their shoulders, especially with exercises that involve overhead movements.
Shoulder Training and Neck Pain
One of the most common shoulder exercises that causes neck pain for some people is the overhead press. Anytime you raise your arms above shoulder level holding weights, it places pressure on the levator scapulae, the muscles in the back and sides of the neck that connect the collarbone to the humerus or the upper arm. These muscles help stabilize the neck. The levator scapulae also come into play every time you raise your arms above your head.
If your levator scapulae are too tight or inflexible, you could experience neck pain after a workout, especially if you work with heavy weights and do overhead exercises. However, tightness in other muscles can cause neck discomfort after lifting overhead. For example, tight pectorals and weakness in the muscles in the upper back and anterior shoulders, including the trapezius, creates a muscle imbalance that can trigger neck pain and stiffness.
Other exercises that trigger shoulder pain are behind-the-neck pull-downs and shoulder presses. These are exercises you should do with caution if you have a history of shoulder pain. You could also find a safer substitute. Lateral raises can stress your shoulder joints too. The stress on the joint is greatest when your arms are parallel to the floor. One way to make them safer is to put down the dumbbells and use a cable machine instead.
Another problem that contributes to neck pain and stiffness that doesn’t relate to weight training is poor posture. When you sit in a chair and lean your head forward, your levator scapulae muscles contract. This causes the muscles to shorten and tighten. As a result, you can develop neck pain, and dull headaches called cervicogenic headaches.
Regardless of what triggered it, strained neck muscles can cause pain in the neck that sometimes radiates to the shoulders. Your neck may feel stiff and you might have problems turning your head from side to side without pain. If it’s just a muscle strain, you shouldn’t have numbness or tingling in your hands, or upper extremity weakness. These may be signs of a more serious cause, such as cervical stenosis or a herniated disc. See your health care provider if you have these symptoms.
How to Relieve and Prevent Neck Pain
Make sure you’re using proper form when you do overhead presses. Working on strengthening the muscles in your upper back to correct muscle imbalances between your pecs and your upper back. For tight muscles in the neck and pectorals, stretching helps to temporarily lengthen them and relieve tightness. Effective exercises for lengthening tight neck muscles include neck rotations and neck tilts, shoulder rolls, and neck bends in each direction in a slow, controlled manner. Don’t stretch to the point of pain though.
Foam rolling your upper back to relax the muscles may also provide some relief for neck pain and stiffness. You might find that stretching your pectoral muscles, too, eases neck pain since tight pecs and weak trapezius muscles play a role in neck soreness. The easiest stretch for the pectorals is a doorway stretch. Here’s how to do one:
- Stand in a doorway with both arms outstretched at 90 degrees against the frame of the door.
- Step forward with your arms in this position until you feel the stretch in your chest.
- Hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
- Step back to the starting position.
- Repeat 4 or 5 times, each time feeling the stretch.
Other Tips for Preventing Neck Pain and Stiffness
If you have a sore or stiff neck or are trying to prevent one, take extra precautions to avoid worsening your pain when you train and in everyday life. Here are some tips:
- Don’t push your muscles to exhaustion when you do overhead exercises. Stop when your muscles fatigue. Don’t push to failure.
- Use lighter weights. The muscles in the upper body are smaller and can’t handle as much resistance. If you have a history of neck pain, reduce the weight even more.
- Keep your head neutral when you do overhead movements.
- Carry heavy objects, such as weights, close to the body, not with your arms outstretched.
- Hold your smartphone so it’s level with your face and you don’t have to look down. Looking down multiplies the force on your spine.
- Sit in your chair at work properly and take frequent breaks. Don’t sit too long in one position. Make sure you’re not looking up or down to see your monitor.
The Bottom Line
Now you have a better idea why your neck feels stiff or achy after a strength-training workout. It’s more likely to be a problem on upper body day when you do overhead exercises, like overhead presses. Watch your form when you do this exercise and that you correct strength imbalances between the front and back of your upper body. Don’t try to lift more than you can handle either. Work up to using heavier weights for overhead presses. It’s a tough exercise to execute with good form. Once you’ve finished your upper body workout and cooled down, end your session with some neck and pectoral stretches.
If you have persistent neck pain or develop other symptoms such as numbness or weakness in your arms or shoulders, see your health care provider to rule out other causes. If it’s persistent, they may also recommend sessions with a physical therapist.
- com. “Levator Scapulae”
- Anatomy, Head and Neck, Levator Scapulae Muscles. James P. Henry; Sunil Munakomi.
- com. “Levator Scapulae”
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