Ryan Coleman, NSCA-CSCS
The phrase “pain in the neck” usually refers to a task that is irritating or bothersome. But sometimes, the phrase is literal. Whether you slept the wrong way or have “text neck,” a stiff or sore neck is a painful reminder of limitations in your mobility.
Neck pain is on the increase—much of it due to using smartphones. The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds, and your neck is designed to support that—when your head is upright. But when you look down at your smartphone, that angle increases the weight your neck has to support. Sitting with your chin down to your chest puts 60 pounds of pressure on your neck.
Neck pain can be caused by several factors: poor posture, injury, degeneration of the bones, or illness. If you have neck pain, you should work with your doctor to discover the cause. If the cause is an injury or poor posture, strengthening the neck can help with the pain and reduce the risk of future injury.
Symptoms of a Weak Neck
While you can recognize when your neck hurts or is stiff, a weak neck can have other symptoms that are not as obvious. In addition to discomfort in the neck itself, you may have headaches, dizziness or problems with your joint and jaw muscles (TMJ). You also may have pain or weakness in your arms or AC joint impingement in the shoulder.
Treating a Weak Neck
A combination of stretching and strengthening is the best approach to producing long-term benefits for neck health. Some exercises to incorporate include:
- Stretches that involve forward flexion and extension, both to the right and left, such as the Upper Trapezius Stretch, Levator Scapular Stretch, neck rotation and doorway stretch.
- Isometric exercises that involve holding the position to build strength through a static hold, such as bending your neck forward and to the sides (forward flexion, left and right lateral flexion, left and right rotation) and holding that position for 5 – 10 seconds.
- Resistance band exercises for left and right lateral flexion, and left and right rotation make the neck muscles work harder against the bands. The chin tuck or posterior translation is another good exercise to strengthen the neck.
Assess your tolerance of the easier exercises such as the stretches and isometric exercises, making sure you are comfortable with them before moving on to a more difficult option. Don’t allow other parts of the body to compensate for poor range of motion in the neck when strengthening the neck muscles.
In addition to strengthening the neck through exercise, you can make additional improvements by maintaining good posture (i.e. holding your phone up to eye level vs. constantly bending your neck to read it) and ensuring that your computer, desk and chair are positioned ergonomically to give you good support.
A weak neck can cause discomfort in a variety of ways. Stretching and strengthening the neck can produce long-term benefits that decrease in pain, increase strength and reduce dysfunction overall