Let me set the scene for you…
You’ve been working on your back squat lately. The past couple of months have been full of some good cues and learning from your coaches and friends, and you’ve been gaining strength like an animal. You’re excited to be lifting like this!
You hit a heavy set of 5, 3, and 1 reps. Things are feeling GOOD.
Then as fatigue sets in but you’re still pushing it, you feel a dull twinge in the back side of your neck. You don’t worry about it, because it doesn’t hurt very bad right now.
And then you wake up the next morning…
You wake up and you can barely turn your head to the right. Tilting your ear towards your shoulder feels like someone is stabbing you in the neck.
At this point your neck pain becomes alarming.
Has anyone ever been in this situation?!? Please tell me I’m not the only one…
In my experience working with lots of CrossFit athletes and fitness enthusiasts of varying levels, you could substitute “Back squats” in that story for:
Pull-Ups (kipping or others)
Shoulder to Overhead movements
Front Squats or Cleans
Stories like these pour into my office on a weekly basis.
Neck pain might be common, but there are a few things that we can keep in mind while we train that might reduce your risk of struggling with neck pain in the future.
With that in mind, here are a few of the exact recommendations that I give to my patients who struggle with frequent bouts of neck pain while or after training:
(1) Avoid excessive neck extension and flexion during barbell lifts.
Especially flexion (forward bending/looking DOWN) during barbell squats
and extension (looking UP) during conventional deadlifts and bent barbell rows
I tweaked my own neck about 3 weeks ago…In fact, this exact thing happened to me when I was doing some strength work on my back squat. Here’s the evidence. See if you can figure out when that moment hit… (check out the .gif of me squatting)
In addition to looking down during a back squat, I commonly see people straining into extension (“looking up”) at the beginning of a deadlift.
While there is no perfect way for one person to complete a lift, I have found that forcing yourself to look too far “up” at the start of a pull (when the rest of your body is closer to horizontal/parallel to the floor) can sometimes add risk for neck pain into the equation.
The fact is, when your body is straining to the level that many of us push it to during squatting, deadlifting, or many other barbell/Oly lifts, maintaining a more “neutral” neck position is going to reduce some of the stressors that can cause pain.
(2) Don’t use your neck & head to win the top of a pull-up.
Plain and simple, there are still many individuals who use their chin (or beard in my case) to reach for that last 2 inches of a pull-up. Doing this won’t always wreak havoc on your neck, but you’d better believe it increases your risk.
If my client hasn’t put in the appropriate training to be able to strongly achieve the top of a pull-up (strict, kipping, or otherwise) on a regular basis, I generally (and lovingly) recommend an ego check.
Waking up with significant neck pain isn’t worth it, so working to improve the root cause of this kind of problem (lacking the requisite strength or practice/time in the pull-up exercise) is many times the right approach.
If you find yourself trying to win that last couple inches of a pull up with your chin, try these few drills to optimize your top position and reduce strain on your neck:
3 Ways to scale a pull-up
Long-Sitting Band Pulldowns
(3) “Push your head through the window”, but don’t break it.
In CrossFit circles, this cue to “push your head through the window” is often used during exercises like the push press to help facilitate a quick and powerful transition from having the barbell on your shoulders to having it in a nice, vertical overhead position.
This external cue works well at helping people dial in the speed and power components of pressing/catching during a jerk or shoulder-to-overhead press. However, avoiding the extremes (being aware of how forward your head is + striving to hit a more neutral position), could save you a headache later. Maybe even literally…
And similar to pull-ups, if you continually struggle with your form breaking down and pain/strain in the your neck after or during overhead pressing, realize that it might be time to go back to the drawing board and scale back on pressing - here is a fantastic article by my colleague Dr. Zach Long about how to scale overhead pressing.
(4) Do that accessory work you’ve “been meaning to get to”.
Let’s face it.
We all have a list (big or small) of accessory work that we have been meaning to get to “one of these days”.
I know I do.
For some of us, it’s doing more biceps curls and triceps work to work on the aesthetic angle of our training. For others, it’s making sure we hit the foam roll more frequently and start to better prioritize mobility for once.
I’m a huge believer that, while we work on many compound barbell movements and WODs during class, sometimes we don’t leave enough room for the “other” parts of training.
If your box doesn’t already program a lot of accessory work, I recommend taking this opportunity to finally do that work you’ve been meaning to do.
In my experience working with fitness athletes and neck pain, there are a couple of areas of the body that could use the most emphasis in the accessory work category:
Thoracic Mobility or Motor Control
Here’s a great and thorough flow of movements that can help improve both thoracic extension and rotation, two of the things many fitness enthusiasts lack that can help to reduce neck strain:
2. Shoulder Strength & Control
Dr. Zach Long of The Barbell Physio released his Bulletproof Shoulders program years ago. If you know your shoulders could use some accessory work, this is a very affordable ($13) option that you could pick up and benefit from.
(5) Consider Using These “Postural Resets” Often.
“Sitting is the new smoking” was the sexy phrase for quite awhile there…
I love how much conversation the phrase started!
That being said, our current best understanding of the medical literature says that posture is not the [only] thing to blame.
STAGNANCY, being SEDENTARY, and keeping ourselves in STATIC positions are what’s to blame.
These next 3 exercises are extremely helpful (especially if you sit a lot!) to break up long periods of time spent in one position or another. Use them as frequently as you want throughout your day!
Seated Thoracic Extension Reset
Standing Lumbar Flexion Reset
Having neck pain can be a debilitating and frustrating experience, so make sure you get connected to a healthcare professional that understands your athletic goals.
Seeing a Physical Therapist first is usually a good option, especially when you can find a Therapist that can speak your language of movement (no matter what is is - CrossFit, BURN Fitness, running or endurance sports, etc).
Want to get a 100% tailored movement program to try to prevent injury and work on the restrictions your body is trying to deal with?
At Limitless, we just launched a brand-new CUSTOM MOBILITY PROGRAMMING system in January, and it’s going fantastic! Clients of mine are feeling better already, and learning movements and exercises that they can use far into the future to help them reduce injury risk.
If you’re a local (Detroit Metro) fitness enthusiast or athlete and you’re looking to level up your game and prevent pesky injuries from getting in your way, apply below for one of our remaining February spots (I only take 10 Custom Mobility clients per month!).