Exercises to Strengthen Deep Neck Muscles For Head and Neck Balance

People with or without FHP alike can benefit from exercises that strengthen the deep neck flexor muscles. If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, strengthening the muscles around your spine is key to healthy posture and reduced risk of fracture or deformity. A strong neck also offers some protection from whiplash and other accidental damage to the spine. As we age, neck exercises can improve neck appearance, function, and comfort.

People with or without chronic forward head posture (FHP) can benefit from exercises that strengthen the deep neck flexor muscles. If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, strengthening the muscles around your spine is key to healthy posture and reduced risk of fracture or deformity. Strong neck muscles also provide some protection from whiplash and other accidental damage to the spine. As we age, neck exercises can improve neck appearance, function, and comfort (1). There are many online resources with exercises to correct FHP, published by physicians, osteopaths, chiropractors, physical therapists, trainers, Pilates and yoga instructors. Below are some. See links and endnotes for more specifics, photos, illustrations and videos (12), (13). See also our previous posts on chronic forward head posture (FHP) and ergonomics to help rebalance your head for better posture and comfort.

Four groups of head exercises to strengthen the deep neck muscles

1. Head retraction (chin tuck)

The deep front neck muscles are small and delicate. FHP makes them weaker and shorter. Exercises can help strengthen your deep and front neck muscles. The goal is to slide your head back to balance on the first and second cervical vertebrae, called the atlas and axis. They enable the rotation of your head on your neck (14), (15).

Head neck balance exercises: head retraction
Keep your chin level (look straight ahead), retract your head back over your neck. Yes, that will produce a double chin. Do 10 repetitions. Each time, return your head to a neutral, not forward, position. Work up to 20 reps. You can do these standing against a wall, lying on your back, or lying on your front (keep looking down, not ahead). No, you won’t hold your head this way all the time!

2. Neck traction and shoulder retraction exercises

These are stretches and exercises that help keep your neck from collapsing into your chest and shoulders like a turtle. This is where traction devices can help, too, as well as manual traction from a physical or massage therapist or chiropractor. Once you get the idea, daily mindfulness can help you keep from turtling back down. (16)

How to traction your own neck to improve head and neck balance
How to traction your own neck. It can be done sitting or standing. Find your occipital bumps at the base of your skull. Use your thumbs to support the skull and pull up, keeping your chin down. Hold for 20-30 seconds, repeat 2-5 times. As you get less tight, you can add reps. This makes a good break stretch at work.

3. Upper back muscle strengthening to support deep neck muscles

We tend to overuse the big, superficial upper back muscles, especially the trapezius. That doesn’t mean they are in good shape. The smaller back muscles (levator scapulae and rhomboids) are often weak. Systematic training of the smaller muscles without overtraining the big muscles will help make your carriage more graceful, fluid, and strong.

4. Thoracic extension

If your head is forward, the muscles of the front of the neck and the chest tend to be short, tight, and weak. This is especially true for the Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) pair and the upper pecs. With kyphosis, the main chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) become shorter and weaker. Stretching and release are the first corrective steps, followed by strengthening. Foam roller stretches are also useful (17).

Roller work and belly dance

Head and neck balance exercises
A foam roller is an inexpensive and easy-to-use piece of equipment to facilitate thoracic stretching. Avoid sticking your lower ribs out and make your head and neck follow, not lead the movement. More of these at (18).
A more advanced neck exercise is the belly dance head slide (19). Notice the neck warm-ups too. If you can master this, you are likely well along the way to a balanced head and neck!

Be mindful!

Be mindful to rebalance your head and neck. Exercise can retrain and strengthen your deep neck muscles. However, the biggest challenge will be changing your everyday habits. For starters, be aware of your head posture. Pay particular attention when you are stressed or tired. Old habits will likely reassert themselves. When you catch yourself leaning forward, peering down, or slumping, correct your posture: shoulders back and down, head upright and on top of your neck. Stretch, take a few deep breaths in proper alignment and you and your head are ready to take on the world!

Written by: Ellen M Martin, Annie Rooker

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