Proper exercise form often comes down to your setup. A poor setup can cause a cascade of problems that ruin your entire set. How do you expect to perform reps correctly if you can’t get into the most basic position of an exercise?
One of the most common setup mistakes is the position of the neck. True, the neck isn’t necessarily involved in the vast majority of exercises unless you’re specifically training it. However, its positioning affects the rest of your spine and your ability to get into proper alignment for many exercises.
Fortunately, this is one of the easiest to fix aspects of exercise form.
Problems With Poor Neck Positioning
When you perform almost every exercise, you’re told to keep a neutral spine. This means that your cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (mid- to upper-back) and lumbar spine (lower back) remain in their naturally curved state throughout the exercise. Your spine is not supposed to move—except for rotation in the upper back on some exercises.
As young lifters, we are often taught to look where we want to go. So, for example, we are instructed to look up on the Squat because we need to stand up. Simple enough, right?
Problem is, this forces your neck into hyperextension.
According to Mike Robertson, strength coach and co-owner of iFast, this turns on the extensor reflex in your back.
“So it turns on all these muscles in the backside of the body, and really is going to engage your lower back muscles and drive you into an anterior pelvic tilt,” he explains. “Obviously this isn’t a good thing. It’s going to shut off your glutes and hamstrings.”
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To feel this in action, tilt your head back. You should feel muscles in your back tighten and your lower back begin to arch.
Once the glutes and hamstrings turn off, your lower-back muscles pick up the slack, resulting in weaker lifts and overworked lower-back muscles, which can cause pain. Also, thoracic spine extension, or arching, puts this area of the spine in a compromised position, increasing the risk for injury.
To top it off, this neck position can cause neck pain. Not ideal on all accounts.
On the flip side, flexing your neck, which occurs when your chin moves toward your chest, can cause other problems.
This position is easier on your neck, but it does the opposite of neck extension. Your back muscles turn off, and your upper back is likely to round—another big no-no.
Tilt your head forward. You should feel your upper back begin to round.
During an exercise like the Deadlift, this makes it difficult to set your back, which is important for maintaining a neutral spine. Instead of the muscles around it, your spine is forced to handle the stress. And again, your lower back is likely to absorb some of that stress.
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What Should You Do?
The solution is simple: Do your best to maintain a neutral neck.
The common cue to do this is a bit goofy. Try to give yourself a double chin. This places your neck in an ideal position to help you maintain a neutral spine throughout an exercise.
It might look a little weird, but it works.
In addition, your eye line can help keep your neck in a neutral position. Here are tips for four exercises that are commonly performed with poor neck positioning.
This one is the most controversial. Many very strong people, especially in the powerlifting community, swear by looking up and extending their necks on the Deadlift. While that argument can certainly be made, the vast majority of people maintain a neutral neck. On the opposite end, beware of looking straight down at the ground—this will cause your upper back to round. To get into the perfect position, look at the ground about 15-20 feet in front of you.
It’s natural to want to look up when squatting. Instead, look straight ahead throughout the exercise. And you shouldn’t be looking at a mirror as you squat, because this can mess up your eye line. Again, beware of looking straight down, since this pulls your torso forward.
The Push-Up might actually be the most butchered exercise in relation to neck positioning. Sometimes we see extreme extension, with the person looking parallel to the ground. Other times, we see folks who struggle with Push-Ups look under their body. The fix? Focus your eyes about six inches in front of you.
Another common offender. People tend to lift their chin up and over the bar, which is the measure of a completed rep. Instead, keep your neck in a neutral position, look straight ahead and pull yourself up as much as you can. Don’t try to force your chin over the bar.
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