Exercises For a Tight Neck and Shoulders

Do me a quick favor.  If you are reading this on your computer or your phone, take a quick second and press the top of your head towards to sky, make yourself as tall as possible, and level your chin.  Ok, now keep reading.  I would hate for my blog post about sore, cranky necks actually cause sore necks.  Nobody needs more pains in the neck.  Ok, I’ll stop…

In all seriousness, chronic stiff and sore necks and shoulders seems to be a thing people are just “putting up with” these days.  That feeling that you want to “pop” your neck or stretch it, or move it to release some tension.  We have all had it at one time.  If jobs and responsibilities allowed us to move more, allowed us to turn our heads to look at different things, allowed us to view things both up close and at a distance, allowed us to MOVE more, we could probably avoid it, but most of us don’t have that luxury.

So first, let’s understand your neck and shoulder pain.  For most people, the issue may not even start at the neck.  So all that pulling and popping and stretching you are doing up there, stop for a minute.  Most people’s necks are already hyper-mobile, the problem is not that they don’t move, but that they move too much.  You have probably heard of “Forward Head Posture”.  If you have it, your neck has moved a lot!  It is suppose to be sitting right on top of your shoulders, but you are able to move it way out in front!  Yes, that is sarcasm.

The position of your head sitting out in front of your shoulders acts as a big ol’ ball and chain on the muscles of the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back.  If you would like to understand it more, pick up something that weighs about 20lbs (kids, dogs, and bowling balls all work).  Now hold the weight close to your belly and feel the strain on your shoulder and back.  Not bad right?  Now straighten your arms and press it out in front of you about chest level.  Now we are talking.  Feel that pull on your shoulders, maybe a little twinge in your low back?  You neck pain is a product of the same mechanism.

There is a network of muscles that equally pull your neck forward, backward, and side-to-side.  When your head is forward, those muscles become off-balanced.  The muscles normally used to pull your head forward and down tend to get short and tight.  The muscles that normally pull your head back and up become long and stiff.  The side-to-side muscles don’t even know what to do, they are like children watching their parents argue.

The stiffness you normally feel in your neck and shoulders come from those muscles in the back that would normally pull your head back and up.  The most common response to these long, stiff muscles is to stretch them.  Here is the thing, they are already LONG.  They have been stretched day-in and day-out since your forward head posture started.  Stretching them will give you temporary relief, but it will not bring you any long-term benefits.  What we need to do is lengthen the deep muscles in the front of the neck as we strengthen the posterior muscles.

Ok, but why is your cervical spine moving so much?  Well, it is most likely because your thoracic spine is not moving at all.  Lack of fluidity in this mid-area of your back tends to make the segments above (neck) and below (low back pain anyone?) move too much.  This area tends to get stuck for a few reasons – excessive sitting, lack of core strength, tightness through the chest and diaphragm  – all of these can lead to stiffness in the thoracic spine.

So, when you start to address your neck pain, it is important for you to address the stiffness in your thoracic spine first.  If you only address your neck pain at the neck, it will come back time and time again.  The spine must move fluidly together, that is the basis of all good movement.

Below is a short exercise and stretching routine that will help you relieve your achy neck and shoulders.

*Please note – The exercises above are not medically prescribed.  Please check with your physician to check if the exercises are appropriate for you.

 

 

Getting Started – Foundational Movement Exercises

Congratulations!  You have decided to start exercising and getting in shape.  Before you decide to go from zero to hero, make sure your body is ready.  If you haven’t seen the inside of the gym in a while or have to ask the person next to you how to operate the cardio equipment, please go over the moves below to keep yourself injury-free and set yourself up to accomplish your long-term goals.

The exercises below build a foundation of movement.  They “prep” your body by activating important stabilizing muscles that help protect you against back pain, shoulder injury, knee pain, and more.  They also help improve range of motion in your body so your are able to move through your squat, pull, or lunge with fluidity and grace.  Do this routine as a warm-up to get your body in a good space to work hard or as a full workout at home.

Remember, consistency beats intensity.  Exercise at a level you know you can maintain through the whole year, not a pace that makes you so sore you have a hard time sitting on the toilet the next day.

 

New to Running? Try These 10 Steps and Get Going!

1) Have a goal!  Whether you want to run a mile or a 5k, having a goal helps to create a routine, a sense of purpose and accountability. This marks your first point to success. Instead of setting large, potentially unattainable goals, just start with daily or weekly ones that prevent discouragement and your motivation to wane. Write down your goal for each day or week, post it somewhere visible and tell others about what your goals are. This creates accountability and helps break intimidating aspirations into smaller, more achievable ones.

2) The Right Shoe  Do I pronate or supinate and what does that mean? If you are a pronator, then you have a tendency to drop you ankle inwards with each step. If you are a supinator, then you are probably running on the outside of your feet. With pronation, your best bet would be a ‘stability’ running shoe. This type of shoe has posting built into the inside area of the sole of the shoe and can help keep you from rolling your foot too far inward. If you are a supinator or a neutral runner, you need a ‘neutral’ shoe. This type of running shoe has no posting and the sole is all one material. Most people have a tendency towards pronation, but a gait analysis can help you determine which shoe is the best for you. Overall, comfort is number one.

3) Essential Gear  Whether you are running at night or in the early morning, gear that has reflective accents is the safest bet. When running in the dark, be sure to wear a headlamp to alert cars and to help prevent falls. If you are running during daylight hours, wear sun protective gear like long sleeves and a hat. At higher altitudes, we are more prone to harsh sun exposure, so remember your sunscreen! You also want to find materials that are moisture wicking for comfort. These materials dry faster than cotton and can also prevent uncomfortable chaffing.

4) Know Your Runner’s Lingo  There are many terms and phrases that you will hear when discussing running. Here are just some to help jump-start your vocabulary:

  • Repetitions/Intervals: these are often used interchangeably in running jargon. This type of training refers to workouts in which you run several short segments at a given pace, separated by recovery periods during which you jog or walk.
  • Split: this generally refers to the pace you run at evenly spaced junctures. It takes your total time and divides it into smaller parts (i.e., miles, half miles, etc.)
  • Tempo Run: this is a sustained running effort lasting from 10 to 40 minutes at a pace that you can sustain for at least an hour. This is your ‘threshold pace’ meaning that it is the effort level just below the body’s ability to clear lactate.
  • Fartlek: the Swedish work for ‘speed-play’ and it is an unstructured run that combines different paces aimed at challenging both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Besides being a funny term, it can help defeat boredom on some runs.

5) Warm-up/Cool-down  Running can be tough on your joints if proper preparation guidelines are not followed. Be sure to warm up before each run. Walk for 5 minutes and/or do a series of active-isolated stretches. This gives your joints the chance to build up their synovial fluid for cushioning during impact, gets your heart rate up for the activity ahead, and helps you psychologically prepare for your run. Cooling down after a run is equally as important. Spending at least 5 minutes walking afterwards helps to prevent venous pooling and allows your heart rate and breathing to return to normal.

6) When/how do I increase my mileage?  The 10-percent rule is an important principle with running and it states that you should only increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent each week. If you are a new runner, try to keep your mileage consistent for the first 3 weeks; this allows your body time to adjust to your new sport. Once you feel comfortable and are running without pain, you can safely add mileage to your weekly runs to help meet your running goals.

7) How fast should I be running?  Basically, you should be running at a pace that matches your comfort level, and works in relation to your goals and preferences. If just getting out the door and jogging is your goal, then stay at a pace that you feel you can maintain without causing injury. If your goal is to run a faster mile, then try speed work at a track or fartlekking. It’s only a competition with yourself, so stay within your comfort zone and just have fun with it.

8) How often should I run?  The bottom line is that you can run three to four days per week with rest days and cross-training in between. At least one rest day should be incorporated into your schedule to allow your body to recover. Cross-training can be resistance training or cycling; basically anything that helps keep your cardiovascular and muscular strength maintained.

9) Hydration and Fuel  If you are running/jogging for 30 minutes, you usually only need water (be sure to have plenty at higher altitudes). Running over half an hour generally requires carbohydrate replenishment. You can replenish your energy stores through gels, sports drinks or anything that can quickly digest. If you choose gels, remember to drink plenty of water (preferably 16 ounces of water to each gel pack). Finding the right amount of replenishment for your body is something you can play with on your runs, but generally you should have something for every 30 to 40 minutes of activity. Electrolyte replacement after a run is also essential. We lose a lot of our electrolytes through our sweat when we run and these are essential for maintaining our body’s water balance. You can buy tablets for your water or you can replenish these through a well-balanced meal afterwards.

10) Have fun!  Last, but definitely not least, is to remember to have fun! Running is not only a great all over body workout, but it also can be incredibly therapeutic. Whether you are running with a group, a friend, or enjoying some needed alone time, remember that you are running because you want to, not because you have to. You made the decision to run for a reason. Whatever that reason may be, take ownership of it and know that you are doing something that is great for your body, mind and spirit!

Postpartum Exercises – 5 Moves for New Mommies

I am at the baby-booming age of life.  Everywhere I look, there is a new, tiny face staring back at me.  Family, friends, co-workers – everyone is having a baby.  With this new burst in our global population, I get asked a lot about what to do in the weeks that follow a new baby’s birth.

I always tell my new mothers, the most important thing they can do is to rest and recover.  That means any exercise you do needs to be gentle and help promote reconnection with your body.  At this stage, your focus should be more on repair and body awareness and less on strength.

The 5 moves below help strengthen your core with a focus on the transverse abdominis (TVA).  The TVA is the deepest abdominal muscle.  It wraps the belly area of your torso like a corset, running from the bottom rib to the pubic bone and then around your waist like a belt and attaching to your spine.  It helps protect our vital organs as well as creating stability through our abdomen and pelvis.  Doing the moves below will help you to start gently activating the TVA so you return to your regular exercise routine stable and strong.

After you have mastered these exercises, try part 2 of the postpartum exercise program.

5 Moves for Cyclists

Now is the time of year to start working on your core strength so you can be strong and ready to ride when the warm weather starts.  Try these 5 at-home moves to help you build your core, improve your shoulder posture (no more tingling fingers), and get you ready for your best season.