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Will Exercise Help My Ailing Neck — Or Just Ail It Even More?

Oh, to only have a proverbial pain in the neck...

My first foray into the CCRB weight room at the University of Michigan was quite an intimidating moment in my life. Never before had I been surrounded by so many dudes who were just flat out bigger and stronger than I was, and who had been training diligently in the pursuit of raw power for years. 

At one point, I wandered over to the attendant’s station and let loose a comment about how many muscle-bound athletes were busy training in the crowded weight room, and that’s when the woman stationed there began to regale me with tales of when legendary professional wrestler Scott Steiner used to treat onlookers to Samsonian displays of his power when he lifted weights at the CCRB. “He used to spend a lot of time over on the neck station, just cranking away at it to strengthen his neck,” the lady told me.

I took a look at the Hammer Strength apparatus she was referring to, which allowed you to affix weight plates to it, and then work your skull against the pad from a variety of angles in order to effectuate the desired growth of neck muscles. Open to new training experiences, and also wondering whether or not I’d been missing out on some sort of hiding-in-plain-sight secret to an improved physique, I gave the neck machine a whirl. 

It was at some point during my third set of neck extensions that I realized I was in the midst of a fool’s errand. Not only were there clearly better uses of my time in the weight room than focusing on developing my neck muscles, but even if I somehow managed to thicken my neck noticeably, those neck muscles would look downright silly resting upon a frame that was (at the time) 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds. 

More than 20 years of training and misaligned sleeping later, though, I have a new set of neck-related concerns centered around general soreness, and I’m wondering whether or not the neck exercises I eschewed in my youth could have saved me from the daily soreness and misery I’m forced to suffer through today.

How did your neck get stiff and sore in the first place?

It could have been from the one time I foolishly let 300-pound Eric Prindle put a D’arce Choke on me in the middle of Southfield’s finest Italian restaurant. However, it’s far more likely to have arrived through a combination of two or more of the usual suspects. Of note, turning the head repeatedly from side to side during an athletic activity like swimming is high on the list, which definitely makes me regret taking so many unnecessary breaths during my aquatic pursuits. On top of that, I’m certainly guilty of sitting with abysmal posture, sleeping with my neck in an awkward position and storing excessive tension in my neck due to stress.

Repeatedly engaging in any of these activities on a regular basis can leave your neck feeling like it just absorbed a Vince-McMahon-level quantity of Stone Cold Stunners, but combining all of these neck-abusing methods together will leave you noticeably twisting and pulling at your neck for all to see while you sit in the first few rows at events like funerals, weddings, graduations and religious services.

Is it possible to do exercises to fix a sore neck?

Yes, but what you shouldn’t be doing are the sorts of neck exercises that Scott Steiner used to perform in the Michigan weight room, because if your neck pain is caused by athletic overuse, that’s one theoretical solution that’s more likely to make things far worse, and feeling like you just ate a Frankensteiner

Instead of loading up your neck with additional weight and trying to sling it around, you should perform regular neck stretches to alleviate some of your pain and discomfort. These neck specific movements involve working through the raising, lowering, swiveling and tilting functions of your neck along a natural range of motion, and none of them necessitate the placement of your hand on your head to unwisely tug away while trying to generate an audible crack in your neck. 

As satisfying as this crack may feel and sound, the act of cracking your neck is probably only going to release air from your neck without resulting in any physically beneficial outcomes. Far from being a misguided but harmless pursuit of pain relief, trying to crack your neck can seriously damage it, specifically hurting the blood vessels contained within it.

Are there some ways I can alter my workout to reduce the likelihood that I’ll exacerbate my neck pain?

There certainly are, and the most logical options should be relatively minor. In particular, be mindful of the amount of head and neck movement you engage in while you train, especially when you’re lifting heavy weights. If you find yourself shifting your head out of the way to clear a path for the weight bar to travel during an exercise like military presses or behind-the-neck lat pulldowns, you should seek alternative movements, like dumbbell military presses or lat pulldowns where you pull the bar directly toward your upper chest. Also, if you find yourself pulling on the back of your neck during sit-ups and crunches, remember that doing so contributes nothing to the contraction of abdominals that you’re seeking. Thus, it might be better for you to simply touch your fingertips to your ears to eliminate all temptation to yank on your head.

Your neck and spine aren’t areas of your body you want to toy around with. Yes, you can develop the strength and flexibility in your neck muscles to improve matters somewhat, but you only have one neck, and you should never ignore any pain you’re feeling within it. Violently jerking your head around while tearing through high-rep sets of cleans and presses may seem like a good idea in your youth, but if it leads to postular scoliosis as you approach middle age, that’s not exactly the kind of long-term gain you’re looking for.