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Pack The Neck!

man dead lifting weights

As you can see above this head/neck position can not be a good thing.

Most clinicians and coaches understand the importance of achieving and maintaining an optimal spine position during exercise and daily life. Appropriate lumbo-pelvic posturing is often the initial focus towards correction however this will often take care of itself (or make correction much easier) when optimal cervical spine posture is achieved. Many rest in upper cervical extension and lower cervical flexion, manifesting as the typical forward head posture often seen. This results in a lack of joint centration or stability throughout the cervical spine, leading to overactive upper cervical extensors/scalenes and sternocleidomastoids, while the intrinsic stabilizers are inhibited, most notably the deep neck flexors.

The cervical spine is an area rich with proprioreceptors, and therefore plays a large role in the sensorimotor system. Afferent information related to cervical positioning is relayed to the central nervous system resulting in a predictable motor response, whether functional or dysfunctional.

When the cervical spine is positioned appropriately, balanced activity between agonists/antagonists, flexors/extensors and tonic/phasis muscles are achieved and the rest of the body follows suit.

The body also follows accordingly when the cervical spine is in a dysfunctional position. The forward head posture described previously occurs frequently with those sitting at a desk for extended periods of time. The individual is looking at a computer screen resulting in a tendency for the eyes to drift forward as gravity takes over and he/she continues to slouch resulting in a chain reaction of increase spinal flexion and posterior pelvic tilt (correlating with stiff hip flexors and inhibited glutes among a host of other issues).

This is often most exaggerated in the weight room with squat variations and Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs). Excessive cervical extension is commonly seen with squatting due to the old saying of “head up!” and it is often further increased with RDLs as people wish to keep their eyes level with the horizon. These dysfunctional cervical positions result in over-activation of the global extensor system, most specifically the paraspinal musculature leading to a host of other dysfunctions/pathologies.

Those that lack appropriate pillar strength/stability may require this for stability to perform these exercises with load as their internal stabilizing system is shut off. Therefore training of appropriate pillar stability, beginning with correcting the breathing stereotype is often necessary while paying particular attention to cervical positioning.

However others may simply require cueing, specifically for those coaches working with a group of athletes to “pack the neck.” Packing the neck is similar to the sensation of creating a double chin. The athlete/patient should feel as if someone is pulling him/her vertically from the hair on top of the head. When standing this would be towards the ceiling and when performing a correct hip hinge it would remain in line with the spine.

A helpful tool can be to give an athlete/patient a ball or some object underneath the chin, having him or her hold it there by performing a small chin tuck while elongating the cervical spine. This works tremendously with RDLs where this is most exaggerated and feels un-natural to many.

Correct cervical positioning leads to optimal joint centration, allowing the rest of the body to correspond accordingly resulting in improved activation of the internal spinal stabilizing system and overall movement patterning. Next time you are working with someone displaying dysfunctional cervical tendencies, have him/her pack the neck, waking up the central nervous system to make it easier on you in correcting the remaining dysfunctions. Final step, have the athlete/patient maintain this position throughout the day!

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