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How to Avoid Neck Strain

Dumbbell Side Delt Abduction
Even bent over, eyes are
still facing forward. Notice
the S shape of the spine?

This is the starting position
for the Dumbbell Side Delt Abduction.

"Keep your head up!" It's something that personal trainers say to their clients all the time. When people exercise, many have a propensity to look down. Some are checking their foot positioning, others are looking at the weights they're about to lift and some are just doing it because they don't know where else to look.

Unfortunately, looking down at the ground, takes your neck out of alignment. It pulls your neck and spine out of position by excessively rounding the lower back. That can put both cervical and lumbar discs at risk for injury. But looking down isn't the only problem; looking too far up can be dangerous as well.

Your head and neck tend to follow your eyes. If you look at the ceiling, your head tilts back. That exaggerates the slight curvature that you want in your neck, putting strain on the cervical spine musculature. It can even hinder your ability to build muscle.

When your target muscles are over-stressed from bad form, the auxiliary muscles have to kick in and work harder, taking the emphasis away from where you want it.

To fix the problem, you need to focus on a spot that will keep you looking forward, so that your head, neck and back stay in alignment. Don't worry; it's easier to figure out than you think. All you need is a mirror that shows you from the waist up.

Stand up straight and look at yourself sideways in that mirror. Pay attention to the small curves in your back. Your spine is in proper alignment when there are three things happening.

  • First, there should be a slight curvature inward at your lower back (the lumbar spine).
  • Second, Moving up, you'll then see a slight outward protrusion in the middle of your back (the thoracic spine).
  • Third, when you get to your neck (the cervical spine), you'll see another slight curvature in.

Seeing it from the side, your spine will make a sort of S-shape starting from your lower back on up.

Another way of getting into position is to stand at attention. Keep your head up straight with your eyes looking forward. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head, pulling the TOP of your head towards the sky. Now picture a rod running through the middle of your body, from the top of your head through to your waist. By keeping everything in alignment along the length of that rod, you should be able to maintain proper positioning.

Watch this closely when doing things like concentration curls for the biceps or squats for your legs.

Keeping things in alignment doesn't mean always standing straight up. There are several exercises that you perform in a bent-over position. The bent-over barbell row, the back extension or the bent-over cable lateral raise are prime examples.

In those exercises, you bend at the waist, but still maintain alignment from your back through your neck and into your head. You should keep looking forward, but since you're bent over at the waist, forward is actually down toward the ground.

Doing a bent-over exercise, you have to resist the urge to look up to the wall or mirror in front of you. Looking up at the mirror will throw your head too far back.

Even exercises that don't use weights require you to maintain proper positioning. Doing something as simple as a push-up, your eyes should be forward (looking down toward the ground) with your head, neck and back in alignment.

Like anything, it takes practice to get the positioning right. The key is to keep reminding yourself before you start each exercise. If you're unsure, check out your positioning without weights and go through the complete range of motion. You should never break form through the entire exercise.

Over time, your muscles and body will thank you, and you'll avoid simple strains.

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