Stretching and strengthening of the neck muscles is not like stretching and strengthening the other muscles of the body. The neck is short and a contained space, so it’s best to keep a small range of motion, in keeping with muscle size and function.
If you give 5 minutes a day to exercise your neck, you will find little-by-little, over time, your neck will loosen up and the muscles will become stronger, making support of the head much easier with age.
The neck moves mainly on two planes: down (flexion) and up (extension), and side-to-side (rotation). Rolling the head in a circle needs to be done in a very specific way, not covered here, that moves the head in correct alignment.
Lifting the Head Off the Spine is the number one exercise you can do, at any time of day: ideally this lift becomes second-nature and is no longer a conscious effort. The exercises below are some suggestions as a starting point to loosen a stiff neck.
1. Lie on floor; you can have support for your neck with a bolster-shaped pillow or towel.
Slowly and very gently tuck your chin and press your lower skull to the floor. Hold for two breaths and relax. Repeat 10 times. This will stretch the muscles at the back of the neck.
2. Now you’ll engage the superficial side neck muscles. In the same position, turn your head to the left, raise your chin away from your opposite shoulder. Hold for one or two breaths, and come to a neutral position. Repeat on the other side, 5x each side. This will stretch the muscles at the side of the neck.
3. In the same floor position, allow the head to fall back to stretch the muscles at the front of the neck, holding for a comfortable amount of time, then bring the head and neck back into a neutral position.
4. Gently turn head side to side, slowly, 10-20x.
1. Locate the bone at the base of your skull behind your ears. Find the front lower corner, and pressing with your fingers, slide them back a bit until you feel a small indent that accommodates your fingertips. Using one or two fingers, press your skull into the fingers and rock your head chin up, chin down. The dual pressure relaxes the muscles at the back of the neck while stretching the deep muscles of the anterior neck.
2. This one is best done in the shower, standing under a steady stream of water:
a) Lift your left arm and place it on the top-right of you head, and gentle pull the head left while allowing the right shoulder muscles to drop. Hold for a few moments, and release. Repeat on the opposite side, 1x each. This stretches the side muscles of the neck.
b) Modification: Begin in same final position as a), then turn the face toward the armpit.
This stretches both the side of the neck and the deeper muscles that rotate the neck.
3. Rotate head and neck from the chin, beginning with small circles, 5-10x in each direction. Tuck as chin comes to bottom of the circle, and slightly stick it out at the top, 1 inch maximum range of motions in all directions.
These exercises use the principle of resistance to access the deeper muscles of the neck.
1. Clasp you hands behind the neck and press your head into your hands for a count of 1. This is very much like pressing the lower back of the head in the floor exercise, only you are isolating the very deep muscles of the neck, both front and back. Initiate the backward movement by tucking your chin as you press the head into the hands in a small movement.
2. See “Seated Stretches 1.” 2 inches below, dig your fingers into the posterior neck muscles strongly, enough to pivot your head, front and back, feeling the muscles when your head falls back and the bony base of the skull and the soft attachment tissue when your head rocks forward. Repeat 5-10x. This strengthens the deep muscles of the neck.
3. Turn head side-to-side slowly for 2-5 minutes. You can time your breathing so that you inhale as you turn one way, and exhale as you turn in the opposite direction. This is a form of meditation, so you’re killing two birds with one stone!
Practice recommendations to stretch and strengthen you neck:
1. Set aside 5 minutes each day where you’ll have quiet and be comfortable. I (Carol) start with the last exercise- turning the head slowly side-to-side while breathing deeply. This warms the neck muscles, which sets up nicely for the subsequent exercises. Choose one or two exercises or find new ones. Within a week you will notice a change, but allow one month of regular exercise before assessing results.
2. Practice proper alignment when sitting, standing, and walking. Qi gong, tai ji, and ba gua articulate the subtle movements of stretching and strengthening your core in a way that makes attaining proper alignment and pleasurable game. Lifting you head off your spine is a qi gong practice you can do anywhere.
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