Chances are, you’ve never once worked out two of the most important muscles in your body.
“It’s extremely common for people who spend a lot of a time in front of a computer to have a weakness in their deep cervical neck flexors,” says Men’s Health adviser Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. “These are the two muscles between your throat and your spine. They’re responsible for holding your head up.” What happens when these muscles are weak? Well, nothing good: headaches, neck pain, and I-can’t-turn-my-head-to-back-out-of-my-driveway syndrome.
Here’s how it works: Anytime you sit, your deep neck flexors are holding your dome upright. Sit for too long and these muscles become fatigued. The result: Your head gives in to gravity and falls forward, Hartman says.
That Neanderthal posture sets off a pain-igniting chain reaction. In this “forward-head” position—as it’s called in physical therapy circles—your neck flexors actually shut off, causing them to lose their strength and atrophy over time. When this happens, your body starts to compensate. So to keep your head from completely nodding down—like you’re falling asleep—your secondary neck muscles increase tension. This leads to a stiff-neck feeling.
“From there, it’s a vicious cycle,” Hartman says. “As your deep neck flexors continue to weaken, you become even more prone to putting your head in the forward-tilted position, which weakens them even more.”
To see if you might have this problem, try this quick test from Hartman. Ironically—and conveniently—you can do it while sitting. Tip your head back as far as you can. Then bring it forward to the starting position. That should feel effortless. If it didn’t, you have a problem. “If your head feels heavy as you bring it back to upright posture, your neck flexors are weak,” Hartman says.
The best move to strengthen them is the quadruped chin tuck. Here’s how to do it:
1) Start on your hands and knees with your back straight and your head in line with your spine.
2) Protrude your chin toward the floor.
3) Scoop your chin down toward your chest as far as possible, as if you’re nodding “yes.”
4) Keeping your chin close to your body, slide back into the starting position. Hold for 5 counts.
Repeat the quadruped chin tuck 10 to 20 times, twice a day. When you can tilt your head back and forward without heaviness, scale back to three times a week for maintenance.