We are all hunchbacks to different degrees. Our upper spines are contorted from the strain involved in carrying the head in front of the body. This “protruding head posture” bends the lower neck forward and the upper neck backward, creating an “S” shape. Over time, this results in “anterior head syndrome,” marked by a bulge in the lower neck that is sometimes called a dowager’s hump or a buffalo hump. This is also commonly called “nerd neck.” Before I knew anything about this, I found my hump very concerning.
During my 20s, I became preoccupied with the deformed structure of my neck. I could tell that my neck was hunched down in pictures, and when I reached back and felt my cervical spine, I could feel the distorted curvature. The muscles in my neck were hard to the touch due to advanced stage trigger points throughout. Moving my neck hurt, its movement was very limited, and it would tire quickly. I had the necessary symptoms for a diagnosis of “cervical neuromuscular syndrome,” which includes chronic neck pain, headaches, sympathetic upregulation, depression, and anxiety.1 That’s right: a tense neck contributes to anxiety. Studies show that it may also contribute to general fatigue, muscle strain, arthritis, herniated discs, pinched nerves, and higher overall mortality.2
I would ask my girlfriend to stand on my upper back, hoping that the pressure would crack my vertebrae into proper alignment. Of course, this didn’t work. At one point, it crossed my mind that the extreme curvature in my neck was due to the cumulative effects of repetitive strain. I quickly dismissed this notion because I realized how difficult it would be to fix if this was the problem. Sadly, it was. I wanted a quick fix, but there wasn’t (and isn’t) one. Straightening my neck required years of proper breathing, unbracing, massage, postural awareness, exercise, and anti-rigidity.
The lower cervical vertebrae C6 and C7 bulged out prominently while the vertebrae above them were shrunken in. It took a year of anti-rigidity training for C4 and C5 to come into alignment with C6 and C7. Another year passed before C2 and C3 joined them. Gradually, these vertebrae migrated back into place until the bulges and hump went away. Now, my neck has a healthy curvature and all my previous symptoms are gone. This transformation begins with something called neck retraction.
Illustration 16.1: A. Neck protracted with the chin poking forward; B. Skeleton with cervical vertebrae visible; C. Neck retracted with the chin tucked.
Neck Retraction Is Tucking the Jaw into the Neck
Crookedness in the neck derives from bringing our head forward, tilting the chin up, and compressing or scrunching the top of the back of the neck. This is called neck protraction. Let’s program ourselves to do the opposite: neck retraction. We saw neck retraction in Chapter 13 as the fifth principle of optimal posture. Let’s dive deeper.
Illustration 16.2: Various neck positions for anti-rigidity
Most people exercise, socialize, and sit with their necks exclusively protracted. Combined with the stress and strain of daily life, this firmly fixes the neck in a forward slumped posture. Untucking the chin while lifting weights or working at a desk further solidifies this degenerative cervical position. When most people then try to retract their necks, it feels sticky, achy, and scary. Almost everyone butts up against a firm wall of dormant muscle in the back of their neck when they retract it. This wall of dormancy is the hump itself. You will need to use anti-rigidity to chip away at the muscular adhesions responsible for this cramped obstruction.
Stop Untucking Your Chin
The dowager’s hump arises from the self-handicapping act of untucking the chin and protracting the neck. This act of jutting the chin out in front of the body declares “I give up” to anyone watching. In my twenties, I would always untuck my chin whenever I passed by anyone. It appears polite and disarming to others but is poisonous to you. This social signal, innate to our biology, is throwing in the towel. Most people untuck their necks whenever they are nervous, and especially during startle. They might as well be placing their head on a chopping block. If anything, you want to retract your neck when startled, as this protects your neck with your jaw.
I held my head as if I were scared that I would bump it against something if I stood up straight. I held it as if I were using my neck to appease angry giants. I held it as if I were trying to tell the world that the pith of my body (the musculature that supports the head) exists in a deeply defective position. The extent of your hunchback is a function of how often you untuck your chin. Everyone is aware of this implicitly, but almost no one speaks of it or does anything about it. Now that you are explicitly aware, use chin retraction to increase your nonverbal dominance. Again, the more often you “fake” it, the more natural you make it.
Making Neck Retraction Habitual
Some people refrain from retracting their neck because it results in a double chin. Paradoxically, not using the muscles responsible for retraction increases the flabbiness in this area. So, retracting your neck often will eventually make that double chin disappear. The chin lock from Exercise 12.4, as well as compression exercises 9.16 and 9.17 for the jawline and jowls, will help greatly in training neck retraction. Combining these exercises will excise the pudginess behind your chin, straighten the back of your neck, increase the extent of ujjayi breathing, and enrich your voice. One of the main causes of weakened voice is postural. When the neck is not retracted, the laryngeal musculature loses proper tone.
Neck retraction will also make your head lighter. The more the head protrudes in front of the body, the more stress is placed on the cervical spine. Straight up and down, the head produces about 10 pounds of pressure on the neck. When the head is tilted toward the floor at 15 degrees, this becomes 30 pounds, and at 45 degrees it is 50 pounds.3 Thus, neck retraction can lighten the weight of the head by as much as five times. This is enough to turn an overbearing continuous strain into a healthy continuous load.
Neck extension can be a great counterpose to neck retraction. To do this, you bend the head backward.
Illustration 16.3: Alternating between neck extension and neck retraction
An exercise that alternates between neck retraction and extension is often first in a series of hot yoga poses. It is sometimes called “standing deep breathing” because it is traditionally done simultaneously with a form of paced breathing. My initial experiences with this yoga routine strongly influenced the Program Peace method because they made it incredibly clear how effective paced breathing is in the healing process. I firmly recommend these poses as a daily practice. You can easily find videos online. Now for some other exercises that, used daily, will remodel your neck.
When I socialized in my twenties I must have been bracing and immobilizing practically every muscle in my neck. Looking back on it now, my neck was like an ankle that had been sprained over and over but never iced, massaged, stretched, or exercised. More than anything else, exercises 16.2 and 16.3 have brought it close to optimality. The following lists other helpful routines you can use to limber your neck right up.
Have you ever wondered why a collared shirt is an essential aspect of proper business attire? I believe it is to obscure the extent of neck protraction so that neck posture does not play a role in corporate politics. The boss or manager may be the best person for a leadership role, but their lack of neck retraction might communicate to their underlings that they do not have a lifetime history of leadership experience. This could undermine their authority. Also, the person with the straightest neck is not necessarily the most knowledgeable and thus should not have undue influence on business matters. You want your company’s hierarchy based on diligence and competence. I believe that like suit jackets with padded shoulders, collars level the playing field of physicality.
I believe that people who emerged from childhood with their neck mobility intact have a more dominant physical presence. The way their head is situated absolutely shines and its natural motion is intimidatingly smooth and beautiful. It is also usually easy for these people to build upper body muscle. Your neck may have become stiff and hunched before you reached puberty, but it still has the potential to be remobilized to its optimal extent. These exercises will rehabilitate aspects of your neck that you haven’t used in years. After reclaiming your muscles and the coordination to use them, you will find that they contribute subtly to everything you do. A retracted neck with no dormancy or frailty appears striking and even ostentatious, but you won’t feel guilty about it because the people struck by it will know you can’t help it. Optimal neck carriage is something that cannot be faked.
Illustration 16.4: Additional anti-rigidity poses for the neck.
Simulate Vomiting to Stimulate Missing Corners in the Neck
Sometimes when I throw up, I feel a gratifying crack in my neck. An ancient, reflexive motor arc is actuated during vomiting that contracts all the attachments in the neck in series, allowing you to access muscles you normally have no conscious control of. Take advantage of this by performing neck anti-rigidity while you pretend to vomit.
Keep Your Shoulders Down and Back
In cartoons, when a character becomes defensive or deferential, they raise their shoulders. Body language experts and animal behaviorists point out that this behavior may represent an effort to protect the neck, specifically the carotid artery and jugular vein. However, prolonged use of this insecure posture causes the muscles along the back of the neck and shoulders (trapezius) to become stuck in partial contraction. This means we walk, sit, and sleep in our beds with raised shoulders.
The simple act of actively pushing the shoulders toward the floor can remodel the upper body. The latissimus dorsi (“lats”) that start under the armpits and run along the sides of the torso provide this tug. The more often you use them to pull the shoulders down, the more tone they develop. Pilates practitioners concentrate on keeping the head up and the shoulders down by imagining they are trying to maximize the distance between their ears and the tops of their shoulders. In personal training, this is referred to as “shoulder packing.” It involves depressing the shoulders and squeezing the shoulder blades together. Regularly engaging in a practice like this will improve your kinesthetic awareness of what it feels like to appropriately position your neck and shoulder blades.
Pressing the shoulders down is made easier by carrying (or pretending to carry) a load in the hands. This is the posture of a highly commanding and athletic person. It is also the posture that our body was designed for given that we have been fine-tuned for carrying items while walking. Imagine yourself carrying large hunks of meat or a long spear and a heavy wooden club. The most efficient way to carry these things is with the shoulders fully pressed toward the ground, as our ancestors would have. Whether walking, socializing, carrying things, exercising, or in bed, you want your shoulders back and down.
Puff Up and Open the Chest
Many women hold the breastbone down and inward to withdraw their breasts. Men do it to make their chest less conspicuous. This unnecessary modesty leads to unhealthy posture by depressing the collarbones and lowering the head. Ladies and gentlemen, it is healthiest for you to project your breast forward, so disregard any perceived social consequences.
For optimal shoulder stability, you want to strengthen the muscles that externally rotate your shoulders. Do this by turning your wrists outward so that your palms face forward. Allow this to rotate your shoulders toward your back so that they are no longer slumped forward. With this simple change, you should feel your chest and collarbones spread open deep within their joints. Alternately, try lifting your arms to waist height with the palms facing the sky. At the same time, retract your neck, flex your glutes, and puff out your chest. Keep practicing this external rotation of the shoulders until it is habitual. It is especially important during cardio and weight-bearing exercises.
Illustration 16.5: A woman: A. pressing herself out of a sewer hole, B. allowing weights to tug her shoulders down, C. with her shoulders back and down and the hands clasped behind the back, D & E. with her palms facing the sky and her shoulders externally rotated.
Use Shrugging for Anti-rigidity
Apes generally walk on all fours. Their upper body, which we have inherited, was designed for it. To support this form of locomotion, apes assume a multitude of neck and shoulder postural configurations as they press their hands against the ground with each stride. There are many such postures between shoulders completely shrugged and shoulders completely down. You will find that shoulder shrugging is a great counterpose to shoulders down and that a shrug enhances your ability to find achiness in the neck retracted position.
Illustration 16.6: Shrugging positions for anti-rigidity
Other Methods of Anti-rigidity
Aside from knuckle-walking, apes are also built for climbing trees and swinging between branches. You may know where I am going with this: I recommend using either gymnastics rings or TRX Bands to recreate similar isometric poses to repair your neck and shoulders. You can hang rings or bands from many places, including a tree branch or even a pull-up bar in a doorway. Use these supports to place your body into unfamiliar positions from which to search for areas in need of anti-rigidity.
Many other tools can be used in anti-rigidity as props to place the body into unfamiliar joint configurations. You can use a trapeze, a pull-up bar, gymnastics supports, a yoga swing, inflatable stability balls, and many others. A long dowel or pole can also be used to help you leverage neglected positions in what are commonly called “stick mobility exercises.”
If you have access to a pool or body of water, you should also consider treading water. Treading water is near the top of the list of exercises when it comes to calories burned per minute. Despite this, it is not likely to lead to repetitive strain injuries because it happens in a “weightless” environment where there is very little stress on your joints. Every inch of your body is working while you tread, and unlike other cardio routines, the arms, shoulders, neck, and torso are completely engaged. Also, it presents various opportunities for anti-rigidity, because there are dozens of kick and arm variations you can use. Treading water with your arms while holding your neck in a retracted position may be the fastest way to ingrain retraction. Treading water in a pool never gets boring because you can bring a phone or tablet outside, prop it up on the ground using a towel, and use it to watch videos while you tread.
Illustration 16.7. Poses for anti-rigidity and anti-laxity using gymnastics rings or TRX bands.
Illustration 16.8: Poses with an inflatable ball for upper body anti-frailty and anti-rigidity. These exercises can easily be performed while watching a program on a tablet and following a breath metronome placed on the floor.
I also recommend contracting into poses of postural strength on a trampoline. For instance, bounce up and down while flexing the glutes, flexing the chin to the chest, and pulling the shoulders back and down. The accelerations and de-accelerations from jumping will expose frailty and allow you to flex deeper into some of your biggest problem areas. Even a mini trampoline can be used to this end.
Compression for the Neck
I strongly advise massaging the neck. You want to use compression, percussion, and vibration on every nook and cranny. Exercises 6.4, 6.5, and 6.6 and Exercise 9.17 provide examples. Consider regularly using percussion with a knuckle tool, baseball, or vibrating massager on the entire neck to reduce excessive tone.
The End Goal for the Upper Body
As you get better at pushing your shoulders toward the ground with a retracted neck, you will find that this integrates your entire upper body into a more cohesive unit. It will allow you to create simultaneous and complementary tone in the muscles that pull the shoulder forward (pectorals), the muscles that pull the shoulders backward (rhomboids), and the muscles that pull the shoulders down (latissimus dorsi). This allows these three sets of muscles to pull against each other synergistically.
Most people tend to contract only one of these at a time, but not all three simultaneously. Generally, only very physically dominant people, with limber necks, feel comfortable having this triumvirate active all at once. You want to walk around with a light contraction in all three of these muscle groups on a daily basis. As you do it, picture yourself as Conan the Barbarian with a giant sword in his hands, as She-Hulk carrying groups of people out of a burning building, or as something in that vicinity.
Illustration 16.9: A. Pectorals; B. Rhomboids; C. Latissimus Dorsi; D. All three muscle groups holding a light contraction will result in the conveyance of power.
For two decades, I had a pronounced knot to the right of the C4 vertebra in my neck. It was large enough for people to notice regularly and inquire about. The knot was larger than the size of my entire thumb, and several professionals voiced their concerns. No fewer than four doctors told me it was not muscular and that it was a lipoma or a cyst. However, I knew it was just a knotted muscle. Over the next two years, I used anti-rigidity to leverage my way into this achy, closed-down gnarl. As I gained access to it, by searching for positions capable of making it ache, it shrunk gradually until it disappeared. This general process applied to several other knots in my neck that were less conspicuous. Apply it to yours.
Indian people use a head shake or wobble as a nonverbal signal to indicate goodwill and use it to mean anything from “good” to “I understand.” I believe this wobble signifies neck vitality, relaxation, and an easygoing approach. It is a beautiful way to put people at ease, and I think it is no coincidence that this marvelous expression arises from the same culture that brought us yoga and Buddhist philosophy. Incorporate the use of your neck into your nonverbal behavior. Use smooth, playful neck motions to help you build rapport with people and allay their tendency toward neck stiffness.
The simple exercises in this chapter will revise the neural circuitry involved in holding your head up. They will provide abounding coordination, mobility, and strength that will make your neck posture monumental. Raise your head imperiously with poise and majesty and be the master of all that you survey.
Chapter Sixteen: Bullet Points
- In most people, the neck is severely underused and holds massive amounts of strain.
- Anterior head syndrome, also called the “dowager’s hump” and “nerd neck,” is caused by jutting the chin out, bending the top of the neck backward, and pushing the bottom of the neck forward. This is called neck protraction and is a highly submissive posture.
- Counteract this by performing neck retraction, which involves pulling the bottom of the neck backward and pushing the top forward while tucking the chin inward toward the chest and throat. This should include a chin lock.
- You can assume many postures that will help you locate dormant muscle in the neck and shoulders so that it can be rehabilitated with anti-rigidity training. These include neck retraction, protraction, and extension, pressing the shoulders down, shrugging, hugging yourself, shoulder external rotation, opening the chest, clasping the hands behind the back, holding them out to the side, and many others.
- The more you practice bringing dormant neck and shoulder muscles to fatigue, the sooner they will be strong enough to hold an athletic and stable position naturally.
- If you use anti-rigidity to rehab the stiff, rigid muscles in your neck, you will become less tightly wound and you will find the act of exercise to be easier and more rewarding.
- Matsui, T., & Fujimoto, T. (2011). Treatment for depression with chronic neck pain completely cured in 94.2% of patients following neck muscle treatment. Neuroscience & Medicine, 2(2), 7177.
- Kado, D. M., Huang, M. H., Karlamangla, A. S., Barrett-Connor, E., & Greendale, G. A. (2004). Hyperkyphotic posture predicts mortality in older community-dwelling men and women: A prospective study. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 52(10), 1662–1667.
- Hansraj, K. K. (2014). Assessment of stresses in the cervical spine caused by posture and position of the head. Surgical Technology International, 25, 277–279.