16. Turn Your Neck and Shoulders into a Dynamic Powerhouse

We are all hunchbacks to different degrees. Our cervical and thoracic spines are damaged from the strain involved in carrying the head in front of the body with the chin poking forward. This “protruding head posture” bends the lower neck forward, and the upper neck backward. Over time this results in “anterior head syndrome” which is 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, my hump caused me a good amount of concern.

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 knew the curvature was greatly distorted. My entire neck was hard to the touch due to advanced stage trigger points throughout. Moving my neck hurt, the movement was very limited, and it would tire very quickly. I had the necessary symptoms for a diagnosis of “cervical neuromuscular syndrome” which includes chronic neck pain, headaches, sympathetic upregulation, depression, and anxiety (Matsui & Fujimoto, 2011). That’s right, a tense, stiff neck contributes to anxiety.

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 actually due to cumulative strain and wasting of neck muscle. I entertained this notion for only a few seconds before denying it, because I realized how much more difficult it would be to solve if this was in fact the problem. In fact, it was. I wanted a quick fix, but there isn’t one. Straightening my neck required years of proper breathing, unbracing, massage, postural awareness, exercise, and antifrailty.

The lower cervical vertebrae c6 and c7 bulged out prominently and the vertebrae above them were shrunken in. It took a year of antifrailty 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, and the bulges and hump are completely gone. Now my neck has healthy curvature and all of the previous symptoms are gone. This transformation begins with something called neck retraction.

A) Neck protracted with the chin untucked. B) Neck retracted with the chin tucked. C. Skeleton with cervical vertebrae visible

Neck Retraction Is Tucking the Chin and Jaw into the Neck

The crookedness in the neck comes 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.

Neck Exercise # 1: Neck Retraction
Pull your chin backwards so that it is behind your chest. Next, pull the jaw back and chin down as if you were trying to touch it to your Adam’s apple. Keep your chin tucked and lean your head backward relative to your chest until it is pulled back as far as you can manage. You should be looking straight ahead with your shoulders back and down. Another method to achieve this posture is to grab a clump of your hair at the base of the back of your skull and gently pull it up and back. Pilates practitioners imagine a string from heaven attached to the back of their skull constantly pulling their head upwards. Think about holding a calm, prolonged contraction in the muscles involved. Spend 5 minutes holding this posture, and performing antifrailty within it while breathing diaphragmatically.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

The exercise above teaches you how to perform neck retraction. Do this as often as possible, from different loading positions, to internalize this posture.

Most people exercise with their necks exclusively protracted. This, combined with the strain and tension of a work out firmly fixes the neck in a forward slumping posture. In fact, almost everyone butts up against a firm wall of achy, dormant muscle in the lower back of the neck when they retract it. Only antifrailty, massage, and concerted adoption of neck retraction can break down the muscular adhesions responsible for this crimped obstruction.

Stop Untucking Your Chin

The dowagers hump arises from the self-handicapping act of untucking (protracting) the chin. This act of jutting the chin out in front of the body declares “I give up” to anyone watching. In my twenties, whenever I passed anyone on the street I would always untuck my chin. It appears polite and disarming to others but is poisonous to you. This social signal, innate to our biology, is a white flag. Most people untuck their neck 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. Untucking the chin while lifting weights or sitting at a desk firmly solidifies this degenerative cervical position.

I used to hold my head as if I was always scared that I would bump it against something if I stood up straight. I held it as if I was trying to use my neck to appease angry giants. I held it as if I was trying to tell the world that the crux, the pith, the essence 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 about 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 do it, the more natural it will look.

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, even if it creates a conspicuous double chin, will eventually make it disappear. The chin lock from vocal exercise 2 in Chapter 12 as well as compression exercises 16 and 17 from Chapter 9 for the jawline and jowls will help greatly in training neck retraction. These exercises will also strengthen and lean the front of your neck, straighten and lengthen the back of your neck, and deepen your voice. One of the main causes of weakened voice is postural. When the neck is not retracted the laryngeal musculature loses proper tone. Retracted neck with a chin lock will enrich your voice, excise the pudginess behind the chin, and also increase the extent to which you breathe with ujjayi breath.

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, at 45 degrees it is 50 pounds (Hansraj, 2014). Thus neck retraction can lighten the weight of the head by as much as 5 times. This is enough to turn an awkward continuous strain into a healthy continuous load.

Neck extension is a tension relieving counterpose to neck retraction. To do this you basically lean the head backwards.

Neck Exercise # 2: Neck Extension
Extend/bend your neck backwards, lifting your chin up and tilting your head back as if looking up at the sky. Breathe out in this position. For the inhale flex your neck back into retraction. Repeat. When your head is extended backwards practice turning/rotating your upper and lower neck to the right and left. Also practice both neck retraction and protraction from the extension position.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

An exercise that alternates between neck retraction and extension is often the first in a series of poses used in hot yoga. Here it is called “standing deep breathing,” because it is traditionally paired with a form of paced breathing. My initial experiences with this pose strongly influenced the Program Peace method. I firmly recommend this routine as a daily practice, videos can be found easily online.

Neck Exercises # 3-10: Various Neck Antifrailty Postures
The following exercises, like all of the exercises in this chapter, are intended to be combined with diaphragmatic breathing and the antifrailty technique. Use these exercises to find and rehab achy, dormant muscle. In an effort to contract this muscle continually reposition your neck to approach the problem from different angles. Search for positions that lead to cracking.
1.         Lie on your back on the floor with your head on the ground. Lift the chin to the collar bone and then lower it back to the floor. Repeat 20 to 30 times. Each time you lower your head, look to either the right or the left.
2.         Remain on your back, lift the head an inch off the ground and turn the head from side to side. Try touching your chin to each shoulder. Repeat 20 to 30 times. 3.         Lie on your stomach on the floor. Lift the head off of the ground and tilt the head side to side touching each ear to the ground. Repeat 20 to 30 times.
4.         Lie on a bed with your head off the side of the bed so that the head, neck, and top of the shoulders are hanging over the edge. Tilt your head as far backwards as it will go in an effort to look at the floor. Turn the head side to side. Hang and sway.
5.         While standing, look straight with the neck retracted and bend the ear toward the shoulder. Hold for 15 seconds and then bend toward the other shoulder.
6.         Keep the neck retracted and rotate your head to each side as far as it will go holding for 15 seconds. Do this again with the neck protracted.
7.         Drop your head forward as far as it will go. With the neck in total flexion, gently retract the neck. Rest, focusing on the ache. For additional pressure, interlock the fingers and place the hands behind the head and allow the weight of the arms to pull the neck gently downward toward the ground.
8.         Place a towel around your neck like a scarf and roll your head in a large circle. Perform this slowly allowing the neck to hang as much as possible during the rotation.
9.         Lay on your back onto a group of pillows or a large stability ball in order to create a backwards curve in your spine. Let your neck relax, extending backwards completely. Then while remaining on the ball cradle your head in your hands and pull your chin up to your chest and hold it there. Stretch into the aching sensation there between your neck and your shoulder blades.
10.       Lie on your back and cradle your neck with your hands. Perform tiny sit-ups or crunches that only lift your neck and shoulders off the ground. Focus on kyphosis in your neck – a full forward arch. Use the muscles in your throat to perform these modified sit-ups. The muscles in the back of your neck will stabilize the action and will receive a great stretch. Try looking to either side while performing this “neck sit-up.”
Duration: One minute each. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Simulate Vomiting to Stimulate Missing Corners in the Neck

Sometimes when I throw up I feel a deep, gratifying crack in my neck. An ancient, reflexive motor pattern is activated during vomiting that contracts all of the attachments in the neck in series, allowing you to contract muscles that you normally have no conscious control of. Take advantage of this by performing neck antifrailty while you pretend to vomit.

Neck Exercise # 12: Simulate Vomiting
Find your way to your hands and knees and rest comfortably. Simulate vomiting, recruiting muscles from the stomach to the back of the head that are involved in this action pattern. As you use the vomiting pattern to contract muscles throughout the neck, twist and turn the neck in every direction. You should notice small cracking sensations, as well as the achy sensation of using muscles that rarely get used.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Keep the Shoulders Down and Back Under Most Conditions

In cartoons when a character becomes defensive or deferential they raise their shoulders. Body language experts and animal behaviorists point out that the behavior may represent an effort to protect the neck. Due to prolonged use of this posture, most people’s trapezius (“traps”) muscles are chronically raised, meaning that we walk, sit, and sleep in our beds with raised shoulders. This is not the way our body was designed to hold itself, and it introduces unnecessary tension into the shoulder blades, neck, and arms.

The simple act of pushing the shoulders to the floor remodels 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, imagining that they are trying to maximize the distance between the ears and the tops of the shoulders. In personal training this is referred to as “shoulder packing,” and involves depressing the shoulders and squeezing the shoulder blades together. Practicing it regularly will improve kinesthetic awareness of good neck and scapular position.

Neck Exercise #13: Keeping the Shoulders Down and Back
Bring your neck into a gentle retraction. Next press your shoulders down toward the floor. The shoulder blades should be lightly squeezed together (adducted), with neck elongated, chin angled down, and chest open. From here, you can choose to engage your entire shoulder girdle by pretending that you are pressing yourself out of a manhole.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Pressing the shoulders down is made easier by carrying (or pretending to carry) a load in the hands. This may feel very awkward at first, but it is the posture of a highly dominant and athletic person. It is also the posture that our body was designed for as we have been fine tuned for carrying items while walking. Imagine yourself carrying large hunks of meat, or a long spear and a big wooden club. The most efficient way to carry these things is with the shoulders fully pressed toward the ground. This is how our ancestors would have done it.

Neck Exercise #14: Keeping the Shoulders Down with Weights
Hold a dumbbell (2-10 pounds) in each hand and allow the weight to pull your shoulders toward the floor. Shift the position of your shoulder blades dynamically, and focus on the sensations involved. While letting the weight tug at your shoulders, gently rotate the shoulders outward and inward. As you do this try to contract though all of the muscles in the upper torso. You should feel this stretch reaching into previously hidden frailty all over the upper body.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Remember that whether walking, 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 in order 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 head. Ladies and gentleman, it is healthiest for you to project your breast forward, so disregard any perceived social consequences.

Neck Exercise #15: Heart Opener
Clasp your hands behind the back with neck retracted. Next draw your shoulders back and down and focus on spreading your collarbones wide. Arch the chest upward and forward. Walk and move in this way with your chest “cracked wide open.”
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Shoulder External Rotation

For optimal shoulder stability and proper posture you want to build the muscles that externally rotate your shoulders. Do this during exercise or antifrailty by turning your hands so that your palms face forward. With this simple change you should feel your chest open and your collarbones spread deep within their joints. Alternately try lifting the arms to shoulder height with the palms facing the sky. Retract the neck, flex your glutes and puff out your chest. External shoulder rotation should be habitual and should be used during cardio and weight bearing exercises.

Shrugging

Apes generally walk on all fours. The ape upper body, which we have inherited, was designed for knuckle walking. To do this they must press off against the ground. To support this way of locomotion apes must be able to assume a large variety of neck/shoulder postural configurations. There are many such postures intermediate between shoulders completely shrugged, and shoulders completely down. You will find that shoulder shrugging is a great counter pose to shoulders down, and that a shrug enhances your ability to find achiness in the neck retracted position.

Postural Exercise #16: Shrugging
Place your hands on the ground, a table, or a counter top and push away, while at the same time shrugging your shoulders in an effort to rehabilitate frailty. Vary this posture as many ways as you possibly can. Try it with your neck extended and retracted. Try it with the shoulders bowed toward the front of the body and toward the back.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

Using Gymnastics Rings for Antifrailty

Aside from knuckle walking, apes are also built for climbing trees and swinging between branches. You 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 pullup bar in a doorway. Use these supports to place your body into unfamiliar positions from which to search for areas in need of antifrailty.

Neck Exercise #17: Using Gymnastics Rings to Find Optimal Neck Retraction
Place each of your hands in a ring with your arms spread out at 90 degrees. Press down lightly on the rings as if you were attempting to perform an “iron cross.” Retract the neck, pulling the chin towards the neck. This position should be very frail and unstable and should provide months of productive antifrailty training.
Duration: One minute. Proficiency: Four sessions a week for 24 weeks. Maintenance: Once per month

There are many other tools that can be used in antifrailty. You can use a trapeze, a pull up bar, gymnastics rings, a yoga swing, inflatable stability balls, among many others. A long dowel or pole can also be used as a prop to place the body into unfamiliar and unused joint configurations. These are commonly called stick mobility exercises and I recommend trying them.

Compression for the Neck

I strongly recommend massaging the neck. You want to use compression, percussion, and vibration on it as well. Exercises 4, 5, and 6 from Chapter 6 and exercise 17 from Chapter 9 show how. Consider using percussion with a knuckle tool or baseball on the entire neck area 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 shoulders 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 antagonistically and dynamically. Most people can only contract one or the other at a time, but not all three simultaneously. Generally, only very physically dominant people 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. As you do it picture yourself as Conan the barbarian with a giant sword in hand, as She Hulk carrying people out of a burning building, or something in that vicinity.

Conclusion

For two decades I had a pronounced knot to the right of the C4 vertebrae in my neck. It was large enough for people to notice it regularly and inquire about it. The knot was larger than the size of my entire thumb, and several professionals voiced their concerns. Each of 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 course of two years I used antifrailty 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 to indicate goodwill and use it to mean anything from “good” to “I understand.” I believe that this wobble signifies neck vitality, relaxation, and an easygoing approach. I think 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 allay people’s tendency toward neck stiffness, and help you build rapport.

The simple exercises in this chapter will revise the neural circuitry involved in how you hold your head up. They will provide abounding strength that will make your neck posture majestic. Raise your head imperiously with poise and majesty and be the master of all that you survey.

Chapter 15: 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” are caused by jutting the chin out, bending the top of the neck backwards, and the bottom of the neck forward.
  • Counteract this by performing neck retraction, where the bottom of the neck is pulled backwards and the top is pushed forward, with the chin tucked inwards toward the chest, and Adam’s apple.
  • There are many postures that you can assume that will help you locate dormant muscle in the neck and shoulders so that it can be rehabilitated with antifrailty training.
  • These include neck retraction, protraction, and extension, pressing the shoulders down, shrugging, hugging yourself, opening the chest, shoulder external rotation, walking with your arms in the air, behind the back, 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 antifrailty to rehab the stiff, hard muscles in your neck, you will become less anxious, and you will find the act of exercise to be easier and more rewarding.