8 Neck Exercises To Ease Pain & Soreness
As active as cyclists are compared to desk jockeys, there’s one major thing the two have in common: Both are highly likely to suffer from neck pain thanks to the amount of time they spend hunched over. Up to 85 percent of cyclists deal with non-traumatic injuries from their time on the bike, and the neck is one of the most common sites of pain, according to a review of relevant studies published in the journal Sports Medicine.
Here’s the thing, though: Just because you feel pain in your neck area doesn’t mean you did something to mess up your neck. “In cyclists and triathletes, neck pain and shoulder pain is often associated with an extremely weak core and weak mid- and lower trapezius muscles,” explains Menachem Brodie, a certified strength and conditioning expert and USA Cycling- and USA Triathlon-certified coach. “So while we think the problem area is the neck, it’s actually the pectoralis major and minor, as well as the latissimus dorsi muscles getting short and tight, along with weak mid-back muscles and a loss of thoracic mobility around the spine and rib cage.”
Considering how many hours cyclists spend sitting in a fixed, bent-over position, it’s no surprise that the body starts to adapt – and not necessarily in a good way. In this case, “many muscles in the body – like the trapezius, paraspinal muscles, and deep abdominal musculature (including the pelvic floor) – are put into positions on the bike for long periods of time that don’t allow the muscles to work as intended or designed,” Brodie says. Not great, right? That’s why strength and mobility training is so important in building those muscles up and getting them to fire independently.
How to use this list: Brodie recommends incorporating the muscle-activating moves below, demonstrated by Charlee Atkins, master instructor at SoulCycle in New York City, into your regular workout routine five to six times a week. You will need a foam roller and access to a table or door. An exercise mat is optional.
Obviously, you shouldn’t skip things like squats, lunges, leg press, hamstring curls, and planks, but Brodie says the moves below are equally – if not more – important in significantly improve power output because they balance the body and make it possible for that higher power output.
Please note: The neck is a tricky area. If you’ve suffered a crash or are experiencing chronic pain, it’s best to see a medical professional for a proper diagnosis before starting any exercise routine. The stretches and exercises below are intended to increase mobility and ease soreness if you feel tight after riding and to prevent injury.
1. Thoracic Extension
This will release the vertebrae in your thoracic spine and stretch the lats, on the outside of the ribcage, as well as the triceps to give you more mobility.
Lie face up and place a foam roller horizontally at the base of the shoulder blades. Bring hands behind head and interlace fingers, keeping butt on the ground. Extend head back. Hold for 10 seconds. Slowly return to starting position. At the top, lift butt slightly and slide the foam roller about 4cm down your back. Lower butt and extend head back again. Continue moving the roller down the spine 4 to 5 times, holding for 10 second each; then move back up the spine.
2. Crocodile Breathing
This mobilises the supportive muscles around the rib cage so you can breath more expansively, which will help relieve neck tightness and pain.
Lie face down, arms bent with forehead resting on the top of hands. (If you’re too tight, place a pillow under your forehead.) Take a deep breathe through the nose, expanding your flanks, then breathe out through the mouth. Do 2 sets of 5 breaths, breathing in for 3 seconds, holding for 3 seconds, and breathing out for 5 seconds.
3. Wall Scapula Slides with Retraction
This brings mobility back into tight shoulders after holding a hunched over position.
Facing a wall, place forearms flush against it. Step right foot forward and left foot back, bending the right knee. Keeping your head back and chin tucked, slowly slide arms up and out into a wide position, using the middle of the back. Go as high as you can using the mid-back muscles (not the upper traps), then squeeze the shoulder blades to lift your arms off the wall. Return arms to the wall and slowly slide back down. Do 2 sets of 5 to 8 reps.
4. Foam Roller “Y” Chest Stretch
This opens up tight, rounded shoulders which makes breathing easier, and lengthens the pectoralis minor and major to help relieve neck and shoulder tightness.
Lie face up on mat with feet planted. Place a foam roller vertically under your spine and lay on top of it (keep your neck neutral). Extend arms straight up to the ceiling. Move shoulder blades up and down, trying to squeeze the foam roller as you lower (this will activate the mid-back muscles). After 3 reps, let the arms fall slowly overhead into a “Y” position, keeping elbows straight. Do 3 sets of 30 seconds.
5. Foam Roller “W” Stretch
This targets the pectoralis minor, which helps with internal rotation of the arm and loosens up tight shoulders.
Place a long foam roller vertically under your spine and lie face up on top of it (your neck and hips should be supported by the roller, your neck neutral). Extend arms straight up to the ceiling, then bend the elbows so palms are facing your head. Open up the arms, letting the elbows follow the hands to the ground (they don’t have to touch the ground, but keep wrists straight). Then slide hands up to the head and down to the side until you feel the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then return to start. Do 3 sets of 30 seconds.
6. Single-Arm Lat Stretch With Deep Breathing
This stretches the lower lats and back to help open up after a long ride.
Start standing facing a door or table with feet hip-width apart. Hold onto a door handle/ledge with left hand, making sure your weight is in the middle of the feet. Sit back into the hips for a squat position, keeping hand where it is. You should feel the stretch through your left side and armpit. Keep hips pulling back and chest pulling forward. Do 3 sets of 5 breaths, breathing in for 3 seconds, holding for 3 seconds, and breathing out for 5 seconds, on each side.
7. Side Lying Windmills
This works your thoracic spine mobility and will loosen up tight shoulders.
Lie on your left side with left leg extended and right leg bent across your body at a 90-degree angle. Prop right leg on top of a foam roller, actively pressing the inner thigh muscles into the roller. Extend arms straight out from your shoulders, which should be stacked on top of each other. Take your top hand and sweep the arm overhead and around. (You should be moving at your shoulder and upper back, but minimising the motion of your upper back.) Do 2 sets of 8 on each side.
8. Seated Neck Release
This stretch helps release the muscles along the sides of your neck.
Sit comfortably on the floor or mat with crossed legs. Touch right fingertips to floor. Place left hand on head and gently pull left ear to left shoulder as you look down under left arm until you feel the stretch along the right side of the neck. Be sure to keep shoulders relaxed and avoid lifting left shoulder to ear. Slowly return to starting position. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on other side.
All images: Julia Hembree Smith