Lately, I have been working with a number of different types of athletes and one of the most common complaints I hear about is overly tight neck muscles. This is a common complaint from athletes and non athletes alike. I see this over, and over… and over, so I began to question why.
What do all of these people have in common? How can they all have the same problem when they come from such different backgrounds? How can young athletes lack this much range of motion in their neck already? So, I hit the books and found an answer that everyone should hear!
Many athletes these days begin to specialize in a single sport with specific movement patterns at a very young age. And so the problem begins. Their sport of choice has them moving through the movement patterns specific to that sport before the children have fully grasped how to move properly in a normal, non-sport setting. This is also often happening before they have mastered the oh-so-important stabilization techniques that should take place with these movements. As a result, some of these children begin to compensate in other ways to get the stabilization they require. Rather than being taught how to be strong and stable by using their core or proper posture, they begin to take short cuts and find other ways to get the stabilization they require, setting their future selves up for some serious movement issues.
I’ve been covering a lot football of all ages over the last few months and am astonished by what the youngest kids are being taught. They are doing the same strength training drills as the older players, but they lack the bodily control and formal training in how to properly perform each drill. They end up looking like a bunch of floppy puppies trying to get through the drills with the best compensations they can come up with at 5 years old. These compensations include full push-ups with bums in the air and absolutely no core activation, sit-ups where each child is wrenching on their neck in order to get all the way up, chair holds against the wall with completely straight legs and all of their weight on their arms, and the list goes on and on. These poorly executed exercises are unable to strengthen the appropriate muscles and are encouraging poor movement patterns from the age of 5! If you are a coach of any young athlete, I implore you to please teach your athletes proper techniques and movement patterns from the start!
Back to the problem of tight necks. Can you guess where this is going? All of these athletes have a weak core and muscle imbalances! (this may not be true for all tight necks, if your neck is bothering you, get it checked by your local Athletic Therapist!)
As mentioned in my previous post about the importance of core stabilization, it is of the utmost importance that all athletes and non athletes gain control over their core in order for everything else to function properly. With a properly stabilized spine your “mover” muscles get the chance to do their actual job–moving your body!
If you remember back to the last post, I told you the core is comprised of the transverse abdominus, multifidus, pelvic floor, and diaphragm.
Instead of these very important core muscles contracting first to stabilize their spine, these athletes have learned to first contract their necks! Can you imagine? It seems like a very inefficient way to attempt spinal stabilization.
For example, I recently assessed a runner with chronic leg tightness. When I was testing the strength of specific leg muscles, I kept noticing that her head would lift off of the pillow in an attempt to hold her leg against my pressure. She was quite clearly compensating for a weak core and since this method is quite inefficient, she was unstable and still tested weak in the muscle tests.
I am a firm believer in a whole body rehab program. If you come to me with a sore shoulder/knee/ankle/etc., you will not only be leaving with strength exercises for your injured area, but also core exercises and any other exercise I deem fit to make you a better overall athlete. In all of my clients who have actually done their homework (yes, some people don’t do it, can you believe that!?), I can notice a huge difference each week as their core strength improves. They are able to do more and get more out of each exercise, and they also begin to feel less of the random tightness in their necks/shoulders/hips/etc.
If you find that you consistently have a tight neck for no reason, maybe try working on your core strength with the exercises from the previous post. If you have neck pain though, make an appointment with your local Athletic Therapist to make sure that everything is as it should be.
As a side note:
I am also a firm believer in multi-sport upbringings for children with specialization later on. If your young child can try out a number of different sports, they can benefit in so many different ways.
Each sport has different required movement patterns and drills, which will help your son/daughter become a well rounded athlete. If they get the opportunity to run and kick a soccer ball, they can translate these skills over to rugby and football and possibly become the best kicker on the team! If they play rugby and learn how to tackle without shoulder pads and a helmet, they may use the safe tackling skills in football and save their necks/heads. If they take dance lessons, they may be able to balance better while skating and therefore move faster on the ice.
Every sport can be broken down into the same fundamental movements. It all just depends on how you focus on those movement patterns to meet the demands of the chosen sport. The more variety you have, the better options you give yourself when deciding what your next move will be.