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eeping Fit

Don’t Neglect The Neck

© Wayne L. Westcott PhD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Keeping Fit by Wayne L. Westcott PhD. View all columns in series

Although perhaps not as serious, unconditioned necks are typically unattractive. They seam weak, frail, and barely able to support the head in an upright position. Whether they appear too thin or too fat, poorly conditioned necks are hard to hide as this part of the anatomy is exposed even when wearing a suit or dress.

Obviously, weak neck muscles fatigue sooner than strong neck muscles. As a result many office workers feel like putting their heads on their desks to rest their necks during the afternoon hours. A few years ago we tested several executives for neck extensor strength before work (9:00 a.m.) and after work (5:00 p.m.). Although they spent their entire work day sitting at a desk, their neck extensor strength decreased by over 30 percent during those eight hours. Even when sitting still, their neck muscles were working (and fatiguing) hour after hour. Of course, persons with well-conditioned neck muscles will also become weaker as the day progresses, but they may still be stronger at 5:00 p.m. than most people are at 9:00 a.m. Most likely, they will also be more productive at their job, as their task attentiveness is not reduced by neck fatigue and discomfort.

Maintaining strong neck muscles is important for a variety of other reasons. For example, riding a 10-speed bicycle places considerable tension on the neck extensor muscles to keep the head in road-viewing position. Weakness in these muscles leads to premature fatigue as well as an uncomfortable cycling experience.

Swimming uses a lot of neck movement to turn or lift the head for breathing purposes. Well-conditioned neck muscles are especially important for the butterfly and breast strokes, but contribute to successful swimming in the other strokes as well.

Strong neck muscles are also associated with performance ability in striking skills such as driving a golf ball, serving a tennis ball and hitting a baseball. To accurately strike a ball, it is important to keep the head as still and stable as possible so the eyes can focus clearly on its center.

In my opinion the neck and lower back muscles represent the two most important areas of the body from a conditioning perspective. Because the neck muscles control head movements, they are essential for normal and athletic functions. Because the neck muscles protect the cervical vertebrae and spinal nerve trunk, they are critically important for injury prevention. For these reasons, I strongly recommend that fitness instructors, personal trainers and strength coaches include neck strengthening exercises in their clients’/athletes’ exercise programs.

The safest approach to overall neck strengthening is a four-way neck machine, although it is not necessary to perform all four movements. Neck extension is the most important training exercise as these muscles (upper trapezius, levator scapulae and splenius) hold the head erect against the force of gravity. Neck flexion is second in importance, and actually uses the same muscles (sternocleidomastoids) working together that function independently to move the head laterally (left side or right side).

Generally speaking, one set of neck extensions and neck flexions should be sufficient, performed twice a week. I recommend 10 to 15 slow and controlled repetitions of each neck exercise, performed through a comfortable range of movement. When 15 repetitions can be completed with excellent technique (no momentum or body movements), the resistance should be increased by five percent (or less).

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About The Author
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and......more
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