Neck Pain During Your Upper-Body Workouts? Here's What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

Making upper-body mobility your top priority can help minimize neck pain during your upper-body workouts.
Image Credit: taseffski/iStock/GettyImages

Ever feel your chin stick out as you press a barbell overhead? Or, maybe you feel your upper back take over as you lateral raise a pair of dumbbells? Unfortunately, some neck pain will probably follow these form mistakes.

Neck pain during your upper-body workouts is far from uncommon and, unfortunately, is probably hindering your progress in the gym. To minimize neck pain and get back on track, lower the weight you lift and focus on upper-body mobility.

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1. You Have Poor Spinal Mobility

Your back plays a supporting role in most upper-body exercises and needs to be mobile, especially when you press weight over your head, according to Cam Yuen, DPT, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York.

"When you lift your arms overhead, your upper back should be able to arch so that your chest lifts," Yuen says. "This extension helps the shoulder complete its full range of motion."

If your back can't bend properly, though, your neck muscles may try to compensate for the lack of spinal mobility, he says. Since your neck isn't meant to take such a big role in most upper-body exercises, it can cause pain in these weaker muscles.

Fix It

Working on your mobility in your thoracic spine (upper- and mid-back) will help you fix your form over time, taking the pressure off your neck during your upper-body exercises, Yuen says.

Thoracic extensions and thoracic rotations are a few spinal mobility moves to add to your workouts. In the meantime, you'll want to lower the weight you're lifting over your head.

Move 1: Thoracic Extension

  1. Start seated on the ground with either legs in front of you or crossed.
  2. Sit with your back against either a couch or chair.
  3. Place your hands behind your neck, elbows along the sides of your head.
  4. Reach your elbows toward the ceiling, extending your upper back across the back of the chair or couch.
  5. Pause for a moment, then return to the starting position.

Move 2: Thoracic Rotation

  1. Lie on your left side, knees bent and hips stacked.
  2. Bring your your arms out straight in front of you, palms on top of one another.
  3. Keeping your hips, legs and left arm in place, bring your right arm up and across your body, extending it straight out to the right.
  4. Simultaneously, rotate your torso to face the ceiling and gaze over to your right.
  5. Reverse the motion and return to the starting position on your left.

2. Your Neck Lacks Mobility

Just like your back, your neck can get stiff in certain positions or ranges of motion and loose in others, Yuen says. Your lack of mobility can also cause certain joints in the neck to move more than the others, which can be too straining on the single joint.

Your day-to-day activities can also mess with your neck mobility. Sitting all day at a desk, for example, can worsen your posture over time, leading to a less mobile and potentially painful neck, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Fix It

Yuen recommends chin retraction exercises (pulling your chin back to stack your neck joints) to help move the neck into a less strained position. If you're typing at a desk all day, take pauses every so often to check your neck alignment, retracting your chin as needed.

3. Your Shoulders and Upper Back Are Unbalanced

The muscles at the base of your neck (aka your trapezius) are responsible for controlling both your shoulders and neck, Yuen says. These muscles often assist the shoulders during lifts. But if you allow your trapezius to compensate for weak deltoids (shoulders), your neck can also take on some of the weight.

In an overhead press, for instance, your shoulders should be the main muscle working. But if your upper back takes over, your may develop a muscle imbalance over time, which can cause pain in your neck.

Fix It

First, lighten the weights you're using for your shoulder exercises, especially those that you're pressing overhead, Yuen says. "Focus on making your shoulders do the work. The upper trapezius will still contribute, but the primary movers should be the shoulders."

4. Your Neck Lacks Stability

Although you don't want your neck to be the primary mover in most exercises, you don't want to totally neglect these muscles either, Yuen says. And unfortunately, your daily posture or movement patterns can leave these muscles too weak to keep up with your exercise.

"When there muscles are too weak to stabilize the joints of the neck, larger and more superficial muscles often take over to try and make up for the stability," he says.

Fix It

"A good starting point is a simple chin retraction with a head lift while lying on your back," Yuen says. "Start by nodding your head forward as you retract your chin. Then, lift your head an inch off the ground, while maintaining this retraction." Practicing neck exercises regularly can improve the stability in these small muscles.

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