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Experts say these are the best ways to avoid straining your neck during exercise

WWhen it comes to working out, I’m all about mixing it up. Depending on the day, it could be boxing, cycling, weightlifting, yoga or pilates. Still, there is one constant: My workouts are often a literal pain in the neck, meaning I tend to develop neck strain after a workout. Despite my best efforts, I often experience bothersome tension and tightness in my neck, sometimes extending to my upper back and shoulders, within a few hours to a day after exercise.

Neck strain after a workout is quite common, and while poor form plays a role (more on that later), it’s not so much what you do in the gym, as what you do in your daily life that is the root of your pain, says Sherry McLaughlinphysical therapist and founder of the Michigan Institute for Human Performance (MIHP) in Troy, Michigan.

McLaughlin says that to understand neck strain, you must first understand the concept of short and tight muscles versus long and weak muscles. “Every muscle in the body has an antagonist, a muscle that does the opposite action. If a muscle is short and tight, the antagonist becomes long and weak,” she says. “Think of the typical sitting position where someone is submerged. In this position, the head moves forward, and to engage the world with level eyeballs, your neck will naturally stretch.”

Eventually, that type of posture makes the muscles in the neck short and tight, and those in the front of the neck long and weak. If you’re doing a crunch or other exercise that requires you to lie on your back, those muscles at the front of your neck need to work to hold your neck up. “If they’re in this weakened position, your neck will tend to feel strained and susceptible to injury,” says McLaughlin.

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Not taking time to rest your muscles and improper form can also lead to neck strain, says Janine Trembicki, ACE-certified personal trainer and owner of J Ashley Fitness, in Westport, Connecticut. “From my training, the neck strain I see most is from overuse of the neck and shoulder muscles,” she says. “Other causes can be shoulder tension when performing exercises and not keeping your head neutral with your spine.”

Fixes that strain in the neck

To reduce neck strain after a workout (or in general), you need to go beyond the neck itself, says McLaughlin. “The best way to fix neck strain is to fix the posture of the spine underneath it,” she says. “The straighter your mid back is, the more naturally your head will sit on your shoulders without the front neck muscles being in a long, weak position. This is achieved by stretching your chest muscles and strengthening your upper back muscles” with exercises like rows and back flyes.

Depending on the workout, there are certain techniques that help reduce the strain on the neck. For example, McLaughlin recommends gently tucking your chin in and resting your head on top of your shoulders before doing any heavy lifting. If you’re doing core work, Trembicki says to avoid pulling on your neck, which reduces the muscle load in your core and increases it in your neck.

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“It’s also important in Pilates, yoga and during core exercises to protect your neck, take breaks and be sure your neck is in line with your spine,” says Trembicki. “When you’re lifting weights, you want to make sure you’re not holding tension in your shoulders or neck as you perform the movements. In cardio, like spinning, you want to maintain your neck and spine alignment to prevent these injuries.”

And don’t forget that warming up before a workout reduces the risk of muscle strain throughout the body. “A solid warm-up is so important before any kind of exercise,” says Trembicki. “Prepare the muscles so that they are ready for the work they are about to undertake.”

If you’re experiencing neck strain, McLaughlin says active interventions involving pectoral stretching and thoracic spine (i.e., mid-back) mobility can provide relief, as well as prevent neck strain when done regularly. And whether you’re a beginner or a fitness fanatic, if you just can’t kick the pain in your neck, consider working with a trainer, coach or physical therapist.

“My biggest tip for reducing stress on your neck, regardless of your preferred form of exercise, would be to have someone guide you during your workout to make sure you’re performing the exercises with proper form,” says Trembicki. “Once you have the form down, you can do them on your own.”

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3 moves to help with neck strain after a workout, courtesy of the MIHP Wipe Out Pain Series

1. Wall Wash

Stand six inches from a wall, facing it, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. Place your hands on the wall. Slide your right hand up the wall directly above your head as you shift your weight to your right leg. You should feel a stretch on the right side. Return to the starting position and repeat on your left side. Alternate right and left for two sets of 12 repetitions.

2. Side-lying angel

Lie on your right side and bend your hips and knees to a 90-degree angle. Hold your knees together with your right hand and let your left shoulder blade fall to the floor with your arm extended. Slowly move your left arm in an arc up toward your head and then down by your side. Repeat several times on each side.

3. VOTE

Start sitting on the front edge of a chair with your back straight and your chest up. Cross your arms slightly in front by grabbing the opposite elbow, then do the following six times each: Raise your arms overhead, then lower them back. Raise your arms above your head and bend from side to side. Raise your arms above your head and rotate your torso to the right and then to the left.

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