Q: I often experience neck pain in the days following a heavy squat or deadlift session — almost like a strained muscle in that area. How do I avoid that?
A: A good rule of thumb is: If you’re not supposed to be using those muscles to lift and they hurt afterward, it’s likely you’re doing something incorrectly. Often at the start of a deadlift and/or when coming up from the bottom of a squat, I’ll see an individual in a position of cervical hyperextension — looking upward so the head is tilted back. This could very well be the culprit behind your neck pain. Most trainers would correct someone doing a lift with lumbar hyperflexion (rounding the lower back), but for some reason, many miss the error of cervical hyperextension.
“Packing the neck” isn’t a common technique cue in the CrossFit world, but it should be. In an attempt to minimize cervical hyperextension while lifting, imagine trying to keep a tennis ball between your chin and sternum during a lift. This “packed” position keeps the cervical spine neutral. It’s also important to understand that the spine is essentially one long chain, and whatever changes are made at the top will also have an effect on the thoracic and lumbar spines. The same is true in reverse. Packing the neck also will help improve core stability and increase the power generated from the hips.
The next time you’re lifting, play around with packing the neck and see whether you notice the positive benefits. At first, it may seem uncomfortable and you may not feel as strong, but stick with it and keep practicing. Neurological re-patterning of movements can take a little time as the body adapts to the changes. Be patient. You’ll be creating a much safer, stronger environment for it.
Brian Strump, DC, is the owner of CrossFit Steele Creek and Premier Health & Rehab Solutions in Charlotte, North Carolina.