I had someone in Rocket Yoga a few days ago ask about neck pain in headstands. Sometimes, if I’ve practiced lots of unsupported headstands, my neck would be sore too. And when I think about it, with all the computer work and, admittedly, smart phone useage, my neck is often sore.
Neck muscles like any other muscles need to be used and stretched. It is an essential part of our musculature that is greatly overlooked. The human head weighs on average about 10-11 pounds (5 kg). That’s as heavy as a smaller bowling ball. Any deviation from center means you are engaging muscles to hold it up. If you think of whiplash, when your head is thrown to one side unexpectedly like in a car crash, you end up with one of those funny neck braces since the trauma can be quite severe. Little kids can easily succumb to head injuries because they lack the strength in a fall to keep their head out of harm. Protecting the source of most of our human sense, our head, is not as easy to do as you think. Its been studied extensively with concussion protocols in football and other sports.
The neck is actually capable of taking a lot of force, but our brains do not handle the jostling very much. When I wrestled in high school, your neck was as equally important for strength as any other bodypart. I’ve done many months worth of neck bridges over my time. You lift your body off the ground with only head and feet touching. You do it front and back, you roll front to back, you may even have a buddy sit on you while you do it. I was able to tick-tock from front to back kicking over the top. There are pictures of superheavyweight Freestyle Olympic wrestlers doing a back throw landing on their own heads while lifting and throwing someone their same size. You can see pictures of Shaolin monks meditating while standing one their heads with no hands.
So if you think about what is possible, what the human can do, then we can at least do some exercises without worrying a lot about risks of damage. In fact if we do thinks like yoga headstands, it is something we should really strive to do more often.
(Floyd Mayweather doing neck work)
To be honest, I recently bought one of those head harnesses to do neck work. It didn’t feel comfortable and felt like it would slice off my ears, so I sent it back. There is plenty we can do to strengthen our necks without any contraptions.
1. Neck rotations – if you think about it, if our head weighs 10-11 pounds, then simple neck movement will help strengthen. It can also stretch in the antagonist movement. And it feels good to do so why not do it.
2. Hand assisted pressure – If you reach your right hand over your head and place your palm on the left side of your head, you can both stretch and create side pressure for strength. Do both sides and even push front and back. My wife was prescribed this for migraines and neck pain.
3. Headstands – like any progressive resistance exercise, I would start small and gently increase the time on your head. You could start with knees on the ground and hands to the side rolling on the top of your head. Progress, to supported headstand while pressing into forearms. And eventually you get to tripod headstand or other similar headstands where a lot of weight is on your head.
4. Bridges – In Ashtanga yoga, the bridge pose that is done is actually on top of your head. If you practice this and wrestling style bridges, both front and back, there is no better strength builder.
5. Now if you do have some contraption, just be careful with it. If it works for you, it could be the best strength builder ever.
We know for contact and combat sports, neck strength is crucial. It is very crucial for yoga as well. Don’t underestimate the health benefits of a strong neck. It becomes especially important in longevity. I’ve seen elderly people who have lost complete neck dexterity and just hang their heads to their chest. Its not a great position for a good quality of life. If you think of health early, then hopefully we can stave off those negative effects over time.