When I treat patients in the clinic with neck pain, I always ask them when the pain started. Many times, the answer to this question is that “I pulled my neck while lifting weights” or “I felt neck pain after a heavy session at the gym” This spurred me to write about what gym freaks can do about preventing neck pain and also to treat it on their own so they can continue to work towards their fitness goals.

Our neck is a delicate area whilst also being one of the most important ones. It has to be strong to hold the weight of the head and to be able to move freely frequently throughout the day. The neck, shoulders and shoulder blades are one unit and have to function together well to stay pain free. Neck and scapular muscles are small and they need to work in harmony with each other no matter what exercise you do at the gym. Good posture is critical while lifting weights to maintain the balance between the neck and shoulders.

There are three main reasons why you could have neck pain arising from the gym

1) Chin protruded forward in any exercise at the gym whether it is rowing or weighted squats. When the chin is held forward, the neck alignment is off- meaning that the muscles that are strong are not working well and the muscles that are not equipped to be loaded take the brunt. This muscular imbalance can cause a “pulled muscle” either in the neck muscles or the upper trapezius muscle that connects the neck to the shoulder.

2) Rounded shoulders while working out causes the same muscular imbalance leading to neck pain. 

3) Overloading overhead weights can also easily cause neck pain. If the weight is more than usual with any overhead weighted exercise, you must proceed carefully.

Now let’s understand what you can about this.

1)  In addition to working on the big bulky muscles, learn some simple exercises that will strengthen the deep flexors of the neck. Neck strength is directly related to how stable the rest of your spine and shoulders are.

2) Pay attention to your posture. This applies to while doing a set in the gym but also at work. If you have developed a habit of sitting with a poor posture at work, it will be difficult for you to suddenly straighten up in the gym. Also, muscle shortening and adaptations happen very quickly in postural muscles. So, if you find that you are unable to maintain good posture while at the gym, learn some simple exercises from your trainer or physiotherapist that will help correct your overall posture. This will go a long way in avoiding future injuries in the gym.

3) Take your time to do a thorough warm up. If the neck muscles are stiff from a day of work or sleep then you are vulnerable to injury. If you have warmed up well the neck muscles will have a greater extensibility and force generation and hence not prone to injury. A 10-minute warm up of all muscles including the neck should be part of your gym routine.

4) Focus on keeping your neck “tucked in”. Learn how to do a chin tuck and maintain that posture no matter what exercise you are doing. This maintains the neck at a neutral position meaning that all muscles are working optimally to counteract loading.

Despite these precautions if you have developed neck pain, reach for an ice pack immediately after the workout. With repeated cryotherapy if the pain does not subside it is best to consult a physician or a physiotherapist. If you are one of those who gets neck pain repeatedly in the gym then you should also invest in an orthopedic cervical pillow. This will maintain good posture while you are sleeping so that the neck can function better during the day. If you are returning to the gym after a neck injury, begin all exercises except overhead weighted exercises such as weighted squats or lat pull downs. Once you get back into the routine you can slowly introduce these progressively. 

Use these tips to stay pain free and continue to work towards a fitter you.