The word “core” has now become part of our modern language. It is used in conversations heard just about everywhere. Most of us know that the core refers to certain muscles in the abdominal, hip and lower back area. Much research substantiates that keeping these muscles in excellent condition reduces back injuries and can improve athletic performance. In gyms and fitness centers all over the world, entire classes and programs are focused on helping people improve the strength of their core muscles. The venerable disciplines of Pilates and Yoga have always been touted as outstanding methods of working the core muscles. As an orthopedic physical therapist, I cannot disagree with much of this information. I, too, use core training with most of my patients as part of recovery from injury or debilitation due to surgery or illness.
However, I want to submit that there is another “core” in our bodies that is very often neglected. This would be the group of muscles that keeps our neck stable and allows us to maintain proper posture at all times. By now, most of my regular readers know how much emphasis I place on proper posture, and I have given many suggestions over the years on ways to improve posture. But the neck “core” is a bit more involved.
There is a group of very tiny muscles around our spine in the area of the neck that literally connect one vertebrae to the next. These are not the muscles that you can feel if you rub your neck when it is aching. Rather, these smaller muscles lie under the larger ones on the surface that are palpable with your fingers. The job of these muscles is to create stability and protection for our vertebrae and the discs that lie between them. The neck is supposed to be a very mobile part of the spine. It allows us to turn our heads in a multitude of directions, often very repetitively. This amount of movement can be stressful to the spine, and the small muscles I am referring to can control that movement to prevent injury or excessive stress. During the times when we sit in front of our computers for long periods or are driving long distances, we need these muscles to hold the neck in a certain alignment. When the muscles are weak, our head can literally fall forward on the spine, creating a very bad posture. This will lead to a wide array of problems ranging from muscle strain to injuries of the discs and nerve compression.
So how do you condition and strengthen these muscles? In a similar fashion to the training of the core muscles lower in the body, the neck core is trained with exercises emphasizing minimal movement but strong muscle contraction. So, we threw out exercises like sit ups and crunches for the lower core and started teaching people how to do planks and use balance exercises to work those muscles. It is the same principle for the neck core. Here are my favorites:
1. Lie on your stomach on a firm surface, face down with a small towel rolled up under your forehead. You can put your arms up to the sides to stabilize your shoulders. Gently tuck your chin in toward your throat so the back of your head rises straight up toward the ceiling. Think of a string attached to the back of your head being pulled up. Do 15 repetitions slowly.
2. Lie in the exact same position as described in number 1. Put your arms out to the sides but keep your elbows bent. Lift your arms up from the floor slightly so your shoulder blades pinch gently together. Lower and repeat 15 times.
3. Sit in a chair with firm back support. Place both hands behind your head. Gently try to pull the back of your head into your hands which are serving as a fixed resistance. Hold the effort 5 seconds. Do this 10 times.
So, when one of your friends asks you “Have you done any core training lately?”, ask them back: “Which core are you referring to?” Then share these exercises with them and remember to train both of your “cores”!
Written By: John Bradley, PT