Health and fitness issues can be complicated, but common sense and a basic understanding of how your body works can get you pretty far.
That said, some concepts are counter intuitive and others are so strange you would probably never come up with them on your own. This article discusses a little known health and fitness technique that may seem bizarre, but can significantly improves neck health and function.
What if I said that you can make your neck stronger and feel better every day just by doing something with your tongue? If you are like most people, you might find this hard to believe initially. I have received my fair share of strange looks when I tell people about this technique, but most people really benefit from it and are often amazed at the difference it makes.
This technique essentially involves putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth, but it is not quite that simple and it is only beneficial in certain situations.
I should point out that this is not a gimmick and there is a real physiological reason why it works. Essentially, you can use your tongue to engage deep neck muscles in order to stabilize your cervical spine, which is the portion of your spine around your neck.
Perhaps the best way to explain this technique is to look at one of the primary exercises where it is useful, the crunch. In a crunch, you raise and lower your head, neck, shoulders, and part of the upper back off the ground using your abdominal muscles. When you raise your body, your head is unsupported (unless you use your hands) and your neck muscles have to support the weight of your head.
People often complain that their neck hurts during crunches and you may have experienced this yourself at some point. As a result, people are often told to hold their head during crunches, use a machine that supports your head, or just skip crunches and do other exercises instead.
Contrary to popular belief, this is all bad advice, but it may not seem like bad advice, unless you know what is causing the neck pain. In most cases, people’s neck muscles hurt during crunches because the neck muscles are not strong enough to support the head. The neck muscles still try as hard as possible, causing them to be strained or overworked, which results in discomfort.
Now, just think about this for the moment. The neck muscles are too weak to perform the exercise correctly, so the recommendation is to take the neck muscles out of the exercise. While this does allow the abs to be worked, it makes the neck muscles even weaker due to a lack of use and creates a further imbalance between the strength of the neck and other muscles.
In other works, it makes the neck muscles even less functional. In almost any other situation where muscles are identified as weak, the recommendation is to strengthen the weak muscles, but with the neck, common advice is basically not to use them. From both physiological and common sense standpoints, this simply does not make any sense.
Neck muscles are very important and they need to be trained just like every other muscle group. There is no situation where continuing to let them get weaker will be beneficial in the long run. However, if you have an injury or other underlying neck problem, then those issues may have to be corrected before neck strengthening can begin.
Even if you do not have a clinical neck problem, it can still be difficult to strengthen your neck muscles if they are weak, because too much stress will make them hurt and be counter productive. Neck muscles are very sensitive and you should only work a certain amount before they get tired. Then further exercise only results in pain and an increase in recovery time.
Going back to the crunch example, when lifting your body off the ground, your neck muscles will tense in order to stabilize your cervical spine and support your head. When the forces on the neck are too much, the muscles become overwhelmed and you will feel tension in the back of your neck. Tension in the back of the neck is a bad form of tension and should be avoided whenever possible.
On the other hand, if you feel tension in the muscles in front of your neck, that is usually a good thing, because those are the muscles that should be doing the work. A lack of stress in the muscles in back of the neck means the front muscles are correctly supporting the head. This is very similar to the way your abs work to protect your low back muscles when they work correctly.
The weaker the front neck muscles are, the more tension you will feel when they are supporting your head. If you do not feel any strain in your neck muscles, then they are likely properly engaged and strong enough to support your head and stabilize your cervical spine without being significantly challenged.
The real challenge is getting rid of the strain in the muscles in the back of your neck. Fortunately, that is where the tongue on the roof of your mouth technique comes in. By placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth (just behind your front teeth) and applying a little pressure with your tongue, your can engage some of the deeper neck muscles to provide increased muscular support.
When done correctly, this usually makes the strain in the back of the neck disappear or at least decreases the intensity of the strain by a noticeable amount. It can also increase the tension in the front neck muscles, which is a good thing, because it is a way to make them stronger. This technique is demonstrated in more depth during the accompanying video.
Pushing your tongue against the roof of your mouth should be used any time your neck has to support your head against gravity or any other external force. Common scenarios involve your body being in a horizontal position when your head is not supported. The crunch is probably the most common exercise example, but it should be used any time you lay down (bench, ball, floor, etc.) and your head is not supported.
Even when this technique is used correctly, your neck muscles will eventually get tired and if you feel tension in the back of your neck, then you should stop what you are doing. After your neck muscles have a chance to rest and recover, then you may be able to use those muscles some more. If not, then give them a rest until they have enough time to recover.
With crunch exercises, people often complain that their neck gives out before their abs so their abdominal muscles do not get enough work. While this may be somewhat frustrating, it is only temporary. By utilizing your neck muscles correctly during crunches and other exercises, your neck will become stronger and quickly build endurance.
Before you know it, your neck will no longer be the limiting factor in the exercises and you can focus more on your abs or other muscles. However, if you skip this step and avoid training your neck muscles, they will always be a weak link and you will have an increased chance of experiencing future neck pain or injury.
Avoiding the use of weak muscles or areas is never a solution and improving your weaknesses is one of the biggest keys to having a healthy and well functioning body throughout your lifetime.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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