In a previous post, I recommended 8 stretches you can do every day to ease tension in the neck, upper back and shoulders, but that is only part of the picture. The problem with tightness in this area is that it isn’t so much an issue you can fix, as a part of your body that needs constant attention, especially as an athlete.
I recommend you do those stretches every day to restore muscle tissue length and this sequence, once or twice a week to soften and relax the muscles in the area. Also, try to maintain regular massages or other manual therapy, saunas, ice baths, foam rolling and magnesium supplementation/epsom salt baths.
How do we get tight?
When I ask people where they feel tight or sore, their hands almost always go straight to their neck and shoulders. It's the most common complaint that I hear, alongside lower back issues, and one that stems as much from poor posture as it does from training in a specific sport.
Correct postural alignment—ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles all in a straight line—places the least amount of stress on muscles and ligaments throughout the body, and especially in the neck and shoulders. So it's only when you spend prolonged periods out of this position, that problems start to show up. The most common postural dysfunction, especially if you work at a desk or spend a significant amount of time driving, is head forward and rounded upper back and shoulders.
Over time, this leads to the muscles in the front of the neck, shoulders and chest tightening and shortening and those in the back of the neck, upper back and backs of the shoulders becoming overstretched and weak.
As well as causing tightness and tension in the neck and shoulders, head forward posture can increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, biceps tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, lower back pain and tension headaches. It is also associated with reduced range of motion in the neck and shoulders and an inability to reach the arms up overhead or behind the back.
How your sport can exacerbate the problem
Surfing is notoriously bad for neck and shoulder pain, caused by the physical demands of paddling in the prone posture. Cycling exacerbates the issues of head forward posture, closing the chest and over-stretching the muscles in the upper back. Lifting weights causes a significant amount of tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back. And many sports that involve running, aggravate neck and shoulder pain when athletes are tight in the upper body, not loose and relaxed.
- Every minute: be aware of your posture.
- Every hour: take stretch breaks to encourage circulation in your neck and shoulders and avoid tightening up.
- Every day: practice 15 minutes of yoga flow to keep your body supple.
- Every week: practice Yin/Restorative yoga.
Yin yoga to relax tight muscles
In Yin yoga we hold poses for a minimum of 3 minutes to increase flexibility (muscle length) and promote relaxation. By supporting yourself on blocks and cushions you allow your body to completely relax and let go of tension.
The evening is the best time to practice Yin yoga, when you’re winding down for bed. It’s not recommended before athletic activity when the muscles are in a relaxed state and not prepared for dynamic or weight-bearing exercise.
When you find your edge in each pose, try to remain completely still for at least 3 minutes. This requires tremendous discipline. Be careful not to put yourself in any position that causes you pain. Then when you have found your position, imagine your bones becoming heavy and sinking into the mat. Allow gravity to release tightness and loosen up your joints.
Be curious and explore the sensations in your body, noticing where you hold tension or feel discomfort.
Focus on your breath
Yin yoga is a great opportunity to practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing in this way will help to release tension in the neck and shoulders, and when your muscles are relaxed, they are more receptive to stretching.
- Breathe in and out through your nose.
- As you inhale, breathe deep into your abdomen, inflating it like a balloon. And on every exhalation, let all the air out as slowly as you can.
- Consciously, relax the muscles in your jaw, neck, shoulders and upper back.
- Focus on your breath throughout and try not to be distracted.
- Imagine that your breath is dissolving away tension. Softening hard spots. Melting away pain.
Body scan meditation
When you come to Corpse pose, scan your body all the way from the tips of your toes up to the crown of your head, noticing what you feel. Paying attention to the areas where you're holding tension will cause them to dissipate.
I have put together a 5-video mini series to target pain and tightness in the neck, shoulders and upper back. You can find out more and watch your FREE 3-Minute Upper Body Mobility routine here: yogaforneckandshoulders
Let me know in the COMMENTS of you have any questions about the poses, and please add any postures that you have found give you relief from neck or shoulder pain.
Photos: Paul Baker