Have you been neglecting your neck?

Stretching the neck relieves back pain and headaches. — Filepic

Of all the body parts we work on, the neck is probably one of the most neglected.

A strong neck keeps the spine properly aligned and protects it from whiplash incidents – common in car accidents and contact sports.

Nowadays, we see many crooked or stiff necks on the streets, possibly due to holding the neck in an abnormal position for long periods at a stretch, such as cradling a phone between the neck and shoulder; looking down at smartphones or tablets; having poor posture while working on the computer; or sleeping with the neck in an awkward position.

It can also result from stress and anxiety, leading to tension in the neck muscles.

In most cases, neck pain and stiffness is caused by a muscle or soft tissue strain, and should go away on its own within a week.

However, how an individual manages and cares for their stiff neck symptoms can affect pain levels, recovery time and the likelihood of whether it will return or not.

Weak neck muscles are also one of the contributors of tension-type headaches.

In a 2015 research published in a Sage journal, patients with tension-type headaches exhibited decreased muscle strength in the neck extensor muscles, inducing a reduced cervical extension/flexion ratio, compared to healthy people.

Men and women who experienced this kind of headache were 26% weaker than control subjects with regards to their neck extension capabilities, and had a 12% smaller extension/flexion ratio.

In many tribes, a long neck is a reflection of feminine beauty, but since we can’t do anything to increase its length naturally, let’s work on making it stronger.

Fat on the neck

While women are happy with slender, smooth, single-chin, line-free and wrinkle-free necks (yes, that’s asking a lot!), most men long to have a thick neck as it looks strong and sexy – bodybuilders and certain athletes often have these.

Ideally, the thick neck should be made of muscles, not fat.

You can tell the difference between muscles and fat by how the area looks and feels.

Fat on the neck will be soft to touch and the skin will be looser.

A muscular neck will look and feel strong, especially when flexed.

A thick neck should be the result of built-up muscle mass that comes from proper physical activity, posture and good dietary habits.

If your body is muscular or large frame, it makes sense to bulk up your neck as well to look proportionate.

However, an overly thick neck can be a sign of Cushing syndrome, which occurs when your body is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol for a long time.

It can be caused by taking oral corticosteroid medication or an over-production of cortisol in the body.

One of the symptoms of this condition is deposits of fat on the neck and shoulders.

A large neck as a result of Cushing syndrome isn’t the same as having a thick neck from strength training.

Bodybuilders often have thick necks, like these men lining up to go on stage at the Olympia Amateur 2020 contest in Medellin, Colombia. — AFPBodybuilders often have thick necks, like these men lining up to go on stage at the Olympia Amateur 2020 contest in Medellin, Colombia. — AFP

From thumb to neck

We’ve all heard the phrase “rule of thumb”, which means a rough estimation of something not based on science or exact measurement.

The phrase was apparently derived from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as as it was no thicker than his thumb.

Using the thumb as a unit of measurement was not totally made up by Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift.

In many parts of the world, people use the thumb to measure different body parts when there are no measuring tapes available, e.g. twice around the thumb, once around the wrist (i.e. the circumference of the wrist is twice the circumference of the thumb); twice around the wrist, once around the neck; twice around the neck, once around the waist, etc.

Among the medical fraternity, measuring the neck circumference has become a useful initial screening tool for overweight/obesity. It’s easy, fast and non-invasive.

Generally, a neck circumference of more or equal to 35.5cm in men, and more or equal to 32cm in women, is the cut-off point for obesity.

Anything more and you’ll have to work on losing weight.

The neck is one body part that is difficult to quickly increase or decrease in size, as you have to work on the surrounding muscle groups.

You may lose weight elsewhere, but fat around the neck budges slowly.

If you have a double chin, unfortunately, there is little you can do to naturally make it single.

However, the Chinese believe a double chin is a sign of wealth and comfortable twilight years, so consider yourself blessed if you have this feature!

Although aerobic exercises will lead to a slimmer neck over time, incorporating some neck exercises in your workout regimen can strengthen your muscles and build a shapely neck.

If you have a pair of yoga blocks, try this resting bridge pose as it counteracts the forward hunched-over position and releases neck tension by supporting the weight of the head. — TNSIf you have a pair of yoga blocks, try this resting bridge pose as it counteracts the forward hunched-over position and releases neck tension by supporting the weight of the head. — TNS


To strengthen your neck without increasing its size, try this: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with your legs shoulder-width apart with head in neutral position.

Your arms should hang at the sides, fully extended and not curling the weight.

Begin by shrugging your shoulders up as high as you can. Exhale during the shrug and inhale during the drop.

Do 12 repetitions and two sets, slowly progressing to three over time.

The next exercise you can try is to lie face down and slowly lift only your head off the floor.

Do this again with your head turned to the right, then to the left. Repeat everything 10 times.

To stretch the back of the neck, do this neck bridge: Lie on the ground with your head on a pillow or folded towel, knees bent with feet flat on the floor, and palms face-down.

Draw your hips straight up (as if you’re doing a glute bridge) and raise your shoulders off the ground, rolling onto your head. Perform this exercise slowly 10 times.

To stretch further and ease neck tension, sit on a chair or on the floor with back straight.

Tilt your head up and down, side to side, then look right and left to increase the strength and flexibility of your neck.

Try not to move your shoulders when you do this.

When you’re comfortable with these basic exercises, use your hands to push lightly against your head to create some light resistance.

The neck is extremely fragile, so be gentle with it.

The key is to perform these suggested exercises slowly. When there is pain, back off or stop.

Remember that the neck also sneaks out signs of ageing before other parts of the body.

It’s an rough indicator of how old you are, so if you want to conceal your age, take extra care of this delicate area.

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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