Neck Pain and Callisthenics- Part 2 Neck Loading

Neck pain is common and often doesn't indicate any damage. Learn how to reduce the load on your neck while training callisthenics.
Ashleigh Flanagan
April 7, 2022

The last post looked at the prevalence, risk factors, and general management of neck pain. Take a look at the blog here. 

Why do people experience neck pain when training callisthenics?

- Neck pain is common. Between 30-50% of adults will experience neck pain in a year, and about 70% will experience neck pain at some time in their lives.

- Heads are heavy. The average head weighs approximately 5Kg. Usually, this weight is either fully supported (eg when you are lying down) or fairly well stacked over your spine so passive structures absorb most of the load. In callisthenics training, this weight is often held outside of the base of support of the neck.

- Callisthenics is hard work. If you only *just* have the strength to perform a particular skill, you will need to recruit some accessory muscles until you are stronger or more proficient at the skill. It's also common for people to recruit neck and jaw muscles to increase general body tension during heavy exercise.

Should I be worried about neck pain during my callisthenics training?

For the reasons listed above, neck pain is normal and common when training callisthenics and is rarely a concern. 

While all pain is multifactorial, neck pain during callisthenics training is usually related to using your neck muscles more than you are used to.

If neck pain is limiting you, you may not be ready for the exercise progression you are attempting. It's worth checking your form with your coach, regressing the load and/or specifically working on the strength and condition of your neck. 

How can I reduce the load on my neck when training callisthenics?

First, a little anatomy…

Global neck muscles

These large neck muscles have multiple functions as they have attachments outside the neck. These muscles are strong but may lack endurance and must be conditioned to tolerate heavy callisthenics exercises.

You will notice that while upper trap and levator scapulae are neck muscles, their primary role is to elevate the scapula.

Key scapular movers

Multiple muscles working together generate the key scapular movements of elevation, depression, protraction, retraction, upward and downward rotation. These scapular movements significantly impact the range and stability of the shoulder and are critical to the performance of callisthenics skills.

Typically callisthenic exercises will focus on protraction (e.g. push-ups & dips), retraction (e.g. rows & backbends), elevation (e.g. handstands and passive hanging), and depression (e.g. levers and front support). NB: While skills can often be performed in multiple scapular positions, the examples I provided here reflect common teaching, usually for efficiency or skill progression. 

Being aware of the key movers of the scapular and the function of global muscles in the performance of callisthenic exercises is important for reducing neck loading in training.

General principles for reducing neck load during callisthenics

- Actively warm up your neck, shoulders and thoracic spine, and start with lighter exercises before moving into heavy or complex callisthenic skills. Make sure you have your full range of movement and the range required to perform the skills you will be training.

- Try to maintain a long neck posture, steady breathing and a soft jaw. Think of lengthening the back of your neck; a little chin tuck usually helps. Relax your jaw by smiling softly / tongue to the roof of your mouth, teeth apart and lips together. If you find yourself breath-holding, counting out aloud may help. 

- You should be able to move your neck relatively freely in upper body loaded positions. If you can't, you may be over utilising your global neck muscles to stabilise your scapular.

- Watch your form to check that you are not inadvertently elevating your scapular. Depressed shoulder positions automatically reduce global neck muscle loading. Working on the strength, endurance and activation of lat dorsi and lower traps will be beneficial. Rows, lat pulls, and active hangs can reduce neck tension and be performed as preparatory exercises.

- In handstands, try to maintain protraction in elevation to reduce neck loading. This will retain neck length and a sense of space between your arms and ears. Your serratus anterior muscle is crucial for this. If you have trouble finding this shape, get your coach to help you work on the strength and activation of this muscle group in positions other than handstand.

- It takes time and graded loading to build up the strength and endurance of your neck muscles. The simplest way to reduce neck loading is to reduce the overall load of the skill you are training, however, you still want to be training callisthenics skills in line with strength protocols. It can be useful to reduce the complexity of the skill to improve the quality of the movement and specifically work on the strength and endurance of your neck.

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