When I was a teenager, I had pretty horrible posture. My parents would constantly tell me, “pull your shoulders back” and “stand up straight,” yet I was never able to hold these positions for more than a few minutes.
Now, I realize that the architecture of the neck and shoulders is complex, and adapts in response to habitual patterns of movement. Certain muscles tighten and shorten to compensate for unhealthy movements while others become overly stretched and elongated. This means that addressing posture, requires a lot more than simply remembering to stand up straight.
It requires strategic and consistent re-training of deep stabilizing muscles and an understanding of how the components of the neck and shoulders are meant to work together.
One important, and often overlooked group of muscles related to posture are the deep neck flexors. These include the longus colli and longus capitus muscles which rest close to the cervical spine and aid in neck stability. In terms of movement, they allow for the chin to nod in towards the chest and for rotation of the head.
It’s not hard to imagine why these muscles might be a problem area for our modern society. As opposed to hunter and gatherers who were constantly walking, scanning the horizon, reaching up to climb or pull fruit from trees, etc., we spend a lot of our time with our head leaning forward staring at phones and computers, or simply sitting slumped over in a chair. This forward motion of the head increases the strain we put on our neck and while allowing us to remain unengaged in our deep neck flexors (therefore weakening them).
As these neck stabilizers weaken, we use more superficial muscles to compensate when we lift our heads such as the scalines (muscles on the side of the neck) or upper trapezius. Since these muscles weren’t designed to remain in constant activation, they fatigue quickly leading to continued poor posture, excessive tightness, and neck pain.
Unfortunately, this can also set off various chain reactions in other parts of the body, notably the shoulders. For example, bearing the increased weight of the head as it leans forward will cause the upper traps to compensate and become tight, leading the shoulders to shrug up. Simultaneously, the pectoralis major will shorten and tighten as the shoulders come forward. The levator scapulae (which supports/moves the shoulder blade) will then become overstretched and unstable from the same constant forward positioning. From here, the serratus anterior (an important stabilizing muscle for the shoulder which wraps around the ribs) will weaken, all contributing to what is called glenohumeral instability. This means instability around the joint where the humerus (arm bone) enters the shallow shoulder socket, which can lead to shoulder pain and injury.
All of this is simply to say, there’s a lot more to good posture than “standing up straight”, and that changing posture requires a bit of self-analysis and research.
So how can we strengthen our deep neck flexors? Here’s a quick exercise to get you started.
1. Lay on your back, with your shoulder blades planted and your neck long. If you like, you can put a thin pillow or blanket under your head for comfort.
2. With the head laying back, nod the chin down towards the chest as if you're making a double chin. Another way to think about this is to imagine reaching the back of the head upwards. Hold in this “nodded position” for 5-10 seconds then return to normal. Repeat around 10 times per session.
Note: To make sure you're working the right area, take two fingers and feel on your neck for the long muscle that runs on either side of the windpipe. If this muscle becomes activated at any point, you’re working into the wrong muscles. Another way to notice these superficial muscles is to simply lift your head off the pillow and feel the contraction in the front of the neck. Once again, these are not what you want to work.
Once you understand and can feel this movement, think about where else you can practice it. You could try this same exercise seated or against a wall. Or, you can integrate this same activation during your yoga practice. Notice the points at which your head sags, perhaps in plank, downward facing dog, or even standing postures such as mountain pose. When that happens, use your deep neck flexors to create length in the cervical spine.