Several recent clients have been surprised by how tender the muscles at the base of their skull felt when we worked there. I also noticed this part of my anatomy on the last few miles of a recent ride on my road bike. I started feeling my neck getting stiff.
The muscles in question are the suboccipitals. There are four of them and they connect your skull to the spine and are also connected to your eyes. They help tip your head toward your shoulder, among other actions. When the suboccipitals are tight, you could experience headaches, neck tightness, or even back pain.
Common posture habits can contribute to issues with the suboccipitals. Typical culprits are forward head posture or habitually tipping your chin up (to look through bifocals or at a computer monitor).
Note how this rider’s head is tipped up to see the road.
To reduce tightness in the suboccipitals, some options to try include these easy things.
- Pay attention to your posture (Rolf Line) – if your head is forward, bring it back into alignment.
- Confirm that your computer monitor is at an ergonomic height. Usually, this means the top of the screen is at or below eye level.
- Notice if you tend to tip your chin up and bring it back to level.
- Make sure your glasses are properly adjusted.
- Avoid holding your phone between your head and shoulder.
For more relief, you can also use 2 tennis balls in a sock to massage the base of your skull. For instructions and photos, refer to this post by Strength on Demand.
A strong set of core muscles in your torso helps keep your back happy and allows you to do the movements and chores of daily living. I’ve written before about the importance of the transversus abdominus muscle as a key to your core support.
Many people can benefit from core work – such as office workers, new moms, and athletes. For example, I discovered that I could do certain yoga poses better after I took up Pilates. I thought I wasn’t flexible enough but it turns out I wasn’t strong enough.
This set of exercises recommended by coach Timothy Bell will help build your foundation for balanced core support and strength.
5 Fundamental Core and Abdominal Exercises for Beginners
A home practice of yoga can provide many benefits. It can help maintain the effects of structural integration and other bodywork, help reduce and manage stress, and help manage pain. A few minutes of yoga done several days a week is a worthwhile investment in your overall health.
I’ve found, however, that students and clients seem at a loss in deciding what poses to practice on their own. With too many choices, the idea is often put aside. One recommendation I have is to practice the sun salutation sequence. It includes a good assortment of poses and takes about 8 minutes to complete if you use this video by Yoga Vidya.
Another plus is that the sequence can easily be modified to accommodate limitations. A variation done while seated takes only 2 minutes (Tara Blackburn, Wilmington, NC).
Prolonged periods of sitting is bad for your health. Too much sitting has been implicated in the risk for a number of serious medical conditions and a reduced life span, along with muscle and joint issues. According to a recent article in The Washington Post:
… sedentary workers have more than twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a 13 percent increased risk of cancer and 17 percent increased risk of dying.
This article also says that our metabolism slows down 90% after 30 minutes of sitting and after 2 hours, good cholesterol drops 20%. These number amazed and, to be honest, scared me.
Resist the chair.
Exercising for a half hour, or even an hour, does not compensate for sitting too much. What to do, then? Stand more and move more, for 2 hours daily – and work up to 4 hours daily. Here are ideas to get you started:
- Meet friends for a walk instead of a meal
- Stand up when you’re on the phone, having a snack or on the bus
- Ask for (and use) a standing workstation for your computer
- Fold clothes or do stretches while watching TV
Mayo Clinic article on sitting risks
“Get Up!” by Dr James Levine
Washington Post article on study of sitting risks
Just Stand – a group raising awareness for healthy computing. The site includes quizzes to assess your sitting habits, facts/research, and products/tools
My last post discussed the connection between low back pain and a muscle on the front of the torso (the transversus abdominus). This time, let’s look at another common trouble spot: the upper back – specifically, the upper trapezius muscle. This is the muscle that is along the top of your back and the back of your neck.
There are a number of factors that contribute to discomfort in the upper trapezius. However, I learned about one I didn’t know before in the book The New Rules of Posture. In this book, Mary Bond explains how the two outside fingers of the hand can influence tension in the the upper back and neck. She says:
The bones, muscles and fascia of the underside of the arm link the fourth and fifth fingers to the shoulder blade and spine. … When we hold things in our hands without fully engaging the fourth and fifth fingers, we lose the stabilizing connection between the hands, shoulder blades and spine. Lacking this connection, we seek stability in the upper trapezius.
What can you do to reduce the chances of causing neck and back tension arising from the way you use your fingers and hands?
- Learn to feel the connection between your hands and upper back with this exercise:
- At a table or desk, place your forearms on the surface with your palms down and elbows just off the edge. Lean forward a bit. Draw the shoulder blades together slightly. Gently press the palms into the surface.Notice the connection between your hands, arms and back.
- Be aware of and energize your ring and pinky fingers as you handle everyday objects.
- Be aware of what you’re touching; imagine the surface of the object is also touching your hand in return.
I see many clients who have pain in their low back. A contributing factor to low back pain arises when people do not engage their transversus abdominus muscle, or if that muscle is weak.
The New Rules of Posture by Mary Bond has a chapter about how your core muscles support the spine. She describes two different sets of core muscles that she calls corsets. The inner corset, including the transversus abdominus, provides support to the spine. That is why it is a major player in low back issues.
The transversus abdominus is located across the lower part of the front of the torso, under the obliques (Image from Brent Brook Bush). Can you engage and feel this muscle? This video will help you.
Once you know where the transversus abdominus is, you can work on engaging it. Try to find it while standing – perhaps when doing the dishes – and when walking.
To strengthen your transversus abdominus, try this exercise called Pointer Pose or Flying Table. For more instructions on doing this exercise most effectively, visit the Yoga Trinity Pointer Dog page.
The other corset of core muscles consists of the superficial, outer muscle layer. The outer core muscles are used for strength and movement, such as when we do The Hundred exercise in Pilates.