Keep Your Head Up (Or Back At Least!)

Published May 4, 2023

Scientists and physicists are studying quantum mechanics and black holes in an effort to completely understand time and gravity and their relationship with each other. I’m always amazed to read this research, despite the fact that I barely understand it! While they further investigate how to manipulate the dynamics of space and time, my concern is the current day-to-day situation for my patients and readers. This is one where gravity on earth is fairly constant, and always works toward the ground. That effect can enhance other forces, like leverage. Why does this matter to a chiropractor, and more importantly, why should you care?

Part of my job is to make sure that gravity only puts a reasonable amount of stress on the body and spine of the individuals that I work with. In order to do that, your posture must keep the majority of your extremities over your center of gravity. This includes your head! Most people’s posture is downright terrible. In a society where we sit and look down at our phones for multiple hours per day, our head is frequently in front of our center of gravity, increasing our spinal stress. As you’ll see, this is also very relevant to your fitness goals.

Let’s use this analogy that I always tell my patients: Pretend I had a bowling ball in my hand, and I held it up overhead with my arm straight in the air. I’m a pretty strong guy. I can hold it for quite a while if I balance it correctly. Now, let me move that bowling ball just 5 inches in front of my center of gravity. No matter how strong I am, I will NOT be able to hold that for very long. The more forward it goes, the more the bowling ball has leverage over the muscles, tendons and ligaments of my shoulder. Your head isn’t that much different from the bowling ball. (Except for the internal content, I hope.)

If you have just one inch of forward head posture, it can add it anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of additional leverage pressure to your neck and upper back, typically forcing your neck into a forward curvature (kyphosis) instead of a normal backward curvature (lordosis). In addition to daily posture, I want to specifically discuss how this affects your workout routine. When lifting weights, many people forcefully flex their head to garner additional strength during the repetition. I see this a ton with benching, lateral raises and core movements. Let me be quite clear. Tucking your chin toward your chest achieves absolutely no substantial benefit to building muscle. There is no, “What about when I’m doing decline bench?” or any other question. It is not a good thing. I know there are a ton of celebrity trainers and bodybuilders that will demonstrate these types of movements, but the science is on my side here. While flexing the neck does slightly increase your intra-abdominal pressure and typically can add a few additional pounds of strength to the repetition, it is not worth what it is doing to your head and neck. Just like anything else, your muscles will respond to how you train them, and if your head is frequently sticking out, the muscles that pull your head forward and down will greatly overpower the ones keeping you tall and over your center of gravity. Over time, forward flexion posture of the neck increases cervical spine degeneration, disc degeneration, rounding of the shoulders, and potentially increased nerve tension in the spinal cord or arms and legs. This nerve tension can create numbness, tingling, decreased muscle strength or tone, and can also cause some seemingly mild, yet annoying symptoms, such as headaches and joint pain.

How should you combat forward head posture? At home or work, make sure you have an ergonomic workstation that allows you to sit tall. On the cell phone, it’s phone-to-face, not face-to-phone. Use your eyes to gaze downward if you must, but keep your neck flexion to a minimum. In the gym, the most important thing to remember is to keep your head tall and stable during your repetitions. Try to maintain a straight line with your earlobes, shoulders and hips when seated upright, and you can add your ankle to that mix when standing. Do not raise your head off of the seat or bench when trying to squeeze out that final rep. Instead, you can even forcefully push your head backward into the bench or seat pad, which can actually improve your next stability and your posture. Keep your head tall, as if you were a short kid trying to get on a tall rollercoaster, and always keep the roof of your mouth parallel to the floor when upright or perpendicular to the floor when lying down. Do not flex your neck or allow it to creep forward when performing abdominal exercise, as I promise that jutting your chin will not give you a better six-pack.

I have included an x-ray of my neck showing what it looks like with a forcefully forward head posture, much like people give themselves when seated for extended periods of time at their desks or when working out. As you can see, this posture collapses the front of the disc space, opening the back part of the joint, which creates an increased pressure on the posterior portion of the disc. If this part of the disc is damaged, it can lead to disc herniation, which could result in a necessity for extensive chiropractic or pain management, and even surgery. As you can see, my skull is actually almost touching my top neck bone (C1 or Atlas) on the back where there should be space, which is a precursor to occipital headaches. Forward head posture also decreases the range of motion for your shoulders, increasing likelihood for tendon (rotator cuff) damage during what would otherwise be a normal range of motion for exercise. Believe it or not, I will see patients come in with their neck in their own “neutral” looking like mine does in flexion.

There are far greater neurologic and biomechanical consequences to forward head posture. I have only touched on a couple. I encourage you to look up some of the work of Deed Harrison of Chiropractic Biophysics if you choose to learn more about the topic from a medical standpoint. I would hope, however, that I have convinced you in this short read to re-evaluate where your head is during your next gym trip or when your scrolling on your phone. If you’re local to me, give a call to my office, Pinnacle Chiropractic and come see me for strategies on making this easier and getting you closer to your peak health potential.

– Dr. Craig