Let’s be honest here, surfing is not great for your posture. Paddling is great for strengthening your back muscles, but the position of your neck is far from ideal when practiced over many years.
The upper trapezius (upper back), shoulder internal rotators, short neck extensors, and muscles that pull your head forward are just a few of the muscles around the upper spine/neck area which become overdeveloped and result in pulling particular bones out of alignment. Bones out of alignment do not allow joints to move efficiently, which can lead to wear and tear, pain and injury. Combine the assaults of surfing posture with those of working at a desk, driving for long hours (particularly to hunt for surf), or being the lucky user of a smartphone, and you’re in for a forward-head-posture treat.
Surfing, specifically paddling, will pull your neck into hyperextension, strengthening the short neck extensors and other muscles that pull the head forward. Key muscles that pull the head forward include the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), levator scapulae, and scalenes. With chronic forward head postures, the deep neck flexors will become weak and lengthened. In paddling, our chin is lifted and our neck is hyperextended to allow us to see where we are going.
The video below has six techniques: three strengthening exercises and three soft tissue techniques. The strengthening exercises are excellent in targeting the weak muscles that develop from paddling over a long period of time. The soft tissue techniques target the chronically-tight muscles that develop from paddling over a long period of time.
I had an extremely sore and stiff neck when I filmed this video. I had been doing some serious road-tripping and believe the combination of paddling, driving long hours in my Toyota coaster, practicing guitar, and letting my usual mobility routine slide led to the issue. I practiced this routine for three days consecutively and the pain started to lessen. The key to avoiding this issue in the future is to maintain regular practice for the neck — perhaps just once per week if you are not experiencing any pain — and become more aware of your habitual posture. If you are experiencing pain or if you are unsure of any of these techniques, please consult a physical therapist.
Below is a short routine that will help relieve a sore neck that is being caused by muscle imbalance. Please rule out neck degeneration, bulging discs, and arthritis before starting this program.
1. Neck Retraction (3-5 second hold, 10 reps)
Lying face down with your forehead resting on the back of your hands, tuck your chin down slightly, and then pull your head back off the ground for 3-5 seconds, rest and repeat. If you’re not sure of the action, just go for your best double chin. I think I’ve even got a triple chin. Keep your shoulders held down and relax as much as you can through your upper back and shoulder muscles. The amount of chin tuck should be enough to hold a tennis ball between your chin and upper chest.
2. Neck Retraction with Rotation (slow, continuous movement, 5-10 reps).
Same set up as before but with a slow rotation of your head each way with each rep, then bring your chin back to the center, rest, and repeat. Slightly tuck your chin down (enough to hold a tennis ball between your chin and upper chest), pull your head back to give yourself a double chin, and then rotate your chin as far as you can over your left shoulder, then as far as you can over your right shoulder, bring your chin back to the center (still tucked) and then rest your forehead on the ground. Repeat this for 5-10 reps. It is very important to keep your chin tucked to strengthen the correct postural muscles here.
3. Deep Neck Flexors (10-30 second holds, five reps).
Lying on your back, locate the big muscles at the front side of your neck called the Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles. You have located the SCM muscles if you can feel a muscle bulge under your fingers when you lift your head off the ground. The purpose of locating the SCM muscles is not to strengthen them, but to ensure they are NOT activated during this exercise.
This exercise is really simple. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and gently tuck your chin downward and hold this for 10-30 seconds or until you feel muscle fatigue in the muscles down the front of your neck. If you tuck your chin downward too strongly, you will feel tension in the SCM muscles which is not ideal. If this occurs, back off the chin tuck and start again. Keep the back of your head on the ground and only tuck your chin down as much as possible, before any SCM activation.
This may be tiring initially, so some of you may need to start with 10-second reps and others can start with 30-plus second reps. You are encouraged to complete more sets than suggested if you are not experiencing sufficient muscle fatigue in the deep neck flexor muscles, which should feel deep and subtle. If you’re unsure, reach out to me or ask your physical therapist.
4. Suboccipitals Release (10-30 second press, five reps for 10-second holds or three reps for 30-second holds).
Find the center of your neck by moving your fingers up your spine and then place your fingers on either side of your neck at the base of your skull. If you tilt your head back slightly, you can cradle your head and find where the base of your skull is. Then lie down, lift your head up slightly and then relax your head into your fingers, allowing gravity to do the work. This may cause referral pain that mimics a tension headache and if so, relax into it because it’s a good indication that you need to release these muscles.
Breathe through the belly with a four-second inhale and an eight-second exhale. Relax your neck and shoulders and allow your head to sink into your fingers. After a 10-30 second hold, relax and repeat.
5. Levator Scapulae Release (5-10 second press, moving down the muscle, 2-3 reps).
To find this muscle, you want to move your fingers outward and down a bit from the previous technique. If you are unsure about locating this muscle, please check with a physical therapist as this one is easy to get wrong. If you have a forward head posture, this muscle will feel quite ropey and moves down the side and then the back of the neck, attaching to the shoulder blade. This is commonly quite sore and tight in long-time surfers over the age of 30, as well as those with forward head postures, which is pretty much everyone.
Lie on your back and relax your neck. Palpate the top of the muscle, press into the muscle for 5-10 seconds, and repeat as you follow this muscle down the side and then the back of the neck. One rep would equal one sweep down the length of the muscle. Aim for 2-3 reps/sweeps from top to bottom, holding each point of pressure for 5-10 seconds.
6. Scalenes Release (10 second holds, 3-5 reps).
Here we need to anchor the insertion of the scalene muscles by placing both hands just under your collarbone on one side and then pushing your hands into your chest as well as downward. As you press and hold your hands downward, rotate and tilt your head to your opposite shoulder and then lift your chin. Hold this for 10 seconds and then repeat for 3-5 reps.
Sometimes this stretch can be felt like a release through the underside of the jaw and can be quite strong so take the movement easy. Breathe with a four-second inhale and an eight-second exhale to encourage your nervous system to relax.
Putting this Into Practice
One set of the above exercises in a circuit is enough. If you have a moderately problematic neck, it may be preferable to practice this routine every day for up to a week. Become aware of your habitual spine and neck posture throughout the day as this really gets to the crux of the issue, as will looking at your upper spine, shoulder blades, and shoulders. Once you are feeling better, you may be able to drop the frequency of this practice to 1-2 times per week. For a seriously problematic neck or if you are unsure, please consult a doctor or physical therapist.
These techniques have specially targeted the neck region, however, neck issues are always associated with the upper spine, shoulder blades, and shoulder issues, so grab some reliable tips on how to address these areas also. The author has a comprehensive library where you can find all of these techniques, plus those for every part of the body that need TLC, at surfstrengthconditioning.com.