Stiff Neck and Shoulders? Make them Strong with These 5 Exercises

Stronger Muscles: Solving Stiff Neck and Shoulder Problems

We learned in my previous article how the positioning of our arms in our shoulder girdle affects muscle use and overuse in our upper back, neck, and shoulders. To ease the resulting pain and tension, we did some strength workouts or exercises that engaged the latissimus dorsi instead. 

Today, I am bringing you a fabulous concept: the armpits of power. The exercises that follow will help you make progress on gaining the strength you need to allow your overly helpful traps to go on holiday.

The Problem

For most of us, when we lift our arms overhead, our shoulders will shrug, or the ribcage will flare upwards.

Both of these compensations place you in a precarious position, especially when you’re holding a weighted object. (Think lifting a jug of water out of the refrigerator or putting luggage in an overhead bin.) 

With either compensation pattern, the lats are not turned on, and you already know that lazy lats cause your neck and shoulder girdle to work too hard, resulting in neck and shoulder tension. After gaining awareness of how to release your traps, you still may not feel much going on in the lats

Armpits of power is your next step. It will help you really wake up your muscles.

The Solution

We want to wake up the armpits of power, which include your lats. Did you know that the lats attach at your armpit?

These 5 exercises are my go-to steps when helping clients get acquainted with the armpits of power.

Find Your Armpits of Power for Stiff Neck and Shoulders

Here is another movement for stiff neck and shoulders.

Lift your arms to shoulder height, straight in front of you as if you were a zombie. Notice how your armpits feel. Now, externally rotate your arms so that your palms and elbow pits are facing up.

this is an image of sarah purcell doing the workout Armpits of Power for Stiff Neck and Shoulders

Can you feel the muscle engagement in your armpits? Can you feel your back near your armpits awaken?

Feel this directly by taking your left hand to your right armpit while holding your right arm out in this zombie arm position. Externally rotate your right arm so that your elbow pit is facing the ceiling. Feel the muscles turn on in your armpit, making it bigger and stronger. This is your ARMPIT of POWER!

Now, go back to two zombie arms and externally rotate to find your armpit of power. Hold the armpit of power for 10 to 15 seconds. Be careful to keep the muscle engagement in your armpits and your mid-back, not up near your neck. This is definitely working! Repeat 3 times.

this picture of sarah purcell doing workout for Armpits of Power for Stiff Neck and Shoulders
Super Charge Your Armpit of Power

Shake out your arms and wiggle around a bit. Come back to standing with your zombie arms. Put a little bend in your elbows. Imagine you have ice cream scoops on your elbows and use that image to scoop the elbow as you externally rotate your arms. Now your elbow pits are facing the ceiling.

Can you feel the scooping and a simultaneous wrapping of your shoulder blades around from the back to the front of your armpit? Now that is a BIG armpit of power.

Add onto this with the image of holding a clutch purse in the armpits. Can you try to lift your arms up overhead while holding onto this power and clutch purse? Find your edge or boundary where you might lose the feeling of strength in your armpit. Stop when you find your boundary.

Hold at this edge without lifting your ribcage. Your arms may shake here and that’s good. You are working hard.

Work Within Your Boundary Right to the Edge

For Stiff Neck and Shoulders

Take a block between your forearms. Externally rotate your arms at the shoulder and create the muscle engagement by imagining grabbing a clutch purse in your underarm. Hold onto the clutch purse with your armpits of power, and slowly lift the block up toward the ceiling.

this image shows Sarah Purcell showing workouts for Armpits of Power for Stiff Neck and Shoulders

Try to keep your arms straight and long while you do this. Go only so far as you can go without losing the armpit of power engagement. Hold for a count of five and lower down. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

Baby Push-Up

Come down to your hands and knees with your hips over your knees and your hands under your shoulders. If you cannot come to the floor, you can do this standing at a wall with your hands on the wall and your arms straight.

We begin by pushing through our palms and broadening our shoulders. Keep that width on your back and take a slight bend in your elbows, allowing your elbows to wing out to the sides. (Your torso will come closer to the floor or wall.) 

Imagine you have ice cream scoops on your elbows, and you are scooping out ice cream as you bring your arms back to straight. Feel your armpits come alive as you do this. 

Hold the armpits of power and take a little push up. Do you notice how little tension there is at your neck as you hold this position? Do you feel stronger than usual?

If you are looking for more challenge, move your arms a bit further forward and try your mini pushup in this ½ plank. Remember all your boundaries for armpits of power and keep your ribs in your body!

Doorway Hang

Now, for a new movement adventure! We are going to add hanging strength to the armpits of power!

Find a pole or doorway you can hold onto. Stand with your side to the doorway (at least 12 inches away) and hold onto it with your grip.

Allow your weight to pull you away from the doorway and approach it in a lazy hanging out fashion. It is almost like a shoulder shrug. But this approach is not ideal for the ligaments in your shoulder girdle and rotator cuff.

Now, try this again but keep your armpits of power engaged. Remember, your ribs belong in line with your hips. It is not a hip move we are doing here. Feel the armpits of power giving you support in what is essentially a hanging exercise.

Stay Strong with Armpit Power for Stiff Neck and Shoulders

When you engage your Armpits of Power, you are gaining both strength and stability. You may have found a smaller boundary for how high your arms can reach up while maintaining this newfound stability.

Of course, there may be times when you need to reach higher for household tasks, but you can practice this new strength and stability skill when you exercise.

Having a clear intention and boundary when you exercise will help you build strength faster and slowly increase your range of motion too (how high you can bring your arms up while respecting your armpit of power boundary).

Follow along with these exercises in this video!


Experiencing Neck Stress? Try these 5 Simple Exercises.

Exercise for Neck Stress Even During Holidays

The holidays often bring a change in your routine that can cause stress and pain in your neck. You’ve probably heard the saying “it’s all connected” in the mind/body world lately. This is never more true than with the relationship of your neck and shoulders to your posture.  Most people have overly helpful upper traps—yet other important muscles (like your lats) remain underused. Let’s wake up those underused muscles! These strength workouts may look simple, but if you sit, type, text, drive or read a lot, this work is important for you, and you’ll feel the results fairly quickly. And if you’re a visual/kinesthetic learner, you can follow along with the video! Just scroll down to the bottom of the page to find it.

Exercise 1: Notice what your arms are doing

The pulley system that supports your cervical and thoracic spine (neck and mid-back) can be viewed with your x-ray vision by taking a look at your arms.  Stand in front of a mirror with your arms relaxed by your sides. 

What most people see is that both arms hang hand down, landing a little bit in front of their bodies. Often the backs of their wrists are facing the mirror. Ideally, in this natural, relaxed state, you’d see your thumbs facing forward. However, what most of us see is the backs of our hands. What you see is an important indicator of how things are working at your neck and shoulders.

This posture means that your arm bones are not in a place where your upper arms can even get toned without creating neck tension. Let’s fix that!

Exercise 2: Squeeze it in exercise

Standing in front of the mirror, bring your hands alongside your body as if you were trying to touch racing stripes on the side of athletic pant legs.  Press the palms of your hands into the sides of the thighs.  Once your hands are flat on the side of your leg, try working all the muscles in your arms, shoulders, and mid-back to get as much of your entire arm to touch your body as you can. Now you are working all the little muscles at the shoulder, as well as the big latissimus dorsi! Hold for about 10 seconds. Do this 5 times.

Exercise 3: Independence for your shoulders

Sometimes our arms and shoulders move as one; other times they move independently of one another. This independence is vitally important for the health and mobility of your neck, upper back, and shoulder area.  The rhomboid push up is a great way to create more movement in your shoulder blades so that your mid-back and neck don’t get tense and knotted.   Stand with your feet solidly planted beneath your hips and reach your arms out in front of you. Shoulder height is great, but if you feel neck tension at shoulder height, drop your arms a little lower.  Now pretend you’re reaching for a yummy dessert about three inches in front of you. With straight arms and outstretched fingers, invite your arms to reach for the dessert by allowing your shoulder blades to get wide on your back and wrap to the front. Now pull that dessert back towards you without bending your elbows. The dessert gets closer to you as your shoulder blades come closer together.  Invite the bottoms of your shoulder blades to get closer to each other. If you concentrate on the tops of your shoulder blades, your neck may decide to join the party—and we don’t want that. 

Exercise 4: The no-grip hold 

I know that this exercise looks pretty darn easy.  But it is VERY difficult. Many will perform it with the elbows out to the side, rather than the photo with straight arms. Straighter arms are what we’d like to see, to strengthen the correct muscles. For this exercise, you’ll need a yoga block or a book about 8-10 inches long. The longer the object is, the easier the no-grip hold will be.   All you need to do is hold the block behind you by pressing your palms into it.

Hold with no gripping for 10 to 20 seconds, 3 times.  If your elbows were out to the side: it’s those darn lats that we need to work with again. The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in our upper body, but our shoulders have gotten so tight that our lats no longer generate much force.   As a bonus, think of how your metabolism might rev up if it needs to power this big muscle more often. This will help you muster the strength for one more hold!

Exercise 5:  Simple wrist puzzle

What is the puzzle you ask? Getting the backs of your hands to touch in a reverse prayer shape in front of your chest. Try to replicate the shape I am making in image 8.  Although the goal is for the entire backs of the hands to touch, including your thumbs, it takes time to undo the tension and get to this point.  Play around with how close to your body and how far up or down you need your hands to be to make this work.  It may look like images 9 or 10 and that is ok. Do not worry about how much or how little is touching right now.

The practice alone is the work. Remember, we are looking for progress, not perfection. There are no hard and fast rules about how often to work with these exercises. If you find them challenging, then you need them! And if you are someone who has an attitude of “a little is good, a lot is better,” I urge you to please not overdo it. Change is slow. After 60 change is slower.  But it’s never too late. I have clients in their eighties who have reduced their neck tension and improved their posture as well. It takes patience, and sometimes six to nine months for real change. Then one day, you’ll be surprised to have a friend or colleague notice that you walk with more energy, or you look brighter and lighter as you get up from your chair. They may not realize that your head is no longer hanging forward and your neck isn’t in pain, but they will know something is different and that it looks and feels awesome on you.

Check out the video and follow along!

How I Reversed My Osteoporosis

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Sarah Purcell – From Reversed Osteoporosis – Bone Density Improvement

Three years ago, I received a bone density scan result that indicated my femoral neck bone density was in the Osteoporosis zone

My T score was -2.8. Although my spinal density number was better, it was still -1.7.  Bottom line: I was very  concerned. I am post menopausal and petite as well as fair skinned and small boned. These are many of the risk factors associated with developing Osteoporosis.  I was aware of my risk and thought I was doing positive things to protect myself.  Supplements and a high level of physical activity were my tools. I practiced Pilates or Yoga and walked Daily.  But, this activity was clearly not enough.

The advice I received from my Gynecologist involved taking drugs and assuring me that I could not build bone without them. I had certified in Pilates for Osteoporosis 4 years prior to my diagnosis and through that education, I had some basic knowledge about the chemistry of bone drugs.  I knew enough to confidently reject the bone drugs as a choice for me personally. The side effects alone were troublesome and the long term outlook is a complex situation depending on the drug one takes.

Additionally, I was aware of natural bone building strategies.

Studies have shown that muscles and bones are a connected system.  Strengthening your muscles with external load (weights) creates force that sends signals to the bones to build more bone as an adaptation to the force. In addition, the load is site specific. Thus, one must load at the hip, the spine, the wrist and so on to protect all these areas. There is a direct dose relationship with using load.  This means that even a little weight has some benefits (there are studies to support this.)  Heavy weight and more than once a week would create even more benefit!

An interesting and often overlooked component is that rest is required for the body to build bone. Sleep is crucial

It’s also important to know that AGE is not a barrier.  A woman can build bone at any age.

Let’s get back to the issue of a pharmaceutical solution.  If your doctor finds your bone health situation so serious that she wants you to take a very powerful drug, then your situation is serious enough to warrant a full medical workup to determine if there is an underlying medical reason for your bone loss. You may not need to build bone with drugs; there may be a separate medical issue affecting your bones. Make sure you have ruled out the medical possibilities.

After I was diagnosed, I researched natural ways to enhance the bone making process. I created a plan that my GP and I were satisfied with. We reviewed my nutrient intake and added supplementation of key elements that I needed to support bone formation. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than calcium and vitamin D. I changed my diet to emphasize more alkaline foods (more veggies and sweet potatoes.)

Finally, I purchased a weighted vest for my daily walks.

Ideally, the goal is to wear 10% of your body weight in your vest.  I started small and built up to my goal weight. I was a good candidate for walking with a weighted vest because I am not highly kyphotic in my thoracic spine, I do not have fractures in my spine, and I do not have a history of any spine-related dysfunctions. I diligently followed a new, heartier routine for two years. You can find the weighted vest I used down below.

Two years after that diagnosis my General Practitioner ordered a second bone scan.  The results showed that I was now out of osteoporosis in my hip and I had edged my way towards getting out of osteopenia in my lumbar spine.  My femoral neck score went from -2.8 to -2.3, which is osteopenia.  My lumbar spine went from -1.7 to -1.5. I was thrilled with the positive change.

While I was walking my way to stronger bones, I was also researching weight lifting for bone health.  

As I stated previously, bone responds when you put load (weight) on it. I created a weight lifting program that I adapted from the Australian LIFTMOR study where men and women with Osteoporosis improved their bone mineral density scores with a heavy lifting program.  The study showed that heavy weight lifting can be safe for women with Osteoporosis.  

The LIFTMOR study was a  heavy resistance program with  30-minute sessions of high-intensity resistance training at 80–85% of the “1 rep max” weight — that being the weight they could only lift only once with maximum effort. The exercises included deadlift, overhead press, and back squat along with jumping chin-ups with drop landings. The study began with a month of training in form with low weight.

I built on this programming and created a progressive loading schedule for myself three times a week.  I began with light weight and skilled supervision to teach proper form.  Progressive load is the best way to create bone strength, so I would follow that process for my own program.

I will be having another bone scan and I am excited to share those results when they are in!

Below you’ll find all of my bone building steps.  

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