The Deep Muscle of the Mid Torso
Many people know about 6 pack abs. Yes, it’s the little square blocks that line up nicely in a row between your xiphoid process and your pubic bone. But much as been debated about its function. It has been agreed upon that the rectus abdominis has the primary function of being a truck flexor. What does that mean? It means that it moves your sternum closer to your pelvis in a “C” type shape. Think of hunching over in your posture and letting your whole torso or slump down. This is similar to the “abdominal crunch” that many are accustom to doing at the local gym.
Unfortunately, the “6 pack” has not been understood to provide a primary stabilizing function to the torso. As many Pilates instructors are familiar with, the transversus abdominis has been understood to have the most influential impact on stabilizing the torso, which includes the low back. Yet, the population rarely has ever heard of this muscle. The TVA (transversus abdominis) muscle as they call it for short, is housed in the deepest part of one’s torso. It forms a 360 degree-ish cylindrical “corset” of sorts around the torso and low back. Similarly, we know what a training belt can do – it can stabilize your torso, creating cylindrical hydraulic pressure, allowing you to lift more weight, since you are now more proximally stable.
The Deep Muscle of the Neck - Longus Colli
In the same sense that there is a deep muscle of the abdominal wall that plays a large part in providing stability in the torso, there is a deep muscle in your neck that serves a similar function. When we go into a plank position, we know that it is the anterior part of the body (abdominal area) that is helping to hold our body up. If we lose abdominal activation and control, our backs start sagging towards to floor (a very uncomfortable feeling.)
The concept of anterior body activation to prevent sagging of the body towards the floor (in plank position), is readily seen in the neck (thought of as an extension of the spine). This "neck abdominal" is part of a deep neck flexor group of muscles, but primarily the one we are interested in is the Longus colli muscle. The longus colli sits deep within the neck to maintain your neck in a neutral position while in plank.
Longus colli activity does not allow your neck to fall forward. Similarly, the abdominals in your torso if sufficiently activated do not allow your torso (low back) to drop towards the floor.
Indeed, one of the most common biomechanical weakness I see in my practice is weakness and inactivity in this deep neck area. The neck starts to drop forward, and cllients are unable to express or maintain the neural neck position initially or as prone oriented exercises continue through the session. Weakness in the deep neck flexors can be seen and expressed as “forward head posture” when one is standing or sitting upright, and is greatly exaggerated when one goes into the plank position, since now gravity is working horizontally in relation to the muscle vs vertically, whereby the muscle is not meeting as much resistance from gravity. In other words, when one is standing, the neck muscles are more or less in line with gravity and therefore, do not have to work as much, and its possible weakness is less exposed.
A lot of individuals may not have cultivated an awareness to this aspect and perhaps have been expressing forward head faulty patterning over and over again in “fitness” classes. A strong “neck abdominal” is not only crucial to expressing good posture, but a weak “neck abdominal” can put undue strain onto the cervical and top thoracic vertebrae. Overtime, this area can become particularly strained, and it is known that in posture, for every inch one’s head migrates forward, this adds an additional 10lbs that the cervical and upper thoracic vertebrae have to support. Not good.
An active and strong longus colli, puts the cervical and upper thoracic spine back into better alignment, allowing the scapula to sit more comfortably on the rib cage, and therefore, allowing the entirety of one's shoulder complex to function more optimally and therefore with more ease, and less pain. Orthopedic shoulder issues, have commonly been seen as a byproduct of excessive neck tension mixed with very weak deep neck flexor muscles.
With this said, there are a few exercises that can help activate, and then strengthen the longus colli muscle, aka one of a group of muscles called the “deep neck flexors.”
Deep Neck Flexor Exercises
I recall this video being one of the better demonstrations and explanations of how one may be able to activate the longus colli without the sternocleidomastoid muscle taking over the movement.
I would like to add to this video, the cue direction of first visualizing the longus colli attached to the front parts of your neck vertebras. Use the picture provided, or one of your choice. After visualizing this, see if you can initiate the movement from this area. Meaning, this area fires first.
The issue with a lot of cookie cutter cueing from physical therapists, trainers, strength coaches, etc. is sometimes that their emphasis is placed on the kinematics of movement, rather than what should be producing the force, and when. The word kinematics, as described by the Kelley and Firestein’s Textbook of Rheumatology, is “the study of the geometric and time-dependent aspects of motion without analyzing the forces causing the motion.” Cueing via kinematics looks something like “nod your head” or “tuck chin towards your neck.” It tells a client what motion to perform, but not really exactly what muscle(s) are being used, what area one should feel the activation, and exactly when the muscle should fire. There may not be a lot of cueing meant to faciliate integration of the body or mind body awareness. Of course, there are times when we may not need precise detailing, but when there is a situtation where we see weak links and the intention is to facilitate a more neuromuscular reprogramming type of approach, depth in cueing is often helpful.
I have seen clients, myself included, simply perform "the head nod motion" without any deep neck flexor activation, whatsoever. A simple swivel of the skull on top of the axis bone does not equate to deep neck flexor muscle activation. I remember the days when I used to do this “motion” over and over again, and get a “good” response from instructors and trainers. Sometimes trainers and therapists need to take the time to assure that they are getting good contractions and activation in the areas they are targetting. This is a science and an art. But many times, in therapy clinics, clients are simply handed over to an assistant or aide and the intentions behind the prescribed movement therapies are all but lost.
This is not to say that only giving clients x, y, and z motions would not produce the desired effect that a trainer or therapist wants. Certainly, there are times when some individuals will just respond desirably to whatever the motion prescription is, or sometimes respond desirably to pretty much anything – which is awesome! But this is not always the case, and as I have seen, often not the case when it comes to clients needing nuanced training with regards to their daily postures and movement practice.
There will be more deep neck flexor exercises I would like to cherry pick in a Part 2 series of “The Neck Abdominals.” Stay Tuned, and thank you for reading.