As weightlifting and resistance training enthusiasts know all too well, niggles can sometimes appear when trying to ramp up training – annoying! Particularly when progressing pushing and overhead movements, the neck can get upset and hinder your progress. Sometimes neck pain may occur outside of the gym which may make your planned program too painful to complete.


Neck pain should never be ignored; however it doesn’t necessarily mean you should hang up your lifting gloves until it goes away. Instead, adjusting and modifying your workout program can often be the key to continuing your fitness journey while also managing and even improving your symptoms – sometimes it is exactly what your neck needs.


So, let’s dive into some of the ways we can safely navigate resistance training with neck pain.


Modifying instead of stopping

The first thing to remember when experiencing neck pain during resistance training is that the goal isn’t to halt your exercise regime completely, but rather to modify it in a way that respects your body’s boundaries.

If you’re experiencing neck pain, the last thing you want is to exacerbate the problem. The good news is that there are many different variations for pretty much every exercise that can be a more comfortable substitute. For example, if you experience pain during lateral raises, you could try modifying it to more of a front raise by lifting at a 45 degree angle instead of out to the side. Similarly, you could try to perform the lateral raise with the chest supported against a bench. The modifications that feel most comfortable may vary from person to person or even day to day. In general, pulling movements (e.g seated row, pull down) are tolerated a bit better than pushing or overhead movements.


Below are some general tips to modify painful movements.

Perform the exercise variation:

  • With your chest or back supported
  • With less weight
  • With less range of motion
  • Up to shoulder height
Navigating push and overhead movements

Pushing and overhead movement can be particularly challenging when you’re dealing with neck pain, likely due to the required stabilisation of the neck and shoulder muscles, which can put a lot of strain on an already aggravated area. Typically, modifying these movements should be your first port of call, particularly if the pain is worse after a session and no particular exercise is troublesome while doing it.


With pushing movements, such as bench presses or dumbbell presses, my suggestions involve:

  • Moving to a more neutral grip such as a narrow grip or hammer grip
  • Remove any pausing at the bottom of the repetition
  • Reduce pressing on an incline and move towards a flat surface or even a decline
  • Reduce the range of motion, such as performing a dumbbell press on the ground (floor press)


For overhead pressing:

  • Move the grip to a neutral position with dumbbells
  • Reduce the angle of the press with a landmine variation
  • Press in a smith machine to improve stability


If these modifications are not well tolerated, it may be wise to have a brief pause from these movements to allow the neck to settle. These variations can be utilised to re-build back to regular levels on return to full training.

Listen to your body

While these tips provide a general framework, it’s important to remember that everyone is different, and what works for one person might not work for another. It is very important to continually reassess the response to each session and modify accordingly. A one-off session does not necessarily mean the whole program needs to be turfed. But a trend in the wrong direction indicates a change needs to be made.


Professional guidance

In an ideal world, we’d all have the knowledge and skills to manage our injuries and modify our workouts perfectly. But the reality is that it can be challenging to know exactly what to do, especially when pain is involved and you are keen to keep making progress in the gym.


Seeking professional advice can provide you with a personalised approach based on your specific condition, exercise preferences, and recovery goals. At CSSM, a trained professional can help you understand the cause of your neck pain, develop a tailored training program to manage it in our fully equipped gym, and guide you through exercises to ensure you’re performing them in a way that works for you. To find out how a professional can help you, speak to one of our physios at CSSM.


Remember, neck pain isn’t a signal to stop all activity, but rather a reminder to adapt and modify. With the right approach and guidance, you can continue to train without further aggravating your neck. Listen to your body, make the necessary adjustments, and, when in doubt, seek professional advice.


About the author

CSSM Physiotherapist Hugh Feary has always been interested in how the body works, sport and strength training.

He enjoys working with people and the problem solving aspect of physio.

Hugh has previously worked in GP clinics and private practice as well as a variety of local sporting teams including the Fremantle Dockers in the AFLW. 

Spending a lot of time strength training in the gym, Hugh enjoys helping others who have any niggles or injuries to modify their program to keep them moving. 


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