Chad, I recently had neck surgery to replace a bulging disc. The doctor has released me to lift again, but not over 10 pounds from the floor up and not over 20 pounds stationary (preachers curl machine for example). He said to try to stick to exercises that “don’t pull much on the upper traps and neck.” Legs have not been a problem, and I’ve found several exercises I can do for biceps. However, triceps, back, and chest have proven difficult to maneuver. I know there are stabilizing tricks of the trade, like leaning against the Smith machine bar to stabilize my body while working biceps. Any suggestions to help me continue my workouts without straining my neck? I have another month to go before he will release me to lift any heavier, and another two months before I can go back to lifting heavy like I was before. (Sigh)
Hi Regina, I’m sorry to hear about the bulging disc and the corrective surgery you had to go through. Injuries involving the cervical spine are extremely touchy, so it’s mandatory you proceed with caution and take things slow. I can appreciate as well as anyone the desire to hit the ground running and get back into your routine full swing. However, being too overzealous to recover lost ground can lead to reinjury and cause you to lose even more ground. In other words, it’s best to remain diligent about adhering to your doctor’s recommendations for gradual strength progression.
The exercises that will serve you best are those that allow you keep your spine and neck in a neutral position. Where you could get into trouble is by inadvertently flexing your neck by tucking your chin down towards your chest or by cocking your head back, aiming your chin towards the ceiling. This forced flexion could overstretch your upper trapezius, your erector spinae and your levator scapulae (a muscle that originates on the upper part of your scapula and inserts into the vertebrae of your cervical spine). This is exactly what you want to avoid!
In general, I think you will have less of a tendency to place a strain on your neck by exercising your arms unilaterally. Moreover, this is one instance where I believe cables and certain machines could be very advantageous because the resistance is coming from just one direction. Unlike free weights, where the resistance comes from multiple directions, causing you to stress more stabilizer muscles.
The muscles in your neck and trapezius are commonly used as stabilizing muscles when you perform free weight exercise for your upper body.
For triceps, try performing single arm cable press downs using a rope. Be sure to keep your head and neck in a neutral position. You can use your free hand to help get your other arm into position for the exercise. Begin by bending your arm at a 90-degree angle and draw your elbow in towards the side of your ribs. In a slow and controlled manner, use your triceps to extend your hand down until your arm is in a straightened position. Then, slowly allow your hand to ascend back up into the starting position. Please note that the closer you can keep your body to the direction of the resistance, the less strain the exercise will place on your neck.
Back & Shoulders
For your back and shoulders, I would avoid any exercises that involve reaching up above your head. In other words, no lat pulldowns, overhead presses, etc. This is another instance where I really like the idea of a cable pulley machine. Hopefully, your gym is like mine and has a cable pulley machine where you can adjust the height of the pulley. Again, you don’t want to reach high above your head, so with an adjustable pulley, you can adjust the height of the pulley to somewhere between your hips and your shoulders when you’re in position to do a pulling exercise.
In this case, I would try doing a cable row from either a seated, or standing position, whichever is more comfortable. There are lots of different handles you can use, but I would select a handle that allows you to keep your hands in a neutral position. For example, try one of those triangle shapes bars that are typically used for seated rows, or you could clip two of those nylon, single hand grips together to make it a two-handed grip.
Right now, pulling with both arms simultaneously might even be too much. If you feel any discomfort pulling with both arms simultaneously, then try pulling unilaterally, with one arm at a time. Set the height of the pulley so you’re pulling the handle straight from the pulley to the central part of your abdomen. Again, always keep your spine and neck in a neutral position throughout the entire range of motion.
Training your chest will be a bit tricky. Finding chest exercises that don’t irritate your neck may be a challenge. This is because the sternocleidomastoid (two muscles that stretch from under the ear, down to the neck and collarbone and sternum)—are connected to the pectoral muscles. Placing any degree of stress on the pectorals will consequently place some stress on the neck, especially when you are lying on your back, such as doing a bench press. Therefore, don’t even attempt a bench press or any other chest movement that involves lying flat on your back!
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Your best bet is to try using some type of seated chest press machine. From a seated position, it will be much easier to keep your spine and neck in a neutral position. There are many variations of seated chest press machines out there. It’s hard to say exactly which type of machine would be ideal for you. So, you may need to try a couple different variations to determine which machine is mechanically designed the best to minimize strain on your neck.
My first choice would be a chest press machine that uses a weight stack for resistance. If you try using a machine where you add plates to it, like a Hammer Strength machine, that could irritate your neck by having to load and unload plates.
Pain Is Your Guide
I know I sound like a broken record because I say this over and over: ALWAYS let pain be your guide! If you’re exercising and feel pain, STOP immediately!
Just remember your injury is of a very delicate nature. So you will need to take things slow. Think baby steps! I know that progress may feel like it’s coming really slow, but don’t worry. It sounds like you have a pretty good prognosis here. So, I’m guessing you will return to full capacity… if you take your time and follow through with your doctor’s treatment plan.
I wish you all the best for a full recovery!
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