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Head-position awareness along with everyday ‘prehab’ routines can go a long way toward precluding the need for physiotherapy.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Typically, most people are not concerned with training their neck – until pain has forced them to consult a physiotherapist.

Ignoring the position and muscles of the neck is shortsighted. Become aware of your head position before physio is required; "prehab" so you don't have to rehab. Improving neck alignment is analogous to building the foundation of your "house." The stronger the foundation, the fewer the future renovations.

Plus, no one looks, feels or performs their best slouched over, looking down or craning their head upwards.

Training the position of your head and neck falls under the umbrella of postural awareness and alignment. Don't make the common mistake of thinking "posture training" is simply "standing tall or strengthening the core and upper back." That is, of course, key, but not when divorced from neck and head positioning.

Have someone photograph you in profile. Stand naturally. Looking at the image, imagine a rope (known as a plumb line) dropped from your ear downwards. It should fall in line with your shoulder. Instead, your head most likely sits forward of your chest and shoulders. This is known as forward head posture. The human head is typically between 13 and 20 pounds; when it is forward, the weight pulls on the body, and the upper back and neck have to compensate. It's not surprising so many of us have neck, back and shoulder stiffness and pain. (The strain on your upper back is similar to holding 20 pounds in front of your body for a prolonged period. Think how exhausted your arms would be.) If the body is not strong enough to withstand the forward pull, the back rounds. A forward head and rounded thoracic spine (upper back) unproductively feed each other: Weak back muscles can't support the head, and weak neck muscles allow a forward head, which pulls on the upper back.

The solution is to be mindful of and address – daily – your entire postural "picture." Specific stretches are part of the solution, but first the muscles need to be strengthened so they can hold a more ideal position. Imagine the neck muscles as an elastic band running between the upper back and skull. As the head migrates forward, muscles are pulled taut – "locked long" – like an elastic band stretched to its max. Stretching the band further is not the answer. Instead, the solution is to slightly release one end. This means training the neck to sit further back in space, over the torso, making the muscles stronger and less "taut," thus placing the head in a position where stretches and mobility exercises are useful.

Your postural "picture"

1. Create a new body engram (i.e., learn proper head positioning). Stand, eyes forward. Gently suction your head back in space while growing taller through the crown of your head.

2. Strengthen your neck (i.e., train your body so it's strong enough to hold the above position). Hold this suctioned back position for five seconds. Repeat 10 times.

To increase the difficulty, hold the position while walking with a book on your head or practice the motion on hands and knees. Have someone lay a foam roller lengthwise along your spine or imagine a dowel jutting from your upper back into the air above your head. Suction your teeth back in space while lengthening through your head so your skull touches the foam roller or imaginary dowel (i.e., proper head positioning). Keep this alignment and extend your opposite arm and leg.

3. At the gym strengthen your upper back (for example with rows), stretch your chest (lie lengthwise on a foam roller with arms out to the side) and be constantly cognizant of your head position (while lunging, squatting, running, etc).

4. Sit less. Aim to accumulate 10,000 steps daily. The more you move, the less you sit.

5. When you have to sit, engage your core, sit equally on both sit bones – if your legs are crossed, uncross them – sit tall and "orient your head backward."

6. Ensure your work space is ergonomically appropriate and check your hearing and eyesight. It is difficult to improve posture if your computer is off-centre (your new "normal" becomes rotated), your eyesight is compromised (your head moves forward to see) or your hearing has decreased (you rotates toward sounds to aid hearing).

7. If possible, get regular massages.

8. Once you've addressed head position, incorporate gentle neck stretching and mobilization exercises. For example, lie lengthwise on a roller. Extend one arm backward as you gently rotate your head in the opposite direction. Alternate arms for 10 reps.

Be patient, yet persistent. Postural habits take years to develop; they won't be reversed in a day. Don't compartmentalize alignment to a problem best addressed at the gym. Improving posture requires daily mindfulness.

Use a colour "mindfulness trigger" to weave awareness into the day. When you notice your colour (actively watch for it), check if your ears, shoulders and hips are stacked over top of each other. If your body is not aligned, grow tall and orient your head.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.