At the end of this story, you can preview our Spotify playlist of avian-themed retro jams to help you workout before you bird out.
Picture this: a wood in full bloom with warblers flitting through the canopy branches. Suddenly, birders in neon spandex suits pop up beneath the trees. A cheesy ‘80s backing track starts playing as they jump up and down in unison, pumping their binoculars overhead like weights.
This birding aerobics video is tragically not real—but it turns out avian appreciators could benefit from a little time in the gym. Neck pain, known colloquially as “warbler neck,” is the Achilles heel of the sport. And birders aren’t alone: Some 17 percent of women and 12 percent of men in the United States are thought to experience this injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A possible solution? Exercise, as recommended by the orthopedic section of the American Physical Therapists Association's website. Yup, believe it or not, core strength, along with proper posture, could help you stave off warbler neck this birding season. So cue up the spandex and ABBA hits, because we’re about to get moving.
Part 1: Exercises
You can think of warbler neck as a classic overuse injury. The pain sets in when the tissues in your neck become “overwhelmed” from holding your head back at 90-degree angle, says Robert Gillanders, a physical therapist with Point Performance Therapy in the Washington, D.C area. “Going all in after a period of not doing it at all . . . that’s probably the biggest pitfall for most people in terms of overuse,” he notes, referring to individuals who bird every spring morning, after hibernating all winter.
If your muscles are strong, though, they can sustain long periods of activity without getting fatigued. Avid birders, Gillanders says, should target the deep neck flexor muscles that support the head, the shoulder muscles, and core muscles in the lower back, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and abdominals.
Fortunately, you don’t need to sustain ‘80s-aerobics levels of enthusiasm to build this strength. Audubon asked Gillanders to recommend six simple, low-key exercises that can be done just about anywhere. (Watch the video above as you read along.)
Reps: 2-3x a week, 2 sets of 10
Start on your back, looking straight up with your head on the mat. Lift your legs until your thighs are perpendicular to the ground; keep your knees bent at 90 degrees. Lift your arms off the ground as well and hold them straight in front of your chest, palms facing each other. Then, lower one arm and the opposite leg to the ground at the same time. Bring the arm and leg back up, and repeat the motion with the other arm and leg.
For someone worried about neck pain, Gillanders prefers this ab-strengthening exercise over a traditional crunch. During crunches, your spine curves into a “C,” the same posture many of us adopt while we hunch over our phones or computers. This habitual shape strains the neck, so Gillanders advises against revisiting it.
Reps: 2-3x a week, 2 sets of 10 + 2 holds
Start on your hands and knees with your arms directly below your shoulders. Then, reach out with one arm and the opposite leg until both are parallel to the floor. Hold this pose briefly, then lower your arm and leg back to the mat. Repeat on the other side. Keep your abs tight, hips level, and look straight down at the mat so your neck also stays flat. This exercise works your abs as you work to maintain your balance, works your shoulders as you lift your arms, and works the muscles in the back of your neck as you resist gravity.
Reps: 2-3x a week, 2 sets of 10 + 2 holds
Position the resistance band in front of you at chest height and hold one end in each hand with arms almost straight out in front of you. Stand with your feet staggered and back straight. With your palms facing inward, pull your arms back with your elbows tucked at your sides. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together against the resistance of the band. Extend your arms back to the starting position and repeat. The shoulder muscles targeted in this exercise are the same ones you use to hold your bins up to your eyes, Gillanders says. It also helps you practice a balanced birding stance.
Chin Tuck 1.0
Reps: 2x a day, 2 sets of 10 + 5 holds
Start on your back with your knees bent, arms at your side. Keeping your head on the ground, tuck your chin as if purposefully creating a double chin. Hold for a few seconds, then relax and repeat. This is a “101-level exercise” that activates the core neck muscles responsible for supporting and stabilizing the head, Gillanders says.
Chin Tuck 2.0
Reps: 2-3x a week, 2 sets of 10 + 5 holds
You can take your chin tuck to the next level by standing up and resting your back and head against a wall. Put your fist under your chin and push up with your hand while tucking down with your chin. Repeat. With the resistance from your hand, your head won’t move much—but that’s the point, Gillanders says: You’re engaging the neck muscle with minimal movement.
Doorway Pectoral Stretch
Reps: 2-3x a week, 2 sets of 30-second holds
Standing upright in the middle of an open doorway, hold your arms out to your sides at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your arms bent, press your forearms against the sides of the doorway. Then take a small step forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds. Make sure you can feel the stretch throughout and try not to hike up your shoulders during the exercise. Based on your exact needs, a physical therapist might vary the angle you hold your arms during this stretch; but the 90-degree angle is a safe place to start.
Part 2: Posture
In addition to these exercises, Gillanders stresses the importance of good form, both before and after birding. If you spend 40 hours a week slumped in a chair, that could seriously contribute to your neck pain. To address the posture problems before you schlep into the field, position the top of your computer monitor at eye level and use a keyboard you can reach without stretching your arms out all the way, Gillanders says.
When you’re out birding, stand with your feet slightly staggered. Brace your body by tightening your abdominal muscles and keeping your tail tucked—this will ensure that your spine stays in a natural S-curve. You can further reduce stress by putting your binocular strap over your shoulder instead of your neck. (A harness, usually around $20, is a good alternative, too.)
If your neck is already sore, try switching positions to reduce strain. You can walk up a ridge and bird from above—or put a mat down and lie on the ground. Either way, the views will be spectacular, and your muscles will be all the happier four seasons-round.