Exploring The Suboccipital Muscles

April 19, 2022
Exploring The Suboccipital Muscles

Even if you’ve never heard of this group of muscles, it’s likely you already have a relationship with the suboccipital muscles. The suboccipitals are a group of four pairs of muscles that attach at or near the base of our skull. If you’ve ever had a tension headache, then you’re probably familiar with these muscles. This group of muscles is usually included in the forward head pattern that is part of upper crossed syndrome.

These muscles can also be short and tight, as well as a location for trigger points, just from all of the time we spend with our head in the position for looking at a smartphone and a computer screen. When our head juts forward, our eyes want to maintain a horizontal position. These small muscles tilt your head back to maintain this by shortening the distance between the occiput and the top cervical vertebrae. And that can create neck pain.

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The four pairs of muscles in this group include:

  • Rectus capitis posterior major
  • Rectus capitis posterior minor
  • Obliquus capitis inferior
  • Obliquus capitis superior

What does the name suboccipital muscles mean?

The name of this group of muscles refers to its location. The prefix “sub” means below. And, the word “occipital” refers to the occiput or occipital bone which is the base of our skull. So, you can understand from the name that the suboccipital muscles all attach under the base of our skull.

Where do these muscles attach?

Each of the suboccipital muscles really refers to a pair of muscles. Each muscle of a single pair attaches on either side of the cervical spine in our neck. Generally, the suboccipital muscles all attach below the base of the skull. Three of the four have one attachment, considered to be their insertion, onto the occiput itself. Let’s take a look at their specific attachments below.


The rectus capitis posterior major and obliquus capitis inferior originate on C2. The rectus capitis posterior minor and the obliquus capitis superior both originate from C1.


The rectus capitis posterior major, rectus capitis posterior minor, and obliquus capitis superior, all insert onto the occipital bone. The obliquus capitis inferior inserts onto the transverse processes of C1.

Suboccipital Muscles

What actions do the suboccipital muscles do?

Most generally, the function of these muscles is to simply maintain our head in a neutral position. That is, they help the head stay placed on our neck. But, they do also contribute to specific actions. Three of the four muscle pairs (all except obliquus capitis inferior) assist with extension of the neck. Three of the four muscle pairs (all except obliquus capitis superior) also assist with rotation of the head to the same side. Obliquus capitis superior also assists with lateral flexion of the head and neck.

Poses where these muscles contract

The Neck In Utkatasana

These muscles contract when we lift our head to look up. So, the suboccipital muscles would contract in poses like utkatasana or warrior one.

Poses where these muscles are lengthened

Downward Facing Dog

We lengthen these muscles when we flex our neck or look down. So, we’d lengthen the suboccipital muscles in poses where our gaze is down like downward facing dog.

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