Building a Strong Neck
How many athletes do you know that train their necks directly?
No, we're not talking about stimulating the neck muscles through power cleans or heavy deadlifts, and we're certainly not referring to a few sets of half-assed shrugs thrown in at the end of a back or shoulder workout.
Proper, direct neck training is about as rare as perfect full squats at Planet Fitness, and it's not just the novices or weekend warriors that are missing the boat. Even very experienced trainers will skip neck training because they deem it scary, unnecessary, or just not worth the effort, and as such the neck goes unnoticed.
That is, until you suffer a neck injury.
Experienced or otherwise, trainees need to start paying the complex musculature of the neck the respect it deserves. The neck region consists of over a dozen intricate muscles feathered on top of each other, all working in symphony to ensure proper head movement and stabilization, as well as assist in activities involving shoulder movement and respiration.
Best of all, from an aesthetic perspective, a solid, strong neck provides the finishing touch to a powerful physique.
Truth is, if you aren't training your neck, you're missing out. This article will show you the safest, most effective way to go about doing it.
But first, a quick, hopefully not-too-boring anatomy refresher. If you don't give a damn about the anatomy of the neck, go ahead and skip to the section that begins, "Pencil Neck = Weak Neck," but do so with great shame over being such a lazy SOB, please.
The most commonly known and subsequently trained muscle among the neck region is the trapezius. The trapezius originates in the spinous processes of the external occipital protuberance and the ligamentum nuchae, and has three points of insertion: upper (lateral clavicle, acromion), middle (spine of scapula), and lower (root spine of scapula) each involving a separate, yet interrelated muscle action.
Movement of the upper trapezius involves elevation and upward rotation of the scapula, whereas scapular retraction and depression are the resulting actions of the middle and lower trapezius, respectively.
Primarily responsible for the lateral flexion of the cervical spine and secondarily serving as a muscle of respiration, the scalenes, similar to the trapezius, are composed of three aspects: anterior, medius, and posterior.(1)
The scalenus anterior originates from the anterior tubercles of the transverse process and inserts into the scalene tubercle on the inner border of the first rib, assisting in the elevation of the first rib during inspiration.
The scalenus medius originates from the transverse process of the atlas and posterior tubercles of the transverse processes of the cervical vertebrae and inserts into the surface of the first rib. It also assists with the elevation of the first rib, along with laterally flexing and rotating the cervical spine.
Lastly, the scalenus posterior, which originates from the posterior tubercles of the transverse processes of the lower cervical vertebra inserting into the outer surface of the first rib also assists with inspiration and lateral flexion of the cervical spine.
The splenius group consists of two muscles, the splenius capitis and splenius cervicis. The splenius capitis originates in the spinous process of the first three thoracic verterbra, inserting laterally between the superior and inferior nuchal lines.
Its counterpart, the splenius cervicis, originates on the spinous process of the next three thoracic verterbra inserting into the posterior tubercles of the transverse process of the middle of the cervical spine. Individually, the muscles rotate the head and neck to the side of the contraction, whereas they work in conjunction to extend the head and neck.
The levator scapulae originates in the transverse processes of the cervical spine and inserts into the superior angle of the scapula towards the spine of the scapula. Its primary function is elevating the scapula when the neck is stabilized, and when the scapula is stable, it assists in neck rotation.
The sternocleidomastoid is composed of two heads, the sternal head, which originates from the upper part of the anterior surface of the manubrium sterni and ascends posterlaterrally, and the head, which originates from the superior surface of the medial third of the clavicle, ascending almost vertically.(2)
Both heads share an attachment on the mastoid process of the temporal bone of the cranium. Acting alone, the sternocleidomastoid rotates the head to the opposite side and tilts the head up. Together, the muscles flex the head and neck and pull them forward.
Note: As stated earlier, the trapezius, scaleni, and sternocleidomastoids are also respiratory muscles and in conjunction with their movement functions, are essential in both sport and everyday life.(1,3)
Got all that? No? Well, that's okay.
Pencil Neck = Weak Neck?
While we're all familiar with the term 'pencil-neck' and how it correlates with being weak and wimpy, we really don't care about the size of our necks...unless of course, its circumference is so great that it requires custom tailored shirts and/or exacerbates sleep apnea.(4)
An explanation some experienced bodybuilders will offer to justify avoiding direct training pertains to aesthetics, namely because they have larger waists or narrow clavicles and a sleeker neck makes their V taper appear more pronounced. However, that reasoning doesn't apply to competitive sports, specifically combat or contact sports.
Recent research showed that neck strength determines head deltaV (the speed change that the head is exposed to as a result of a impact) and head injury criterion, which makes neck training a worthy consideration in helping prevent concussions.(5)
Consider that American football has the highest incidence of head and neck injury at 40 per 1000 athletic exposures, equating to 0.41 concussions per NFL game.(6) Machine-based neck training has been shown to increase isometric cervical neck strength (7,8) and neck training has also been proven to improve the quality of life of women suffering chronic neck pain.(9)
Neck Bridging – Yay or Nay?
Often used by wrestlers, mixed martial artists, and other combat athletes, neck bridging has stirred quite a controversy throughout the years. Athletes and coaches question its effectiveness and safety, speculating injury caused by the compressive forces placed upon the cervical spine during the hold.
If performed safely following thorough instruction and under subsequent supervision of a qualified coach or trainer, one can reap the benefits of the exercise.
However, neck bridging is not appropriate for some populations, including those who have a history of back and neck injuries. One must also take into account the fragility of the cervical spine. Under these circumstances, coaches and trainers should seek safer alternatives.
Here's a video of a Neck Bridge:
Now that you can identify the muscles of the neck, know their function, and have some scientific rationale, let's examine neck training from a practical perspective.
- In order to properly activate the neck musculature and have the cervical spine move through full ranges of motion, we have to first train the neck to move through full ranges of motion.
Unless injured, following a simple protocol of active-isolated and static stretches will suffice to increase and maintain healthy movement in the cervical spine. Once range of motion is restored, teaching the neck to stabilize the cervical spine becomes the priority.
- Stability, along with strength, allows the neck to absorb impacts imposed upon the body and head while limiting the damaging effects to the cervical spine and risk of concussion. Using partial range of motion exercises that incorporate a static hold and quadruped stabilization exercises, we can effectively achieve stability at the cervical spine.
- Finally, we make the neck strong using big ranges of motion and varying rep schemes. The varying rep schemes (high and low) are going to build the muscles of the neck and add density, while the big ranges of motion ensure mobility at the cervical spine.
The Program By The Numbers
Let's get to it! The range of motion and stabilization training is to be done with your dynamic warm up before training, while strength work will be done at the end of a resistance training session starting with two days per week and progressing to four.
Mobility and Range of motion training:
Upper Trap Stretch: 2 x 15-20 seconds. See video below.
Active-Isolated Stretching: all done for 6-10 reps with 2 second holds at the end of the range of motion (descriptions of these movements are included below in the "Exercise Explanations and Rationale" section).
- Chin Tucks
- Chin Lifts
- Ear to Shoulder (left and right)
- Chin turns (left and right)
- Chin turn and tuck (left and right)
- Chin turn and lift (left and right)
Band Look Aways: 2 x 10 (left and right). See video below.
Band Neck Activation: 2 x 6-10 with 2 second hold. See video below.
Manual resistance progressing into Medball and finally into Swissball
- 2 x 10 seconds- working up to 3 x 20 seconds. When 20 seconds of stability is achieved, progress to the next level of the exercise (i.e. manual to Medball)
See videos below for demonstrations.
Neck Extension, 1 x 15, progressing to 3 x 25
Neck Flexion, 1 x 15, progressing to 3 x 25
Neck Lateral Flexion (each way), 1 x 15, progressing to 3 x 25
Neck Extension, 1 x 10, progressing to 3 x 6-8
Neck Flexion, 1 x 10, progressing to 3 x 6-8
Neck Lateral Flexion (each way), 1 x 10, progressing to 3 x 6-8
See videos below for these three movements.
Exercise Explanations and Rationale
During the first two weeks of this program, you'll begin with just the range of motion and stabilization training, unless you've already been training your neck. Doing so allows the body to adapt to neck training without the added stress of weight resistance, thus preparing it for the strength aspect of the program.
Active-isolated stretching restores length to the muscles, activates them in the proper working order, and increases the range of motion in preparation for resistance.
- Chin tucks are nothing more than tucking your chin to your chest (with your mouth closed) and holding it for two seconds, then repeating for the allotted reps.
- During a chin turn, you'll turn your chin toward your shoulder, hold for two seconds and release. While doing the turn and lift or turn and tuck, you'll turn your head either left or right and either lift or tuck your chin. The stretches are as simple as that.
- Your posture should be erect while completing the exercises.
- Band Look-Aways increase rotational range of motion and provide a bridge in progressing from range of motion training to resistance training. As demonstrated in the preceding video, loop a mini-band around your forehead and stretch the band in the opposite way you'll be turning your head. Keep the motion smooth and don't rush through the reps.
- The stabilization aspect of the program is designed to train the neck to take the shock of impact. The band activation exercise should be set so that the mini-band is attached about three feet away from the body, at around knee level.
The thoracic and lumbar spine must be held neutral throughout the entire exercise while the cervical spine is allowed to protrude before being pulled back into the neutral position by the cervical extensors.
- The quadruped stabilization exercises are designed to replicate impact to the head and body. The goal for these exercises is to allow as little movement as possible when the external force is applied to the head.
Starting with manual resistance allows for a more stable and predictable environment due to the fact that both hands are planted on the floor and the pressure applied to the head can be better regulated.
Working from 10 seconds up to 20 seconds for the exercises gives a general marker of proficiency, nothing more. Starting with two sets and progressing to three builds training volume to allow for adaptation. When progressing from one exercise to the next, reduce the volume back down to 2 x 10 from 3 x 20. Always hold all parts of the spine neutral while completing these exercises.
- All strength exercises for this program were done on an incline bench with a free-weight plate. If you have a neck harness to use for extensions, by all means use it.
- As Jim Wendler frequently says, start with a weight that's probably too light for these movements; it will ensure that you're doing them properly and leave plenty of room for progression.
- For Day 1 of the program, start with a weight that is relatively easy for 1 x 15 and work with that same weight until you can do 3 x 15 easily with that weight.
Once you've accomplished this, recycle that same weight and start with 1 x 20 and progress into 3 x 20 and so on until you've worked up to doing 3 x 25 with that weight.?At this point, move up slightly in weight and start the cycle over again.??
- During Day 2 of the program, progress in the opposite direction and increase intensity rather than volume.?This will help to build density in the neck while we hypertrophy the cervical muscles with the higher volume on Day 1.
To begin, pick a weight that is challenging, but not extremely hard for 1 x 10. Work with this weight until 3 x 10 is easy. Move on by increasing to a weight that's challenging for 1 x 8 and progress up to 3 x 8 with that weight.
Continue this cycle until you've worked up to 3 x 6 with a challenging weight. At this point, start the cycle over with a more challenging weight for 1 x 10.?
Note: The weight you choose for neck extensions and neck flexion may be slightly more than what you use for the neck lateral flexion. Also, keep in mind that while the demonstrations featured in the videos above are examples of how to train the neck, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Use Your Head to Train Your Neck
Neck training needs to be an integral part of your program, whether you're an athlete or not. It's important for reducing the risk of concussion, protecting your spine, and ensuring that you can hold your head up when everyone else is staring at the ground. Because in life, as in sports, you have to keep your head held high and you can't hit what you can't see.
A special thanks goes out to Wesley Showalter and Justin Assadinia of the Penn State Rugby team for demonstrating the exercises featured in the videos in this article.
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2. Ramesh RT, Vishnumaya G, Prakashchandra SK. Variation in the origin of sternocleidomastoid muscle. A case report. Int J Morphol 2007;25(3):621-623.
3. Kendall F, McCreary E, Provance P, Rodgers M, Romai W. Muscles: Testing Function with Posture and Pain, 5th Edition). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams, & Williams; 2005.
4. Davies RJ, Ali NJ, Stradling JR. Neck circumference and other clinical features in the diagnosis of the obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Thorax. 1992;47:101-105.
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