The Smart Lifter’s Neck Training Program

No More Pencil Neck

Categorized under Bigger Stronger Leaner

This training plan can be done without any special equipment. It’s a twice-weekly program beginning with isolated neck exercises followed by more integrated exercises.

The goal? To build a strong, muscular neck. You’ll “thicken the cylinder” and improve resilience.

First, we’ll go over the exercises, and then I’ll lay out the program.

The Exercises

Banded Neck Protraction

Protraction is a combo of upper neck extension and mid/low neck flexion. This funny-looking exercise targets the sternocleidomastoid muscles (among others), which cut diagonally up and back from your upper chest and collarbones to the back of your skull.

Your forehead stays perpendicular to the band, which minimizes shearing or sliding of the band.

  1. Anchor a resistance band under a bench. Start with a thin, light band before moving on.
  2. Place a foam pad on the bench with the top edge aligned with your upper back to increase the effective range of motion. Wrap the band around your forehead with a folded towel for comfort.
  3. Begin in full neck retraction – tuck your chin or make a double chin. Placing your fingers just above your sternum allows you to feel the sternocleidomastoid contraction and reminds you to localize the movement to the neck.
  4. Drive your chin toward the ceiling as you fully lift your head and neck off the bench.
  5. Lower with control back to the starting position.

Banded Neck Retraction

Retraction is a combination of upper neck flexion (think double chin or chin tuck) and mid/low cervical extension. I recommend this seated version. The upper-back support localizes the movement to the neck.

You’re 40-50 percent stronger in retraction than protraction. Using a significantly thicker band (with less stretch applied to it) is more comfortable.

  1. Sit on a chair or bench. Sink into it so your upper back is supported. Loop the band behind your head.
  2. Begin with your chin jutted forward with your mid and lower neck flexed. Place tension on the band by holding it in front of your face at forehead level. Keep a firm grip (or you’ll take your eye out, kid).
  3. Pull the back of your head into the band as far as you can. Focus on keeping height through your neck and translating your head backward with your jawline parallel to the ground.
  4. Reverse the action and control back to the starting position.

Gittleson Shrug

  1. Sit vertically on a bench with a wide stance. Grab a weight at your side. With your non-working arm, reach back and grasp the underside of the bench. Stabilize by pulling your non-working shoulder girdle downward.
  2. Shrug the weight. But when you think you’re at the top of the rep, you probably aren’t. Keep elevating the shoulder. Pause briefly at peak contraction.
  3. Lower the weight with control.

Credit to Coach Mike Gittleson for this upper trap exercise. Traditional shrugs are done by bringing the shoulder up toward the ear, but this requires a larger range of motion.

Done correctly, this shrug allows for a small amount of neck movement. This occurs naturally with a strong contraction of the upper traps. Just don’t cut the rep short. Don’t intentionally move your neck; just focus on lifting the weight as high as possible and simply allow your neck to move.

Start with two-thirds of the weight you’d typically shrug for moderate reps (8-12) with one arm. Or, if you normally shrug 150 percent bodyweight with a traditional barbell (both arms), start with 50 percent of your bodyweight in one hand. A dumbbell works well, but a heavy kettlebell works best.

Seated Landmine Shrug

Traditional shrugs target the upper trapezius and levator scapula. Both attach to the cervical spine. One study showed that the unilateral shrug was superior to nine common exercises for increasing muscle activity in the upper traps. This is a simple alternative to the seated shrug machine.

(If you don’t have straps, holding the thick sleeve of an Olympic barbell builds serious grip strength.

  1. Place a bench in front of a landmine setup. Sit on the bench, grab the sleeve of the barbell, and reach behind your body with the other arm to grab the edge of the bench.
  2. Allow the weight of the bar to depress your shoulder girdle.
  3. While facing ahead with the elbow straight, elevate your shoulder girdle.
  4. Control the weight back down.

Bench Neck Extension Bridge

The major problem with traditional floor-based neck bridges is decreased load on the target muscles at the top and bottom positions. Plus, floor bridges are just uncomfortable.

  1. Sit perpendicular to a bench with your back toward it.
  2. Place the back of your head on the bench and bridge your hips. Your knees should be over your ankles. The easiest variation involves placing your hands beside your head on the bench and assisting with your arms. The arms-at-sides position (shown) is an advanced progression. See the entire progression sequence in the program outline.
  3. Drive the back of your head into the bench pad to initiate bridging. Continue to extend your neck and arch your back until your hips are higher than your knees and your gaze is directed behind you.
  4. Reverse the movement by allowing your hips to drop toward the floor as your neck flexes. Keep the same distance between your chin and sternum throughout the movement. Your gaze should be over your knees.
  5. Stop and reverse the movement when it feels like your head is losing purchase on the bench.

Bench Neck Flexion Bridge

Although it might take a few sets to get used to it, this can be a comfortable way to load the front of the neck and the entire anterior core.

  1. Kneel facing the long side of a bench.
  2. Place your forehead on the bench. Place your forearms on the bench on both sides of your head. Raise your knees from the floor and bear weight only through the forefoot, forehead, and forearms (minimally). Begin in a position of neck extension by allowing your chest to drop as close to the floor as possible.
  3. Press your forehead into the bench and pull your chin toward your chest. Drive your mid-back toward the ceiling. Your entire torso should raise, driven by your neck.
  4. Return to the starting position by allowing your neck to extend (chin moves away from chest).

Hang Power Shrug

This adds hip drive to the traditional standing barbell shrug, allowing you to overload the shrug.

Once you learn the technique, your working sets should be heavier than you can shrug with strict form. Since you’re not specifically using this shrug to improve the Olympic lifts, feel free to use a trap bar, which eliminates the body drag of a traditional barbell. Use straps if needed.

  1. Hold your trap bar handles or barbell. If using a traditional barbell, take an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Stand upright by deadlifting the bar off the ground.
  3. Get in the “hang” position and create a small countermovement by pushing your hips back, allowing the bar to lower several inches. Immediately drive the hips into extension as if you’re attempting to jump.
  4. Transfer this momentum into the bar and shrug. Squeeze and hold momentarily at the top position. This isn’t a high pull, and if the weight is heavy enough, there should be very little bending of the elbows.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position with control.

Eccentric or Starr Shrug

It’s been attributed to legendary coach Bill Starr. This shrug trains the negative/lowering phase of the exercise. Heavy negatives create a potent stimulus for strength and hypertrophy. To get the full benefit, lift heavier than a traditional barbell shrug.

Once you get the mechanics down, you should be able to load this 40-50 percent heavier than traditional barbell shrugs. Grip shouldn’t be the limiting factor, so use straps.

  1. Set the bar on the spotter arms or pins of a power rack. If you stand tall at the bar and reach down, the bar should be at fingertip height.
  2. Brace your trunk and set your hips back far enough to allow you to grab the bar just outside of thigh-width.
  3. Shrug your shoulders up and slightly back by pulling your body deeper under the bar. Hold your shoulders in this elevated position as you stand tall.
  4. Lower the barbell back to the rack/pins by slowly allowing your shoulders to depress.

The Program

Lifters Neck Program Table

Do we need to periodize neck training? Probably not. But since it’s a region of the body many don’t train, some long-term planning is useful.

Train your neck twice weekly on non-consecutive days. Intensity (resistance/load) should be higher in your second session than in your first. Take all exercises close to technical failure.

Once you can complete the prescribed volume without reaching this high level of effort for two sessions in a row, it’s time to progress intensity.

  • Increase the intensity of the banded exercises by moving to a thicker band or by positioning so that more stretch is placed on the band.
  • Increase the intensity of the shrugs with heavier weight.
  • Increase the intensity of the bridges by first modifying the amount of assistance provided through your arms. Then, when you’re strong enough to bridge without your arms, progress by moving your arms from overhead to across your chest to your sides.

Do YOU Need This Program?

You’re probably thinking, “I push, pull, deadlift, squat, and shrug. My neck is plenty strong from these exercises.” Unfortunately, you’re likely wrong.

The fact is, traditional compound exercises on their own aren’t terribly effective for increasing neck strength and size (6). Adding direct neck training is the best practice.

The neck is a major area of disability. From cervicalgia (“neck pain”) to whiplash, I’ve seen enough neck problems to say with confidence that the neck is worth attending to.

My Pencil-Neck Story

I’m a recovering “pencil neck.” I’d battled an ectomorphic genotype my entire life and figured that the neck was something that couldn’t change.

Then I met Coach Mike Gittleson, whose shrug is listed above. He got me thinking, “Why don’t I train the muscles of my neck just like I train the muscles of my legs, arms, and back?” I immediately began doing direct neck training within my workouts twice per week.

Fast forward to 2020. I was hit by a vehicle traveling at highway speeds. After the airbag dust settled, I was surprised to have suffered no injury – not even a neck ache. I attribute this to my regular neck training.

Here’s a deeper dive if you want to geek out and understand why the program above works so well.

The Nerdy Stuff: Anatomy and Biomechanics

The neck (or cervical region) is made up of seven vertebrae, their intervertebral disc joints, and many specialized synovial joints.

All the neuro-vasculature servicing the brain and entire body travels through this region. Additionally, specialized glands and organs are housed here. Muscles of the neck are rich in proprioceptors, which are sensory structures that inform balance, coordination, and orientation of sensory organs and orifices of the head. There’s a lot going on here.

Traditional strength training principles can be applied if you have a little anatomy knowledge, just like any body part. The action of a muscle is determined by the relationship between its “line of pull” and the joint(s) it crosses.

Muscles crossing in front of the neck joints will flex the neck with concentric contraction; muscles crossing behind the neck will extend the neck with concentric contraction.

Nearly all neck muscles have a line of pull either in front of or behind the joints of the cervical spine. This means that we can train virtually all muscles of the neck with combinations of resisted flexion or resisted neck extension.

Neck

Can certain muscles be more effectively trained with resisted side-bending or even resisted rotation? Certainly, but I recommend flexion/extension-based exercises for the average lifter who doesn’t engage in contact sports.

The program above emphasizes protraction and retraction, which are neck movement patterns that combine flexion of part of the neck with extension of another part. Performing protraction maintains the moment arm of the resistance, ensuring the exercises don’t become “too easy” at end-range.

Additionally, resistance from the elastic band is applied perpendicularly to the part of your head in contact with the band, which minimizes sliding. So these protraction and retraction exercises are more effective and more comfortable than traditional, pure flexion and pure extension exercises.

Notable neck muscles include the upper trapezius and sternocleidomastoid. These muscles are superficial. They reside toward the surface of the neck. So they have disproportionate effects on overall neck strength and appearance.

The upper trapezius connects the shoulder girdle to the back of the neck and skull. It’s a primary muscle of neck extension (tilting the head back). The upper trapezius has more leverage than any other neck muscle for extending the neck. So, we efficiently train it using neck extension exercises and traditional scapula exercises, like shrugs.

Sternocleidomastoid courses from the collar bone and sternum up to the part of the skull behind your ear called the mastoid process. The sternocleidomastoid is the primary muscle of neck protraction. Since the sternocleidomastoid has more leverage than any other muscle for flexing the middle and lower parts of the neck, you train it most efficiently with the neck protraction exercise.