The average human head weighs eight pounds. When you think about it like that, your neck, which is what supports and rotates your head, is pretty darn strong. And just like any muscle — well, the neck is technically made up of many muscles — you can train it to be even stronger and more mobile.
Direct neck training can provide a great finishing touch to a powerful physique and helps support good head position and better posture. To help you sieve through the best neck exercises available we dive deep into the benefits of neck training, how your neck muscles function, and provide a list of the five best neck exercises.
Best Neck Exercises
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Shrugs are a fantastic exercise for indirectly training the neck and directly training the upper traps. There are a lot of shrug variations, all of which are easy to perform. You simply hold a weight of some sort (be it a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell) and shrug your shoulders. The shrug target the traps, in particular. That is the flat triangular muscle that sits on your upper back which is responsible for the extension of the neck. When most lifters refer to a bigger neck, it’s usually this muscle they’re talking about.
Benefits of the Shrug
- Builds strong and muscular upper traps.
- Those stronger upper traps help support the head and good posture.
- It’s a simple move that can be easily regressed and progressed for lifters of all experience levels.
How to Do the Shrug
Hold a dumbbell (or kettlebell or weight plate) in both hands, lean forward slightly, and tuck your chin. Brace your core and raise your shoulders towards your ears. Pause for a second and slowly lower your shoulders back down. Reset and repeat for reps of six to 12 for strength and mass or reps between 12 to 25 for muscular endurance.
These are an advanced version of the supine neck bridges, which are either performed on the ground or a workout bench. If you’re new to this exercise do either of those first. However, when you’re ready to graduate, try the same movement on a stability ball. By doing so, you’ll force the smaller stablizing muscles in you neck to fire on all cylinders as you hold a bridge position. Also, you’ll train the entire posterior chain as the glutes and spinal erectors are needed to maintain the bridge position.
Benefits of Stability of the Ball Neck Bridge
- Trains the entire posterior chain as well as strengthens the neck in flexion and extension.
- The instability of the ball helps build more muscle and strength to the neck area.
How to Do the Stability Ball Neck Bridge
Sit on a stability ball and walk your feet out until the back of your head is on the ball and engage your glutes to keep your spine in a neutral position. With your chin tucked, roll head back until the back of your head is on the ball and neck is in extension. Pause and bring back your chin to your chest and repeat for 15-20 reps.
This is a more passive exercise that has you support your neck on a stability ball while a partner lightly taps it to create instability. Your job is to maintain a neutral head position which will require your smaller stabilizer muscles in your neck to engage. This is a similar exercise to the neck bridge above, but you’ll be facing belly down, so working more of the extensor muscles, like you traps.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Neck Stabilization
- Recruits more stabilizer muscles in your neck through the isometric hold.
How to Do the Stability Ball Neck Stabilization
Get on your hands, knees, and toes. Place your forehead on the stability ball with your spine in neutral. Have your partner gently knock the stability ball in any direction they please while you try to resist the movement of the ball. Perform three sets for 30-60 seconds.
Neck extension is the movement when your neck is bent backward. Performing this movement against gravity, by way of weight weight, strengthens the posterior neck muscles. This is an effective strengthening exercise for posterior neck muscles and is relatively simple to perform. But don’t go crazy with load — a low weight with higher reps makes this exercise more effective and safer.
Benefits of the Weighted Neck Extension
- Strengthens the head and neck against.
- Helps undo some of the damage of near-constant forward head posture.
- Easy to perform and requires only minimal equipment.
How to Do the Weighted Neck Extension
Lie face down on the weight bench with your head off the end and folded towel and weight plate on the floor. Pick up the towel and weight plate with both hands with the towel placed between your head and the plate. Move your head up by hyperextending neck up in a pain-free range of motion. Pause for a second and slowly lower by bending neck down until then chin touches your upper chest. Repeat for reps of 15-20.
The other major ROM our neck engages in is side-to-side movement. So, it makes sense to train your neck in a rotational patterns. Enter the band look away, which has you turn your neck to one side against a resistance band that is anchored to a power rack or held by your hand. Strengthening and improving the rotational range of motion of your neck is also important if you’re an athlete that needs to see the whole field or you need to get out of the way of a ball or fist in a hurry.
Benefits of the Band Look Away
- Strengthens and improves rotational range of motion of the head and neck.
- Helps to reduce the tightness and stiffness of your neck muscles.
- Strengthens and stretches your upper traps.
How to Do the Band Look Away
Loop a resistance band around your forehead and hold it in your left hand and pull gently until you feel the resistance. Rotate your head to the right with your head following your eyes as far as you can in a pain-free range of motion. Slowly return to your eyes looking straight ahead and repeat for reps of 12-15 on each side.
All About the Neck
The many muscles in the neck perform important tasks like movement and stabilization of the head, chewing, swallowing, speech, and facial expressions. This area requires some of the finest, and delicate adjustments in the human body. Just ask a baseball player how he avoids a fastball to the head.
Aesthetically, a bigger neck helps a lifter to look strong. Look up elite lifters like Dmitry Klokov, Lu Xiaojun, and Dan Bell, and you’ll notice that all of them have some pretty beefy necks. Coincidence? No way. To support heavy loads overhead and on one’s back requires a strong base, and your neck is a part of that base. Training the neck muscles also helps support good head position, which can help in counteracting the constant slouched head position many folks have become accustom to.
Anatomy of the Neck
Your neck contains multiple muscles and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger neck. Here’s a breakdown of the major neck muscles.
Trapezius Superficial layer
The trapezius is a large, flat, triangular muscle that extends over the back of the neck. The trapezius originates from the external occipital protuberance (back of the skull parallel to the upper jaw) and the ligamentum nuchae and it has upper, middle, and lower insertion points. It allows for lateral flexion and contralateral rotation of the head when acting unilaterally, and extension of the head when acting bilaterally.
This is a large two-headed muscle on each side of the neck. One head originates from the medial third of the clavicle, while the other originates from the manubrium of sternum and inserts onto the mastoid process of the temporal bone. Its movements include unilateral lateral flexion of the neck on the same muscle side and lateral rotation of the head on the opposite muscle side. When both sides contract it assists in neck flexion.
These are three paired muscles located on the anterior, middle, and posterior of the lateral neck. These originate from the vertebrae C3-C6 and insert onto the scalene tubercle and superior border of the first rib. These act as accessory muscles for breathing and perform movements of the head in all directions.
Splenius is two muscles, the splenius capitis and splenius cervicis. The splenius capitis originates from the first three thoracic vertebra, inserting laterally between the superior and inferior nuchal lines located on the back of the skull. Splenius cervicis originates from the same place but inserts on the middle of the cervical spine. Separately they work to rotate the head and together they assist to extend the head and neck.
Is a long slender superficial muscle on each side laterally on the neck. This originates from the C1-C4 of the cervical spine and inserts on the medial border of the scapula. The movements of this muscle include elevation and retraction of the scapula and extends and laterally flexes the neck.
The Benefits of Training Your Neck
There’s no doubt a strong and muscular neck gives you an imposing-looking body but provides a stable base for your barbell squats and for movements such as overhead squats and presses. Here are a few other benefits of neck training.
Improved Neck Flexibility
These five neck exercises when done with good form and a full range of motion can help you to release neck tension, tightness, stiffness and help improve flexibility.
The anterior, medial, and posterior scalene muscles and sternocleidomastoid muscles contract and relax to assist in breathing which becomes more important during high-intensity exercise.
This is the muscle group that supports your head and what’s in it. Collision athletes such as football players, boxers, and martial artists need to train their necks to lower the risk of concussion, which is why a lot of NFL athletes work the neck. A stronger neck usually equates to a lower risk of injury. (1)
More Neck Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best neck exercises to strengthen your neck you can also check out these other helpful neck training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- The effects of vision training, neck musculature strength, and reaction time on concussions in an athletic population. Justin Honda,1 Seung Ho Chang,1 and Kijeong Kim2,*
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