Neck Training 101

A strength coach is faced with an important decision; to train the neck directly or to omit targeted neck training. Many coaches feel that the neck does not need special treatment as they believe that it gets trained sufficiently during heavy compound movements. Others feel that the neck should be trained directly as they believe that failing to do so would “leave room on the table” in terms of neck strength. Some coaches believe that neck strength is overrated, while other coaches feel that neck strength is an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In this article I’m going to teach you some important concepts in neck training which will allow you to make an educated decision as to whether or not you should train the neck.

Neck Motions

The neck can flex, extend, laterally flex, and rotate, just like the rest of the spine. Figure 1 illustrates these joint actions.

Figure 1: Neck Extension and Flexion, Neck Rotation, and Neck Lateral Bending

Neck Muscles

Although functional anatomy knowledge is always helpful, I don’t believe it’s not absolutely necessary to memorize all the different neck muscles as there are a lot of them. Figure 2 depicts the neck musculature.

Figure 2: Muscles of the Neck

It is important, however, to understand which muscles have the best leverage for various motions. Ackland et al. (2011) is the first study to examine muscle moment arms in human neck muscles. Think of muscle moment arms as lever-lengths, and the longer the length the better leverage the muscle has for torque production.

Flexion-Extension

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) has the largest moment arm (best leverage) for neck flexion, while the superior and middle trapezius fibers have the largest moment arms for neck extension. The splenius capitus and semispinalis capitus also display good leverages for neck extension.

Lateral Bending

The muscles with the best leverages for neck lateral flexion are the anterior scalenes and SCM. The middle scalenes and levator scapulae also possess significant lateral bending capacity.

Axial Rotation

The superior and middle trapezius, sternocleidomastoid and semispinalis capitis sub-regions were the greatest contributors to contralateral (opposite side) axial rotation, while the rectus capitis posterior major, obliquus capitis inferior and splenius capitis were the greatest contributors to ipsilateral (same side) axial rotation.

Here’s a direct quote from their paper, which stresses the importance of having strong muscles that produce neck rotation:

Our results demonstrate greater neck muscle torque potential in lateral bending and flexion–extension movements than in axial rotation. Lower capacity of the neck muscles to generate axial rotation torque during vigorous sporting activities may indicate greater vulnerability of the neck to osteoligamentous and muscular damage during forceful axial rotation movements than equivalent flexion–extension and lateral bending movements. As the superior and middle trapezius and sternocleidomastoid had substantial axial rotation torque potential, and are some of the largest neck muscles by cross-sectional area, strengthening of these muscles may significantly enhance active neck rotation torque.

This information is all well and good, but it doesn’t take into account muscle activation. The force produced by a muscle has to do with it’s physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), moment arm (lever length), degree of activation, and passive contributions (if stretched sufficiently). So just because a muscle has good leverage doesn’t mean that it’s the best muscle for the job as the muscle needs to be highly activated as well to produce large amounts of force. In the case of neck extension, for example, I don’t believe that the traps fire very hard. Test it out for yourself right now and perform a 10 second isometric manual neck extension hold and you’ll see for yourself.

Neck Strength

Vasavada et al. (2001) showed that out of the various neck motions, humans are strongest in neck extension, followed by neck lateral bending, followed by neck flexion, followed by neck rotation. Figure 3 will make things easier for you to understand.

 

Figure 3: Isometric Neck Strength in Men and Women

As you can see, men are at least twice as strong as women in neck strength at all motions. These results are greater than those found in other studies, for example a study by Chiu et al. (2002) showed that Chinese men possessed only 20-70% more isometric neck strength than women, and Jordan et al. (199) found that males were only 20-25% stronger in isometric neck strength compared to women, and that this trend reversed at around 70 years of age (women’s strength surpassed men as the men’s strength diminished while the women’s strength was maintained).

Over the years I’ve noticed that strength coaches are biased toward neck extension strength, probably because of the popularity of the neck harnesses. While neck extension strength is important, it is my belief that for many sports the neck should be strong in all directions, such as martial arts, football, rugby, and hockey.

For example, we need eccentric neck flexion strength to absorb neck extension forces as in a left hook to the nose.

Eccentric Neck Flexion Strength

 

We also need eccentric neck flexion strength to absorb collisions in football, which can be downright barbaric at times.

We need eccentric neck lateral flexion strength to absorb strikes from the side, as in a right cross to the left jaw.

 

Eccentric Neck Lateral Flexion Strength

We need full range concentric and eccentric neck extension strength to defend against the Muay Thai clinch.

Concentric Neck Extension Strength

We need eccentric neck rotation strength to absorb strikes to the jaw as in a left hook to the jaw.

Eccentric Neck Rotation Strength

 

Training Studies Literature Review

Strength and Flexibility

Examining 18 male subjects, Maeda et al. (1994) showed that 8 weeks of 3 x 10 eccentric or concentric training significantly increased neck isometric strength (38% in the concentric group and 40% in the eccentric group) and neck girth (4.9% in the concentric group and 5.5% in the eccentric group).

In a study involving 50 subjects, Stump et al. (1993) showed that football players performing targeted neck training 5 times per week saw superior results in terms of neck size, strength, and flexibility compared to football players who simply performed traditional resistance training and practice.

In a study examining 50 men and 28 women over a 12 week period, Pollock et al. (1993) found that isometric neck extension strength increased via both dynamic and dynamic + isometric training, and that training the neck twice per week was superior to training the neck once per week. This study showed that just one set was sufficient for neck strengthening and subjects saw increases from 18-33% of isometric neck extension strength depending on the range of motion tested.

In a study involving 32 subjects, Burnett et al. (2005) showed that 10 weeks of machine neck training was superior to theraband neck training in terms of isometric strength. The machine group saw 65% increases in static neck flexion strength, 63% in static neck extension strength, and 53% and 49% in left and right static lateral flexion strength.  The band group saw gains of 42%, 30%, 27% and 24%, respectively.

Neck Pain

A very large study involving 180 women with chronic neck pain over the course of an entire year showed that a strength training group increased isometric strength significantly (maximal isometric neck strength had improved flexion by 110%, rotation by 76%, and extension by 69%), as did an endurance training group  but not quite as well (the respective improvements in the endurance training group were 28%, 29%, and 16%)  with slight improvements in the control group that just performed aerobics and stretches (10%, 10%, and 7%, respectively). Furthermore, neck range of motion increased as well, showing the largest improvements with the strength training group. Finally, pain and disability decreased as well, showing the best improvements with the strength group. An interesting aspect of this study is that subjects in the strength and endurance groups were performing bodyweight squats, sit ups, and back extensions, in addition to dumbbell shrugs, presses, curls, bent over rows, flies, and pullovers, and of course neck exercises as well (Ylinen et al. 2003).

Hypertrophy

A very interesting study by Conley et al. (1997) split 22 active college students into 3 groups: a resistance training group that performed squats, deadlifts, push presses, bent over rows, and mid-thigh pulls, a resistance training plus neck training group that performed all of the aforementioned exercises in addition to neck extension, and a control group that didn’t train. Subjects trained 3x/week for 12 weeks and then had MRI’s taken and tested out their neck extension strength.

The resistance training group failed to increase their neck extension strength, whereas the resistance training plus neck training group increased neck extension strength by 34%. The resistance training group failed to increase in neck hypertrophy, whereas the resistance training plus neck training group increased in neck muscle cross-sectional area by around 13%, mostly in the splenius capitus (3%), semispinalis capitus (6%), and cervicis muscles (5%).

Anecdotes

I trained some older women at my studio back in the day whose necks would fatigue from simply performing thoracic extensions off the foam roller or front planks. I tested them and found that they could barely perform bodyweight neck flexion and extension. I was not happy with this weakness as I don’t feel that it’s wise to go through life with a weak neck. Within a month I was able to bring their dynamic and isometric neck strength up very rapidly by prescribing just one set of supine neck flexion off a foam roller and one set of prone neck extension from a quadruped position.

My buddy Sam here in Auckland just conducted an experiment and performed dynamic neck exercises (one set each of flexion, extension, and lateral flexion) 3x/week for one month. During this time his neck grew an entire inch.

Practical Applications

  • The neck is strongest in extension, then lateral bending, then flexion, and then rotation. Rotational neck strength is quite weak so it might be valuable to train this action in an isometric or dynamic fashion.
  • Men have much stronger necks than women. Some women are very weak in their necks and could benefit from targeted training until the weakness is strengthened.
  • At around 70 years of age, men’s neck strength declines rapidly and women’s neck strength surpasses men. Older men could benefit from targeted neck training to prevent age-related decreases in neck strength.
  • The neck musculature functions statically and dynamically during sports and requires considerable eccentric power during collision sports.
  • One set of neck exercise twice per week has been shown to dramatically increase neck strength over the course of several months.
  • Neck exercises are not only beneficial for neck strength, but also functional flexibility and neck pain as well.
  • Heavy compound exercise training is inferior to heavy compound exercise training plus targeted neck training for both neck strength and neck hypertrophy purposes. If maximum neck strength and size is desired, then targeted neck training is mandatory.

Conclusion

A case could be made for the inclusion for just about every type of training out there, and it’s up to the strength coach to prioritize qualities and maximize the efficacy of the training session. Neck training is not demaning on the CNS, does not require much volume to see good strength gains. They can easily be integrated into the training session during the warm-up or interspersed between sets of lower or upper body movements. Isometric neck training is probably the safest route of training, but dynamic training probably confers benefits that isometric training doesn’t. One set of manual, towel, band, standing Swiss ball, weighted harness, or partner assisted exercise from the different vectors (flexion, extension, right lateral flexion, left lateral flexion, right rotation, and left rotation – totalling 6 sets) is sufficient. Isoholds can be held for ten seconds, and dynamic sets can be performed for 10 repetitions. Neck training doesn’t need to be performed year round and can simply be included for 3-4 different months out of the year. It is my opinion that targeted neck training for collision sport athletes is a wise idea and should be implemented for maximum neck strength, which could decrease the likelihood of injury and increase performance.

Exercises

Here is a really strong dude performing dynamic neck exercises:

Here are some good static neck exercises:

References

Ackland DC, Merritt JS, Pandy MG. Moment arms of the human neck muscles in flexion, bending and rotation. J Biomech. 2011 Feb 3;44(3):475-86.

Vasavada AN, Li S, Delp SL. Three-dimensional isometric strength of neck muscles in humans. Spine. 2001;26:1904–1909.

Chiu T T, Lam T H, Hedley A J. Maximal isometric muscle strength of the cervical spine in healthy volunteers. Clin Rehabil 2002. 16772–779.779.

Jordan A, Mehlsen J, Bülow P M. et al Maximal isometric strength of the cervical musculature in 100 healthy volunteers. Spine 1999. 241343–1348.1348.

Maeda A, Nakashima T, Shibayama H. Effect of training on the strength of cervical muscle. Ann Physiol Anthropol. 1994;13:59–67.

Stump J, Rash G, Semon J, Christian W, Miller K. A comparison of two modes of cervical exercise in adolescent male athletes. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1993;16:155–160.

Pollock ML, Graves JE, Bamman MM. Frequency and volume of resistance training: effect on cervical extension strength. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1993;74:1080–1086.

Ylinen J, Takala E ‐ P, Nykänen M. et al Active neck muscle training in the treatment of chronic neck pain in women. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003. 2892509–2516.2516.

Conley MS, Stone MH, Nimmons M, Dudley GA. Specifity of resistance training responses in neck muscle size and strength. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1997. 75:443-8.

22 Comments

  • Christoffer Andersen says:

    Hi Bret

    Just as an addition to the debate on specific training of the neck we have recently published at study on muscle activation i the neck and shoulder muscles during lat raises when going to failure whith ~15RM vs a ~3RM resistance. (J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct 7. [Epub ahead of print] Muscle activation strategies during strength training with heavy loading versus repetitions to failure.)
    The study shows that in the last half of the failure-set the neck extensor splenius capitis is activated more than 70% of max peaking at around 90% for the last 3-4 reps. It seems quite likely that a least some non-neckspecific exercises can lead to both strength and hypertrophy gains.

    • Bret says:

      I didn’t realize this was your study Christoffer! I downloaded it the other day and sent it to my buddy Brad. Great work! I definitely agree that some of the exercises will deliver good results, but the study I mentioned which had squats, deads, rows, push presses, and mid thigh pulls probably aren’t the best in comparison to anti-cantilevering exercises in the supine and prone positions such as bench press (SCM) horizontal chest supported db row (traps, spenius capitis, etc.), hip thrusts (SCM), prone rear delt raise (traps, splenius capitis, etc.). It would be nice to test out these movements for neck muscle activation.

      • Christoffer Andersen says:

        Thanks! I’m just coauthoring the paper though.

        The prone rear delt raises done crazy John Meadows high-rep style destroy my neck extensors just as much as the posterior delt area. Think those would show a lot of coactivation in the neck area.

  • Very insightful article, in particular, the rapid decline of men’s neck strength after 70 is very useful information, and I will be using this knowledge in clinical practice. Thanks.

  • Mark says:

    I have read the neck muscle is one of the faster areas to add muscle strength and size maybe . I wounder if a person could do a version thats not mentioned though. Just playing around I came up with a version of front flexation while twisting while laying on a bench with my head just over the edge to get a good ROM.Do one set turning left and one side turning right. That seems to work my neck in a pleasant way. But I liked pretty high reps ,like 20-25 at each angle . I also go much slower on my neck work than the guy in the 1st video. I personally think he was going way to fast on those reps ,it was almost hard to watch. The neck is delicate , you screw it up messing around with fast uncontrolled reps you will be hurting for sure.

  • Mark says:

    I have read the neck muscle is one of the faster areas to add muscle strength and size maybe . I wounder if a person could do a version thats not mentioned though. Just playing around I came up with a version of front flexation while twisting while laying on a bench with my head just over the edge to get a good ROM.Do one set turning left and one side turning right. That seems to work my neck in a pleasant way. But I liked pretty high reps ,like 20-25 at each angle . I also go much slower on my neck work than the guy in the 1st video. I personally think he was going way to fast on those reps ,it was almost hard to watch. The neck is delicate , you screw it up messing around with fast uncontrolled reps you will be hurting for sure.

    • Bret says:

      I think that the neck can indeed build up quickly but it will eventually reach a point where further gains become difficult. I agree, the neck is delicate which is why I prefer either isometrics or shorter range dynamic motions and I believe in smooth controlled reps.

  • John Phung says:

    Love the article…neck muscles & neck training deserves more attention IMO.

    The way I train my neck is attach a neck harness to an height-adjustable pulley (like a cable-crossover machine).

    Neck extensions are done with the pulley on the lowest position.

    Neck flexion and lateral flexion are performed with the pulley moved up to eye level.

    Everything is done standing. During the neck flexion/lateral flexion, the core gets a decent workout just trying to maintain a rigid upper body.

  • Bret,

    Thanks for using my video Neck basics. I have been doing neck work since I was 13, set a seated neck lift record of 300lbs for a single and more. I come from a wrestling background and have trained my neck for 23 yrs. I feel since the neck is pulled from different angles in competition it should be trained as such. In a grappling match the neck will not be tugged on in a slow manner. This is the reason I train with fast reps. Slow reps have their place to, especially for the beginner trainee. Good article, Jen Keck says hello.

    Mike The Machine Bruce

    • Bret says:

      Mike, you are a freakin’ machine, so your name suits you well!

      This is very important information as many feel that the spine has a limited number of flexion cycles (especially lumbar) and shouldn’t be trained dynamically…if you’ve been training this way for 23 years and have suffered no neck problems as a result of it then this information is very important. Based on my experiences and things I’ve witnesses I believe these fears are way off-based and that dynamic spinal motion should not be avoided in training.

      I am in complete agreement that the neck should be trained dynamically for wrestlers and mixed martial artists, and that training could vary from isometric to slow to fast velocities as each will be needed in the sport.

      The only thing I’m unsure of is whether full range of motion is critical given that the discs are placed under considerably more stress at end-ranges of motion especially under load, but given your experiences then it’s something I’d consider.

      Thanks for the comment and keep up the great work! Tell Jen I said hello right back, Bret.

      • Bret,

        Thanks for the kind words, I also use more controlled rep & speed. I switch it up. Both are important.
        I do feel that it depends on the person and their time/seasoning working their neck.

        I have never had any troubles and I have hung myself with a noose. It is on my neck dvd.
        I feel any person new to neck training should pay very close attention to how they work their neck and seek out a suitable person who has experience to teach them.

        You do good work Bret, I have heard nothing but good things.
        Keep the Faith,
        Mike

        Jen works out at my gym and her husband Michael is actually my training partner on saturdays.

  • Echo says:

    I don’t have much personal experience in neck training but my teenagers are wrestling and their coach has them perform an exercise that he says is designed to strengthen the neck. They get into a bridge but hold the upper half of their body up with their head (points of contact with floor are two feet and head), arms are extended and gripping a sandbag which they move, pullover-style, from the floor to their hips, continuing until they beg for mercy. I’ve tried it with my girlie-sized sandbag and it’s still pretty brutal.

    Lovin’ the articles lately; single leg deads, all those booty builders suggested by your band of ladies, hell I even read the hockey article! 🙂 Thanks for all your hard work!

  • eugene s. says:

    Neck training, two years in at least. I use cable machine adjusted for height with long single handed straps(handle slid down to point of attachment to the cable) . That way I can simulate all weighted movements in all positions to str
    ngthen neck from all angles.
    In a gym of 300you I have never seen on
    e other person doing neck. Never any pain, siconfort

  • Emily says:

    What timing! I had one of the dancers in my company ask me last night if I knew of any good neck strengthening exercises. She is also an exercise science major so I am planning on forwarding this article to her. Beginning with the isometric work may be the right start for her as well as for all of us. Thanks Bret.

  • Nice conversation on neck training. Great to see it is being talked about more and more. Here is some protocol information from a current head and neck training researcher: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBtrjtrKgpc

  • iRenato says:

    Neck exercises always give me a terrible headache.
    The neck muscles tense up the day after,or even the second day after doing neck work.
    No stretching or anything helps against this.
    I always do short range of motions to be on the safe side.
    And even when doing 1 set.1 for flexing(plate on forehead) 1 for extension(head harness,lying horizontal on bench)is enough to tense up my neck.

    I just have to conclude after trying many times of doing neck work.That working on this bodypart is not something for me.

    I also think you have to watch out with these exercises in general.
    A former workout partner of mine ,warned me strongly against these exercises(he said,I wish my competitors all kinds of things,but not THIS.It was that bad in his opinion).
    He knew a guy who was into this a lot,with the leather head harness.
    The guy got a thick muscular neck from it.But also problems .
    Nerve tingling everywhere ,in arms etc .
    It took several months after quitting these exercises to get rid of the extreme effects.

    It may not be this bad for everyone.
    But I just want to say.
    Be careful !

    I just stick to shrugs for my traps.
    No more neck work for me.

  • Renato says:

    The only other option I can think of is going lighter.
    And not going to failure…

    Cause why do some get head aches and others not?

  • bix says:

    When I did BJJ we always ended training sessions with neck-training. After just a few months I hade to buy new shirts, as i could not button them. The next summer I had to buy new shirts again… So in my opinion putting on muscle in your neck is fairly easy. I have never had results like that on any other part of my body!

  • larry says:

    Hey Brett,
    Thanks for all your wisdom. In return, I offer this great and safe (and cheap and easy) strengthener for Splenius and Levator Scapulae. This is especially good if neck stiffness with lifting is causing you front of shoulder or elbow pain.
    1. Get a bicycle inner tube. Cut it so that it is just one length
    2. Drape it evenly over an open door
    3. Take one end of the tube in each hand, with thumbs down
    4. Rotate hands out so that the tube wraps around wrists and allows you to hold tube but keep hands and forarms open/relaxed
    5. You are now in a classic bodybuilding pose
    6. Keeping hands and forearms relaxed, push down on the tubing while keeping your scapulae packed.
    7. You will feel stretching in the neck/levator but very importantly also strengthening,so tha the stretch will be retained by the muscles
    8. For different effects, experiment with different pulls on the tubing – e.g., in or away from your body, rotating forearms – but always keep tube around wrists so that hands and forearms stay relaxed and relatively uninvolved

    This is a safe and effective strengthening stretch for an area that is otherwise hard to isolate and easy to neglect.
    Cheers
    larry

  • Jake Harris says:

    I know this topic is extremely old, but does anyone know about the long term ramifications of doing dynamic bridging exercises?

    I know there are a lot of wrestler all over the country that perform this, but I’ve also heard of former wrestlers say they believe these exercises contributed to their degenerative arthritis in the cervical spine.

    I’ve also heard that it may cause delamination in the spine due to extreme flexion and extension of the neck. The delamination will eventually lead to disc damage.

    Can you clear this topic up, Bret? This is trending quite a bit around the fitness world right now, especially amongst bodyweight enthusiast, thanks to an unnamed prison trainer.

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