Workout Tips

How to Train Your Neck

Build a neck like an NFL lineman with this crash course in anatomy and training.

josh bryant thumbnail by CSCS, MFS, PES
WWE Superstar Brock Lesnar.
Rey Del Rio / Stringer

For the dedicated strength trainer, clothes matter. For the person who is less dedicated, it may matter even more. Baggy shirts cover up Beiber-like arm development and sweats camouflage your string of forgotten leg days. But a neck like a stack of dimes? Forget about it. Unless you’re living in the polar vortex with a wardrobe of thick turtlenecks, there is no running, no hiding–your neck is exposed.

A well-developed neck is synonymous with power and commands respect. Yet, very few ever take the time out to address the neck with specific training. By understanding a bit more about the functions of the neck and how it pertains to the rest of your training goals, you can put yourself in a better position to improve these important muscles. Flexion, lateral flexion, extension, and rotation, folks–these should make it into your weekly training routine. So go ahead and gather your turtlenecks and toss them into a donation box.

Big Lifts, Big Muscle

You likely already know that compound movements–exercises requiring movement at more than one joint–provide the most bang for your buck and stimulate all-over muscle growth, fat loss, secretion of anabolic hormones, and functional performance benefits. Performing just a few big lifts per workout will equate to gains all over, to an extent.

The neck is an exception.

The average-but-serious strength trainer has a more developed neck than the run-of-the-mill public pencil neck, but to truly maximize neck strength and size, you have to directly train the neck. 

The European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology confirmed this in a flagship study published in 1997 entitled “Specificity of Resistance Training Responses in Neck Muscle Size and Strength.” The study consisted of three groups. The first group was a resistance-training group that trained performing squats, deadlifts, push presses, high pulls, and barbell rows. A second resistance-training group performed the same strength training movements in addition to neck extensions with a harness three times a week. A third group did not work out at all.

The resistance-training group that did not train neck extensions did not increase neck strength. On the other hand, the subjects that performed neck extension work increased neck extension strength by a whopping 34 percent over the 12-week study. The group that performed neck work increased the cross sectional area of neck musculature by 13 percent, compared to no increase for subjects that did not directly work the neck.

Bottom line, if you want a big, strong neck – surprise! – you have to train your neck!

How Quickly Can this Happen?

The Naval Health Research Center demonstrated in a 2006 study that significant increases in neck strength were evident in both static and dynamic strength assessments with one month of regular neck resistance training. Total neck size increased by an amazing 13 percent; this can be the difference between being perceived as puny or powerful.

The study also showed that military personnel that regularly trained the neck had fewer injuries and far less sick days. It can be reasonably assumed that these benefits would carry over to school teachers, seasoned fighters and work-at-home dads.

Four-Way Neck Training

From a training standpoint, the neck has four major functions: flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation. Let’s look at what each function means and, more importantly, how we can strengthen each.

Neck Flexion

Neck flexion is another way of saying “tilting your head forward.” The chief muscles involved are the longus colli, longus capitis, and infrahyoids. These neck flexor muscles can easily be worked on a four-way neck machine by facing the machine and putting your forehead against the pad, then tilting your head forward against the resistance and performing repetitions.

Unfortunately, four-way neck machines have gone the way of the dodo bird in most gyms to make room for chrome machines, BOSU balls, and other “functional advancements.” Instead of crying alligator tears over this blasphemous charade, get creative. You can perform this movement against a resistance band, provide your own resistance against your forehead, or even have a competent partner resist.

Training Rx: Try 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.

Neck Extension

Neck extension refers to the action of moving your chin away from your chest. The mainstay muscles in this action are the splenius capitis, seminispinalis capitis, suboccipitals, and the trapezius.

On the four-way neck machine, face away from the machine, put the back of your head against the pad and tilt the head back against the resistance. My favorite way to work neck extension is with the neck harness. Amazing strongmen like Mike “the Machine” Bruce have handled over 300 pounds in the harness extension. This “go” is accompanied by the “show” of a neck that screams masculine virility.

Neck harnesses cost as little as $20 and it would be tough to find a piece of equipment that offers a better return on investment for functional power and physique enhancement. Obviously, neck extensions can also be done against bands, self- or partnered resistance but none of these ways duplicate true iron-laden challenge of the neck harness.

Training Rx: Start with 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.

Neck Lateral Flexion

Neck lateral flexion in lay terms means tilting your head to the side. The primary muscles involved in this function are the scalenes. On a neck machine you would sit to the side, put the side of your head on the pad and tilt your head sideways against resistance toward your shoulder.

No access to a neck machine? Use a resistance band, resist yourself, or find a partner.

Training Rx: Do 2 sets of 10-20 reps.

Neck Rotation

Neck rotation simply refers to turning your head to the side. No gym machines mimic this function; you are your own gym, in this case. Turn your head to the side, trying to look over your shoulder. Do this both ways providing resistance with your hand.

Training Rx: Do 8-10 reps each way for two sets.

These movements should be done a minimum of twice a week. Wrestlers have the most developed necks in the world and they work them daily. 

No-Equipment Neck Work 

Try head nods. I learned this technique from former Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion and Jailhouse Strong co-author, Adam benShea. This is a staple training technique of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo fighters that evolved out of some of Brazil’s toughest favelas (ghettos).

Get it Right

Lie on your back. Lift your head and bring your chin to your chest for a set of 40 repetitions. Keep your head off the ground and look to your left for a set of 40. Repeat to the right. Keeping your head raised off the ground, touch your left ear to your left shoulder for 40 repetitions. Repeat to your right. Go through this circuit 2-3 times, and be amazed at the difficulty and effectiveness.

Bottom Line 

A strong neck will contribute to overall functional strength and a more balanced and powerful-looking physique. Regular neck training will also help to prevent some of the injuries that can occur with frequent and/or heavy overhead pressing by strengthening what is typically one of the weakest muscle groups in your upper body. Working all four functions of the neck will maximize growth along with minimizing injury, whether it is in a cage fight or the annual Labor Day church flag football game.

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