What do you focus on when you’re at the gym, training, or otherwise working out? If you’re like most people, your gym routine focuses on the upper body, lower body, abs, or a combination of the three. Oh, and don’t forget your cardio.
There’s nothing wrong with targeting those groups, but chances are you’re leaving out one very important area of your body – the neck.
For whatever reason, we’ve become accustomed to only thinking about the neck muscles when we wake up with a stiff neck and suddenly can’t turn our head a certain direction.
Considering our head sits on top of the neck, the muscles supporting it are hugely important. And yet the neck is often one of the most neglected muscle groups we train. It’s easy to see why.
With such a limited amount of time, when we’re at the gym or working out, we want to focus on the areas that will give the most return. But a strong neck not only provides support for the head; it also protects the spine, which helps align your neck and back for good posture.
And let’s not forget another upside of a strong neck – it’s attractive! If that kind of thing matters to you, then a few simple exercises will have your neck properly filling out the space between your shoulders and your head.
However, vanity is not what we’re after here. It’s simply a byproduct. Another, more important byproduct? Reduced neck pain, which can lead to less pain throughout the body (remember, the body’s nervous system is interconnected). Additionally, according to various studies, great posture leads to self-confidence and better brain function.
Here, we’re going to focus on a few exercises to build up your neck muscles.
But First...A Quick Background About Neck Muscles
Before we get into the exercises, let’s first talk about the neck muscles to begin with. It’s comprised of four basic muscles:
- Sternocleidomastoid (the muscles on either side of your neck, from the base of the skull to your collarbones)
- Trapezius (a large muscle group that begins at the rear of the skull, runs past your shoulders, and hugs your spine until the mid-back)
- Semispinalis (a narrow muscle found on either side of the spinal column)
- Longissimus (an adjacent muscle to the semispinalis, it spans the length of the spinal column), splenius capitis (a broad, short muscle in the back of the neck)
Symptoms Of A Weak Neck
How do you know if you have a weak neck? A look in the mirror isn’t a bad place to start, but otherwise, pay attention to these symptoms:
Chronic pain: A weak neck leads to poor posture. Poor posture has a domino effect on your body and spine, as pain originating in one spot can be felt throughout your spinal cord.
Upper body weakness:If you’re feeling pain and having trouble training your upper body, especially the shoulders, a weak neck may be the culprit. The neck muscles help the shoulders with overhead movements, but because the body is great at compensating for weaknesses, it’ll find a way to help you get that weight over your head – but you’ll pay for it over time with shoulder pain.
Headaches:In a previous blog, I talked about headaches, including tension headaches. Research has shown that those who experience tension headaches have weaker neck extension capabilities than the control group.
Neck Exercises: Warmup
Now that we know the symptoms, let’s get into some exercises and solutions to bulk up our necks, support the critical cervical spine, and help relieve some pain. The following workout is relatively easy and can be scaled up or down depending on your strength and fitness level.
First things first – a proper warmup. It’s always a good idea to warmup before exercise, especially if you’re training a seldom-trained area like the neck.
Try these to get you started, making sure you’re standing up straight with proper posture:
- Turn your head to one side as far as you can, holding it in position for about 15 seconds. Then turn the other direction and do it again. Repeat two more times on each side.
- Shrug your shoulders, with no weight, up and down 15 times. I like to include a short hold when I get to the top.
- Drop your chin to your chest and hold it for a couple seconds, then bend your head back so you’re looking straight up and hold this for a couple seconds. Repeat for about 30 seconds to a minute. This act of neck flexion and neck extension will get you primed for the workout.
- Neck rotations. Just like you used to do in gym class, rotate your neck in a circular fashion in one direction 10 times, covering the full range of motion. Then switch and rotate the other direction another 10 times. No need to go fast, just stay at a pace that’s comfortable and gives your neck a gentle stretch.
- Last but not least, the last thing I like to do for a warmup is the upper trapezius stretch. Start by tilting the head, attempting to make the ear touch the shoulder. If you feel comfortable, you can use your hand to gently pull on your head for a deeper stretch. Hold this position for 15 seconds before switching to the other side.
Neck Exercises: The Workout
Now that you’re properly warmed up, let’s get into the top five exercises for a serious neck workout. If you’re a seasoned veteran, you’ll know there are many ways to train the neck muscles.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to try and keep things as basic as possible to appeal to those of all fitness levels and those with minimal or no equipment.
Neck Flexion: Lie on a bench with your head and neck hanging off the end. With a towel over your forehead, place a weight plate on the towel (start small) and hold it in place with your hands. Lean your head back to begin, then flex your neck forward, attempting to touch your chest with your chin. Be sure your hands are only keeping the weight in place. They shouldn’t be assisting with the movement. Repetitions vary, but I generally recommend beginners try 15 reps with a light weight, or even no weight at all. More advanced readers can add more weight or more sets.
Neck Flexion – Continued:It’s time to target the sternocleidomastoid muscles (the ones on the side of your neck). For this, you’re again on the bench. Lie on your side with your head hanging off and the hand that’s on the same side that you’re lying on firmly on the ground for support. Place the towel and weight plate on top of your head, using the free hand for support. Now lower your head laterally towards the floor, then back up again for 15 reps. Repeat on the other side.
Neck Extension:This one can be a little tricky, so I’ll provide a couple of different examples. The first is to sit at the end of a bench and bend over so your stomach is touching your thighs (think of the earthquake drill at school or curling up into a ball). Like the flexion exercise, this time the towel and weight rest on the back of your head. Again, use your hands primarily to keep the weight from moving and lean your head forward and backward, making sure to complete the range of motion that is comfortable for you, while keeping your torso still.
Neck Extension – Option 2: If option 1 is too difficult, try lying with your stomach on an incline bench or ball, weight on your toes, using them as the second and third points of contact for balance. With a straight back and proper spine alignment, lift your chest up, hold for a second, then lower back down to the starting position. Repeat for 15 reps. This is a good compound exercise for strengthening the muscles along the posterior chain and encouraging good posture, the neck being one of those muscles within that chain.
Shrugs:Some consider shrugs to be a shoulder workout, but it also targets the upper trapezius, which is an important stabilizing muscle for the neck. Start in a standing position, arms to the side, holding a moderate weight (dumbells are most common for this, but the same weight plates you used for the exercises above could also work if they have cutouts along the perimeter for you to hold). As the name suggests, shrug your shoulders up, hold, then lower back down. Repeat for 15 reps.
How To Target Neck Pain
Neck strength is key in combating neck pain, though it’s natural to feel soreness in any muscle group after a workout like the one outlined above.
The neck is no exception. Try these methods to help alleviate pain or soreness, whether it's from a workout, sitting at the office, or even driving your car.
Stretch:As you would with any other workout, incorporate a cool down at the end which includes stretches. The nice thing here is that you can repeat the stretching exercises you performed in the warmup. A particularly relaxing one is the upper trapezius stretch, explained above. This time, instead of gently pulling with the opposite hand, I’ll take that hand, wrap it around my face (grabbing the opposite earlobe), and pull a little further for a deeper stretch. Hold the stretch for about 15 seconds. Repeat on the other side, and do it all over again two more times per side.
Massage: By now you should know I’m a huge proponent of massage/self-myofascial release. It stimulates blood flow, relaxes the muscles, and just plain feels good! But unless you have a personal massage therapist, doing it yourself can be hard. This is where the Backmate comes in. The Backmate is the perfect tool for massaging the neck, as you can target all the muscle groups and the critical cervical spine better than any other product out there. Simply place it against your doorway and start rolling your way towards pain relief.
It’s so easy to take the neck for granted, but when we stop to remember how important the neck is, we can start to give it the attention it deserves.
A strong neck has so many benefits to our overall health – from reducing the amount or severity of headaches, promoting proper posture, and protecting the spinal column. A convenient byproduct is a healthy neck is also attractive. Hopefully, these exercises serve you well on your path to reducing and alleviating pain.
As always, here’s to your health!