Neck Training 101

November 11, 2010 at 5:21 AM | Posted in Health and Fitness | 5 Comments
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In light of my recent post on the foundations of strength, I decided to elaborate on a particularly important aspect of that functional training: neck development. Neck development is something that very few people know anything about. Knowledge of neck training is more or less confined to professional contact sports (boxing and football, mostly) and the upper echelons of powerlifting circles, etc. Basically, your average gym rat knows next to nothing about it. So, let’s get the ball rolling.

Relevant Anatomy

The neck is actually an incredibly muscular portion of the body, as seen in the figure below.

Superficial muscles of the neck.

As you can see, its pretty crowded in there. To make matters worse, check this out:

This is the brachial plexus, a mess of important nerves and blood vessels that passes right through the scalenes, muscles of the neck. More on this below.

There are some pretty important muscles in the neck.  Here’s a list of the big ones:

  • Scalenes
  • Splenius group
  • Levator scapulae
  • Sternocleidomastoid

Now, I think all of you know about the trapezius. A lot of you should probably know about levator scapulae. This muscle is the cause of a lot of tension headaches and shoulder dysfunction. But most of you probably don’t know about the scalenes or the sternocleidomastoid. Well, I’ll come clean with you. Besides producing some pretty nasty pain patterns, the sternocleidomastoid is only important because it looks like pure badass when developed properly. Of course, if you’re stuck in forward head posture, you should look into massaging this muscle (among others).

Why You Should Care

The really important one is the scalene group. Depending on your brand of human genetic variation, you have either three or four. They are predictably named: anterior, medial and posterior. They are pretty well nestled in there. But these muscles, when injured, have the potential to destroy shoulder mechanics and, if allowed to remain injured, completely alter the biomechanics of an entire side of the upper body, causing weakening and atrophy to a lot of the more important muscles.

This is mainly because of the brachial plexus, shown in the second figure above. If the muscles become tight or overworked, or lose flexibility due to scar tissue, they can impinge the nerves and blood vessels that supply and control your entire arm and shoulder. This is sometimes referred to thoracic outlet syndrome. Symptoms include weakness in one arm, atrophy, a weird feeling during any kind of exertion, tingling, numbness or the following:

You know the drill: the red areas are areas of referred pain due to trigger points in the scalenes, marked by the X.

You can see that a problem in your scalenes can cause nasty referred pain and even cause satellite trigger points at all of the areas in red. These muscles are extremely important.

Neck Training

Everyone should participate in neck training. Yes, even you. And all the other non-athletes out there. This is because the flexibility of a muscle is directly related to its strength (tight = weak, remember).  Muscles thrive on use.  The scalenes are lateral flexors of the neck. Basically, any time you draw the head closer to the shoulder, you’re using the scalenes. Now, all you have to do is find a way to use gravity to make the muscles work. Yep, you guessed it: lateral neck resistance training. There’s a number of ways to do this.

Option 1: Unweighted lateral neck flexion. Pretty simple. See video below.  Most of you should start with this.

Option 2: Weighted lateral neck flexion. Same thing as unweighted, except you put a towel on your head and put a small plate on your head. DO NOT USE A LOT OF WEIGHT. Start with 2.5 pound plates, move up to 5 and then 10. Overloading the neck structure has costly consequences. Do not train it like your big muscles, and allow a lot of time for progression.

Option 3: 4-way neck machine. These are hard to find, but if your gym has it, use it.

There are other ways to train the neck as well.  Neck bridges are popular, but these are only for developed athletes for whom direct neck resistance training is not new.  Do not do these unless you are one of those few.  For the rest of you, a good way to get started is by doing forward and backward neck curls, in addition to your lateral neck flexion training.  Basically, lay on a bench on your back or chest, and make sure your head is hanging off the edge.  If on your back, raise your chin to your chest and lower, under control, for a rep.  If laying on your chest, try to touch the back of your head to your back.  It’s that simple.  Once your strength is built up sufficiently, you can add a towel and a plate.

For those of you with the money and interest, a head harness isn’t a bad investment.  Just be careful as the chains pull on your hair :-P.

Benefits of Neck Training

There are a number of reasons to train the neck structure:

  1. General Health: If the flexibility and strength of your neck muscles are at sufficient levels, you will not have problems with impingement in your nerves, functional scoliosis or any muscle imbalances caused by them.
  2. Contact Sports: If you’re an athlete of any sort where contact is involved, you want to protect your neck and head.  Strong neck muscles will prevent minor strains and provide a layer of defense for the vulnerable cervical spine. A strong neck structure could make the difference between a season-ending hit or a little scuff.  Again, the difference between average and excellent is small here.
  3. Respect: Nothing says “Don’t fuck with me, asshole!” like a beastly neck.  And it’s one of the few areas showing on a fully dressed athlete, so it’s worth the investment to separate yourself from the average joes out there.

There you have it. Neck training crash course. Now stop sitting in front of your computer and get in the gym.



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  1. My training of neck muscles is a nightmare, I tried to build the neck muscles in million different ways, but hell, this is a difficult muscle for me..

    • Could you elaborate a little on your training? Were you training for size or strength or both? I’ve noticed a considerable increase in strength and made a sweeping recovery from my neck injury using the methods I outlined, but I haven’t seen much noticeable size gain. From the neck training experts out there, training the upper trapezius is where you get most of your mass, it seems.

      • Thanks for the reply.
        I’m ectomorph, working only on the mass.
        I’ll try to train the upper trapezius strengthened, but actualy it is not the neck .. Now using your advices, waiting for a better results.

  2. Very informative! , nice blog!

  3. Excellent post. I want to thank you for this informative read, I really appreciate sharing this great post. Keep up your work. Loveland CO Chiropractor Loveland CO Chiropractic

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