Let’s face it, having a thick neck can be quite imposing. Besides giving you that intimidating middle linebacker look, it’s an indication of the dedication and hard work in the gym. Those massive traps make someone look like the Incredible Hulk without turning green.
But a massive yoke isn’t all about vanity. The human head weighs over eight pounds, moves in multiple directions, and protects our most important asset (that would be your brain for most of us). That’s why it’s important to start incorporating neck exercises into your routine.
Isolating the neck will provide a great finishing touch to a powerful physique and help support good head position and better posture. Here we will go into neck anatomy, benefits of direct neck training, and four neck exercises to add the cherry on top of your skull.
Let’s get to work.
Anatomy of the neck
The neck is not all about the traps. The neck contains multiple muscles that support head position, posture, and breathing. Here’s a breakdown of the major neck muscles.
- Trapezius: The trapezius is a large, flat, triangular muscle that extends over the back of the neck and upper back. This originates from the external occipital protuberance (back of the skull parallel to the upper jaw) and the ligamentum nuchae and it has multiple insertion points. The main movements of the traps are lateral flexion, contralateral rotation of the head and extension of the head.
- Levator scapulae: The levator scapulae is a long slender superficial muscle on each lateral side of the neck. This originates from the C1-C4 of the cervical (neck) spine and inserts on the medial border of the scapula. The movements of the Levator scapulae are elevation and retraction of the shoulder blades and extending and laterally flexing the neck.
- Sternocleidomastoid: The sternocleidomastoid 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 the sternum and inserts onto the mastoid process of the temporal bone. The movements of the Sternocleidomastoid are unilateral lateral flexion of the neck on the same muscle side and lateral rotation of the head on the opposite side. When both sides and muscles of the sternocleidomastoid contract it assists in neck flexion.
- Scalene: The scalene muscles are three paired muscles on the anterior, middle, and posterior of the lateral neck. These muscles originate from the vertebrae C3-C6 and insert onto the scalene tubercle and superior border of the first rib. The scalene muscles act as accessory muscles for breathing and assist in all movements of the head.
Benefits of direct neck exercises
There’s no doubting the aesthetic benefits of a strong and muscular neck, but it does have a few important performance and health benefits too. Here are four reasons to include direct neck training in your programming.
- Reduces Neck Tightness: The four exercises listed below, when performed well and a full range of motion, may help in releasing neck tension, tightness, stiffness, and maybe help improve flexibility.
- Improves Breathing: 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.
- Improves Squats And Deadlifts: The upper traps are an important part of the upper back which when engaged will stop your squat from turning into a good morning and keep the bar close to you while deadlifting. Plus, muscular upper traps gives more space for the barbell to sit.
Injury Prevention: If you’re a collision athlete training the neck is a no-brainer. Yes, pun intended. The neck supports the head and what’s in it.
Studies has shown that collision athletes like football players, boxers, and people who get hit in the head have had more extensive orthopedic injury histories and a stronger neck equals lower injury risk .
Top 4 Neck Exercises
Shrugs make up one of the more important movements of the neck but there are other variations to spice up your neck game. Here are four moves to strengthen the neck and add muscle to your yoke.
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Kirk shrugs got their name from the guy who first used them, Kirk Karwoski. The world champion powerlifter started doing this shrug variation to increase his grip strength for the deadlift as his coach at that time, Marty Gallagher, thought this exercise would help him with his deadlift. And Gallagher was right, but both discovered it built a huge yoke too.
Muscles trained: Forearms, deltoids, upper and middle traps, and lats
How it helps: Because you’re only holding the barbell with your fingertips, it improves grip strength while adding strength and muscle to your yoke.
How and when to do it: With a barbell at thigh height in the squat rack grip the barbell using only your fingers. “Shrug” the weight by using your traps, lats, and nothing else. Pull the barbell up while keeping the shoulder blades back and down. Pause for a second at the navel and slowly lower the barbell down to the starting position. Reset and repeat. Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps at the end of your training.
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If Kirk shrugs don’t agree with you, there is always the trusty dumbbell shrug. This is a variation that can be done by almost anyone and it is simple to learn. Holding the dumbbell in each hand with help strengthen imbalances and you’ll know if one side is weaker than the other. Plus, it is an exercise that is performed for power, strength, or muscle. A simple exercise that will cater to many goals.
Muscles trained: Forearms, deltoids, and traps
How it helps: Better muscle development because each side is working unilaterally and it with strengthen your grip.
How and when to do it: Gripping a dumbbell in each hand with your shoulders down, chest up and chin tucked. Raise your upper traps towards your ears as high as you can. Pause for a second and slowly lower your shoulders down to the hang position. Reset and repeat. If you’re prioritizing yoke over grip strength perform before your big strength move for the day for reps of between six to 12 for strength or reps between 12 to 25 for muscular endurance. Two to four sets will work well here.
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Prone Weighted Neck Extension
For the bigger muscles of the neck to work as they should, the smaller muscles need to do their job too. This is where the prone weighted neck extension comes in. Doing this with weight against gravity helps strengthen the smaller posterior neck muscles. The prone weighted neck extension is an effective strengthening exercise for posterior neck muscles and is easy to do. But there is no need to go crazy with weight here. Lower weight with higher reps is effective and safer here.
Muscles trained: Splenius, upper traps, levator scapulae, and sternocleidomastoid
How it helps: Training the smaller muscles of the neck allows the bigger muscle of the traps to do their job better. If you’re a collision athlete this is an effective exercise to strengthen the head and neck against the shock of impact forces.
How and when to do it: Lie prone on a weight bench with your head off the end with a folded towel and weight plate on the floor. Pick up the towel, weight plate and grip it in both hands. Place the towel between your head and the plate and hyperextend your neck up in a pain-free range of motion. Pause and slowly return slowly lower until then chin touches your upper chest. This is best performed for one or two sets for reps of 15 to 20 as part of your warmup.
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Stability Ball Neck Bridge
The stability neck bridge is a step up from the supine neck bridge. If you’re new to neck bridges, do those first. This variation of the neck bridge requires more stabilization and trains the entire posterior chain to work together because the glutes and spinal erectors are needed to hold up the bridge.
Muscles trained: Glute, hamstring, upper traps, spinal erector levator scapulae, and sternocleidomastoid
How it helps: The stability ball trains more stabilizing muscles while helping to build and strengthen the neck without weight.
How and when to do it: Sit upright on a stability ball and then walk your feet out until the back of your head is on the ball. Then squeeze your glutes so your body is in a straight line from head to knee. With your chin tucked toward your chest, slowly roll your head back until the back of your head is on the ball and your neck is in extension. Return to the starting position and repeat. This is a great warm-up exercise or can be performed as a recovery exercise for sets of 15 to 20 reps