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Neck Strengthening - An Often Overlooked Part of Training

Updated on March 11, 2016
A drawing of the skeletal muscles of the neck.
A drawing of the skeletal muscles of the neck. | Source

Non-Athletic Functions of the Neck

The majority of people give no thought to the continuous contributions of their neck to their bodies. The only time their neck ever comes to mind is if they are straining it to get a better view of something they are having difficulty seeing. Or, if they have slept wrong and they wake up with it stiff, it giving them a constant reminder of its presence throughout the day.

Of course, the neck is there to do more than just provide a partial swivel for your head. Its center contains the upper part of your spine and spinal cord, that connects it to the skull and the brain. It provides a pathway for nerves and brain signals to the rest of the body.


Its uses are not limited to the brain or nervous system. The neck also contains your esophagus and trachea, the front ends of your digestive and respiratory system. Also contained within the neck are the carotid arteries. These provide the main source of blood flow to and from the brain.

With so many systems tied in to this cylindrical-shaped body part, there are already enough apparent reasons as to why it should be imperative to keep its musculature strong. If you are an athlete, there are even more.

Conditioned and strong muscles are less susceptible to injury and strain. So, if you have frequent problems with stiff neck from sleeping, strengthening these muscles can make them more able to absorb the stress from being put in a less desirable position with incorrect sleeping postures.

Athletic Functions of the Neck

The muscles of the neck are involved with the respiratory system, playing an active role in our breaths. Having strong and healthy muscles will facilitate the taking in of air under taxing situations.

If you are a wrestler, you will know the invaluable advantages of having a strong neck. Many grappling moves, especially on the ground, involve your opponent attempting to move your body to where he wishes it by manipulation of the neck, such as the 3/4 stack. There is a saying that where the head goes, the body will follow. The ability to bridge has saved many a wrestler from a pinfall.

High impact sports, especially boxing and football, where blows to the head occur on a regular basis. Strong supporting musculature to the upper spine when the head sustains a blow will drastically minimize damage to the vertebrates, especially over the long term. While there are many factors involved in being able to take a punch when boxing, powerful neck muscles can reduce the whiplash effect that is sometimes a contributing factor to knockouts.

A professional wrestler performing a neck bridge. Both competitive wrestlers, and performers in sports entertainment utilize the bridge to keep their shoulders off the mat. It is not only a move, but also an exercise used in strength conditioning.
A professional wrestler performing a neck bridge. Both competitive wrestlers, and performers in sports entertainment utilize the bridge to keep their shoulders off the mat. It is not only a move, but also an exercise used in strength conditioning. | Source

The Importance of Training Correctly

The muscles of the neck house and protect the cervical vertebrae, which in turn houses the spinal cord. Injuring this part of the body carries substantially more risk than straining a quadricep, or tearing a bicep. Stressing your neck with resistance that it cannot handle, or performing exercises incorrectly can have serious consequences. Before undertaking a neck training regimen, it is critical that you have a thorough understanding of the exercises in question, and how to correctly execute them, so as not to injure a muscle, or even worse, a vertebrate.

A key thing to remember when you first begin these exercises is to start slowly. Use light resistance until you get the hang of the form. It is one thing to attain reading comprehension of how to do an exercise, it is another to actually develop it through practice.

Anatomical Musculature of the Neck

The neck contains eighteen muscles, which are divided into four groups - suprahyoid, vertebral, cervical, and infrahyoid. The suprahyoid group consists of four muscles that are the main movers in swallowing. The vertebral muscles include the longus colli; this is the usual muscle you feel for a few days after getting whiplash. These act in the flexion and the extension movements of the neck, often working together with the trapezius. Opposite to the vertebral muscles in the back, lie the cervical muscles in the front. These are chiefly involved in the rotational movements of the head. The infrahyoids collaborate with the suprahyoids in swallowing, and they also play an important role in moving the larynx for speech.

The benefits of headstands go beyond conditioning the neck. They are also a great exercise for balance improvement.
The benefits of headstands go beyond conditioning the neck. They are also a great exercise for balance improvement. | Source

The Basic Types of Exercises

All neck exercises can be grouped into four categories.

Rotational - This involves the turning of the head against resistance from left to right. There really is only one type of exercise for this particular movement. Place the object of resistance against the side of your face, and turn your head against the weight or the force. The starting position of the head is straight to the front for these exercises. The head is turned to one side for a set of repetitions, then the resistance moves to the other side of the face, and move the head from the starting point to the opposite side.

Some gyms have a machine for this. If they do not, a neck harness can be used, or you can use your hand and push against your face with enough force that turning will be difficult, but not so much that it will be impossible. Keep leverage in mind. You will not have to push as hard with your arm if you place the hand in the front part of the face, rather than by your ear.

Flexion - There are two subcategories of flexion exercises. There is forward flexion, where you start from a neutral position and curl your head against the resistance. The finish point of the repetition is when the jaw touches the sternum.

Lateral flexion is done from side to side. Like forward flexion, the starting point of the repetition is the neutral position. Keep the spine in a neutral position as well. Go as far as you can to the side with proper form; nobody will be able to bring their ear to their shoulder, but attempt to stretch to reach that point. If you are using your hand and arm as resistance, the higher you place your hand on the side of your head, the less force you will have to use.

Extensions - This movement works the strongest muscles in the back of the neck. It is the opposite of forward flexion. These exercises are the only category where the starting point of the repetition is not in the neutral position. For extension exercises, start with your jaw touching your chest, and you will finish in neutral.

Isometric - The exercises that were described above are dynamic, involving moving repetitions. Most, if not all variances of neck exercises can be done isometrically. This means that the position of your neck will remain unchanged. This is accomplished by using more resistance. The neck exerts either a rotational, extensional, or flexion force against resistance that is too much for it to be able to move.

Isometrics are ideal for someone who has a neck injury. Dynamic exercises when the neck is compromised have a higher risk of being performed with poor form, and thus increase the chances of making an injured muscle worse, or straining yet another.

When using resistance that is enough for the neck to not be able to perform a dynamic repetition, you should not use hanging weights. Use your hand and arm, or the floor for static exercises such as the headstand. Using a heavy hanging weight poses a considerable hazard, as its force of gravity is not directly controlled by the person as is their own limb.

Here, the set is not measured in repetition, but in time. Ideally the time should be between 8-10 seconds per set.

Equipment

As mentioned above, the simplest and most readily available resistance equipment you have for these exercises are the hand, arm, and floor. In fact, for a few neck exercises such as the handstand and bridging, the floor or ground is necessary.

The advantages to using the hand and arm force is it reduces the potential for injury. You do not have a static weight hanging from your head and neck. The disadvantage of using your own limb exists generally for the dynamic movements. It is more difficult to gauge just how much force you are using when you are pressing with your own limb. It is hard to measure your progression, and there is the uncertainty of whether or not you are using more or less force than last time.

This is where the neck harness has the advantage. Similar to a dip belt, this is fitted around the head, and has a chain or band from which weights can be hung. You will know exactly how much resistance you are using. However, with a harness, comes an increased necessity to use proper form. Not controlling the weight can lead to erratic swinging, putting force in a direction that the lifter was not expecting. However, the accuracy in incremental increases is one reason this is used widely by competitive athletes.

Another manual form of resistance that can be used for extension exercises, along with some lateral flexion movements is a towel. Simply roll or fold it and wrap it around your head, hold it in front of you for extensions with one or both hands, depending on your strength level and comfort. For lateral movements, hold it with one hand on the side of your head and pull with an extensive movement of the arm.

The Convenience of Training Your Neck

Most people have days when they simply can't make it to the gym. An exceptionally hectic schedule for a particular day, or a low energy level due to lack of sleep the previous night, or just plain lack of motivation.

The good news for your neck is, you don't necessarily have to go to the gym to give it a decent workout. It doesn't require a lot of time, nor necessarily fancy equipment, to train effectively, if going to the gym is not feasible that day. If you are suffering from fatigue, it is also not very energy draining, if that is the only body part you train. You can get a decent neck workout from using only the assistance of your hands and arms, or a towel.

Safety First

This cannot be stressed enough for this body part. Training too heavy, too fast can have lasting consequences. If you happen to sustain a muscular injury from performing any of these exercises, it is very important that you stop immediately. It would be wise to consult a sports medicine doctor before returning to training the neck unless the injury is minor enough that the pain goes away within 1-2 weeks with rest. You should not try to "push through" an injury to this area of the body. When a neck muscle is injured, it is also temporarily weakened, and hence, its ability to protect the vertebral column is also diminished for that period of time. Dynamic movements with heavy resistance can put you at severe risk of a more serious injury. Prudence is far more constructive to long term progress and, more importantly, health.

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      L. James 

      14 months ago

      Good tips here.

    working

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