In this article we’ll look at why and how you should be training your neck if you aren’t already. Neck training has a variety of benefits that extend well beyond the aesthetic. Don’t ever let anybody call you pencil-neck again!
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, one of the scariest men in boxing history
Chances are, you don’t have a dedicated neck component to your workout routine. (If you do, though – well done! Good for you!). The neck, perhaps of any body part apart from the calves, is almost certainly the most neglected, despite the fact that just a small amount of dedicated training can make a serious difference, not only for the way that you look but also in terms of your health. Here we’ll tell you why and how.
First, the why.
A THICK NECK MAKES YOU LOOK STRONG
Look at that picture of Mike Tyson. Intimidating? Just a little. Apart from the mean look on his face, it’s the neck – a thick meat-trunk flaring out wider than his jaw, giving the impression not of a head attached to the shoulders by a neck but instead planted directly into the thick mass of his traps and shoulders – that says, ‘I am an animal, a savage beast.’ They call it a ‘bull neck’ for a reason.
How’s this for a cool trick?
Just look at the difference having a thicker neck makes in these two images, the left with an artificially reduced neck. While the man on the left could be an average nodding-bird office worker, the right is clearly not. Is he a football player? Perhaps he’s a wrestler? Either way, it’s in no doubt, despite the fact that you can’t see his physique below the collar bone, that this man is a fit man, a strong man. Take note.
Having a thick neck protects your head (and your brain)
The coveted knockout
There’s a good reason boxers, including Mike Tyson, and wrestlers train their necks as much as they do. The muscles of the neck not only allow you to move your head, they also stabilise it, helping to protect your brain and your spinal cord.
Your brain has a left hemisphere, a right hemisphere, and a brainstem at the bottom. You can lose consciousness if both hemispheres are turned off at once; if only one is affected, the other can pick up some of the slack, thankfully. You can also lose consciousness if part of the brainstem is knocked offline.
A knockout is basically just that. As the result of a knock to the head, your brain trips out and you lose consciousness. Brain activity can be affected by a number of things, such as oxygen being cut off to certain parts, or a blood vessel bursting.
Although the brain has a texture like jelly, the two hemispheres are heavy, and the brainstem connecting them to the rest of the nervous system is narrow, as the name suggests. When the head is moved violently, for instance as the result of one of Mike Tyson’s killer left hooks, the brain moves around in the skull.
As a result, significant pressure is exerted on the brainstem, which can be twisted and pulled, causing brain circuits to break, lose their insulation, or get tangled, which shuts off parts of the brain. If the part of the brainstem responsible for consciousness is affected – it’s a knockout! Congratulations – assuming you’re not the one on the receiving end…
A number of studies have shown that having a thick neck is linked to a lower risk of knockouts and concussions (which aren’t precisely the same thing). [R] [R] The logic is very simple: more muscle means more stability (i.e. less movement as a result of a sharp blow).
Whether you box, are a mixed martial artist or wrestler, or a rugby or American football player, training your neck really can save your brain serious trauma. Heck, even former WWE superstar Kurt Angle won an Olympic Gold Medal with a broken freakin’… you can guess the final word to that sentence, but had he not developed superhuman muscularity atop his shoulders, his career, at the very least, would have been cut very short.
Rugby players sustain repeated trauma to this area through scrummaging, rucking, mauling, and tackling — which is why it is of paramount important to train it directly in addition to their weight training regimens.
Although somewhat protected by helmets, American football players suffer extremely high impact collisions resulting in a few deaths every year.
YOU WILL HAVE FEWER HEADACHES AND LESS NECK PAIN (AND YOU’LL BE MORE ATTRACTIVE)
Yes, we do like this artist’s impression of what the average office worker might look like in 2050
I know that we’ve already trotted out this image of an average office worker in 2050 more than once – it’s featured in our recent articles on how to improve your energy levels and on ten ways that having low testosterone will ruin your life – but it’s of relevance here as well. If you have a weak neck, like most office workers who spend their days craning forward to look at the screen in front of them, you’re much more likely to experience headaches and neck pain, neither of which is desirable; you’ll also display bad posture, aka ‘nerd neck’, which absolutely makes you less attractive.
Those who are more internet savvy will have seen the ‘Chad vs Virgin’ meme — the ‘Virgin’ is hunched over, conveying a distinct lack of confidence or prowess; his ‘Chad’ counterpart stands proudly, unaffectedly by the world around him. Instead, he molds his surroundings.
Standing tall expresses confidence instead of awkwardly observing the floor in a desperate attempt to avoid eye contact.
The infamous ‘nerd neck’
It is well known that tension headaches are linked to neck weaknesses. Muscular imbalances in the neck can pull the head forward, which results in continuous muscular activity in the neck, leading to pain in the neck and headaches. [R] Weakness in the muscles over time can also lead to degeneration of the spine. [R] Chronic pain of any sort is no laughing matter, and neck and back pain can be particularly acute and unbearable, as anybody suffering from either or both will tell you. Such pain can lead to depression and even suicide. [R] [R]
By improving the strength of your neck, you’ll almost certainly improve your posture, making you more attractive to boot. Pickup artists endlessly expostulate about the benefits of improving the way you hold yourself, and as charmless as these gentlemen may be, they do have a point. Posture conveys messages about you – right or wrong – which people pick up on instinctively.
And don’t forget body language comprises 70% of the conversation; you lack presence if you’re staring at their feet, exuding a submissive and fearful attitude that won’t win over much sympathy.
People with bad posture generally tend to be judged shorter, older and fatter – none of which will make you more attractive. Quite the opposite. [R]
NECK TRAINING: ANATOMY
Here we’ll briefly discuss the main muscles on the front and back of the neck, including their anatomical functions, before we discuss the best ways to train your neck.
On the front of the neck, the largest muscle is the sternocleidomastoid, which performs forward and lateral flexion, as well as rotation. The scalene muscles, like the sternocleidomastoid, also perform forward and lateral flexion.
On the back of the neck, the largest muscle by far is the trapezius, which contracts to perform neck extension, scapular elevation and lateral flexion and rotation of the neck. The splenius muscles extend the neck and the levator scapulae performs scapular elevation.
The range of motion (below)
Neck training: how to train the neck
The evidence suggests that the best way to train the neck is directly. Although when you’re doing heavy deadlifts or barbell rows it might feel like you’re also really working your neck – largely as a result of isometric contractions required to stabilise the head and neck – it would appear that only direct training is responsible for increases in neck size and strength. The good news is, you don’t have to do much to have a serious effect.
As one study puts it, ‘short-term resistance training does not provide a sufficient stimulus to evoke neck muscle hypertrophy unless specific neck exercises are performed’. For the study participants who actually performed specific neck exercises, adding just nine sets a week of 10 weighted neck extensions saw a cross-sectional increase of 13% in the size of the neck muscles, in just 12 weeks. [R]
So: not a great deal of direct work is required to elicit decent growth of the neck muscles. This chimes with my own personal experience. Doing just two sets of two exercises (neck extensions and neck curls) three times a week has taken my neck well beyond 18” in circumference in a period of less than a year. I’ve never done less than 15 reps a set, and sometimes do as many as 25.
This would be my recommendation for entering the world of neck training. Perform between two and three sets of neck extensions and neck curls, two to three times a week, to target the musculature of both the front and the back of the neck. Stick to a rep range of between 10 and 20 reps per set. The worst thing you can do is go too heavy and risk injuring your neck, especially if you’re unused to performing neck exercises, so take it slow and build up the weight gradually over time. Focus on performing the exercises with the correct form.
We’ve focused on extension and flexion alone, without separate exercises for lateral flexion or rotation, because extension and flexion will work the most important muscles of the neck, which will provide the most strength and size. If you want, over time, you can add lateral flexion and rotation exercises, but there’s no reason to complicate things at the outset.
You’ll want to perform the curls with a weight plate. The extensions can also be performed with a weight plate, or alternatively with a harness.
Here are two form videos with Mike ‘the Machine’ Bruce, who in 2007 set a world record for the neck extension by repping 300lbs for two repetitions.
Alternatively, if you have no access to weights of any form at the moment, you can simply use the mass of your head alone to perform curls and extensions. If you do this, we recommend aiming for a higher rep range, such as 50-75. Again, start off conservatively and build up the numbers gradually.
Generally speaking, smaller muscles with fairly limited ranges of motion require higher rep ranges to elicit the best response.
Athletes can incorporate this style of training at the end of their workouts on days that indirectly activate the area. For example, on back days where the head has to be kept stable through deadlifts, rows, and pulldowns.
You could also sprinkle in these exercises after leg days as much effort is required to stabilize the head when squatting.
Alternatively, you can perform them wherever and whenever you like if you wish to reap the various rewards of developing what is perhaps the most underdeveloped part of most lifters’ bodies.
Of course, the only downside to applying these training principles would be finding shirts with collars wide enough to accommodate the tree stump bridging your head and torso.
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