It’s the key component of good posture and upper body strength that people neglect the most.
The truth is, neck training flies under the radar as less important than basically any other part of the body.
In truth, it matters a whole lot.
Training involves every part of the body, and ignoring this weak link can cause problems down the chain if you let it.
Luckily, I’m here to help.
There are a few things to think about if you want the neck to play its role in good posture and upper body health. First, let’s consider what not to do.
First: Trap Training isn’t Real Neck Training. Enough with the Shrugs!
I guarantee this is the first place you thought to start when it comes to training your neck. Sure, the traps origin is in the base of the skull. So technically, they count as your neck. But it's important to remember that they're also the most superficial neck muscles too.
Since they like to dominate so much, the thing they're most likely to do is reinforce an imbalance that already exists. If we want to really have an effect on our neck strength and posture, we're going to have to look deeper.
Tip 1: Don’t Exaggerate the Other Movements
In movements like the strict press, squat, bench press and deadlift, the head position is important. It’s crucial for us to remember that when lifting our goal as lifters should almost always be to maintain a neutral spine while bearing load. This directive includes the cervical spine too – not just the thoracic and lumbar.
That means during squats, deadlifts, weighted push-ups and dips, and more, it's not wise to look up, slouch, tilt, or otherwise lose our head posture. This can end up causing neck strain and even have a negative effect on our nerves and their conduction.
A very commonly overlooked mistake many make comes during overhead pressing patterns. A cue often used is that of “getting the head through the window” you create with your arms. The problem is, many lifters acknowledge that cue, but tremendously exaggerate its execution.
All of a sudden, the top of a strict press or push press ends up looking like the head is in front of the body, and no longer stacked over the spine where it belongs. To understand the danger of this, allow me to explain and demonstrate below.
Tip 2: It’s Not Only about Extension
When it comes to poor posture through the head, neck, and back, many view the answer coming in the form of doing the opposite – hitting the extensors of the spine through all their segments.
Though this is helpful and in good intention, it discounts the possibility (and reality) that many times the deep flexors of the spine – especially the intrinsic muscles of the neck, aren't only tight – they’re weak too.
Being able to strengthen muscles from both sides is important if you really want to make change happen and develop a stronger set of muscles.
Tip 3: Start with Isometrics
Remember – getting a strong neck can improve posture, and having strong postural muscles means you'll stand taller with less susceptibility to chronic pain.
But while we're at it, we have to remember the nature of postural muscles. Using logic and considering their role, it's safe to say that postural muscles will respond best to high time under tension, endurance-based exercise.
Performing a set of 6 reps on a given heavy movement may work some, but not as well as a 20 or 30 second isometric hold. These can be humbling even with no additional load placed on the body.
For the simplest isometrics available for strengthening the neck, start with chin tucks and neck flexions.
1. Chin Tucks
Stand with your back, legs, and feet completely against a wall. You'll probably notice that your head stays off of it naturally. Take a towel, and place it behind your head, and gradually but firmly, press your head back into the towel, smothering it against the wall.
Tuck your chin into your neck when doing this, and aim for the crown of your head to touch the ceiling. Hold these for sets of 15-30 seconds.
2. Neck Flexions
Set yourself up on your back, under a stable, immovable object located directly above your forehead. Three inches of space between your forehead and the object is plenty. I like using a heavily loaded barbell or setting up under fixed pins in the squat cage.
Again, place a towel between your forehead and the surface. Gradually but firmly, press your head into the surface, this time aiming to protrude the chin as much as possible while applying full force. Hold these for sets of 15-30 seconds.
Tip 4: Introducing the Back Plank
In many ways, this exercise, which is a bit more advanced, puts everything I've written above together neatly. Holding an isometric that engages all of the back muscles while working against that with the neck, making it enter flexion creates the perfect storm for head, neck, and upper back training.
And all you need is a pair of benches to do it. Make sure the benches are the same height and keep them close to one another to start. The further apart that you keep them, the harder the exercise becomes.
Keep clenched fists to complete a closed chain of tension through the upper body, and make sure those fists are facing the roof at all times. Feel free to engage the rest of the body also, including the quads and glutes. Start with 15 second holds, and increase the time and the lever arms to double up on difficulty. Check out the video to see this in action.
Tip 5: Neck Bridges
When you’ve gotten a handle on the movements above, taking a page out of wrestlers’ books by adding neck bridges to your routine would be a smart progression.
These are the most demanding and require good T-spine extension and flexibility through the shoulder joints. With that said, if you’re lacking in either department, this isn’t for you.
Make sure you’re setting yourself up on a soft surface. Using a mat goes without saying here. Set your hands beside your shoulders and keep the back of your head on the mat. Gently roll into a bridge, maintaining head contact the entire time. Use your hands to help you up to the top position.
Try to keep from ending up directly on the top of your head; instead, focus on using the area closer to the back of the head to bridge upwards. Next, lower yourself slowly to the start position, doing your best to avoid using your hands if you can.
Zeroing in on the eccentric portion of the neck bridge like this will be a great way to build up to concentric bridges. If this is still too hard, do these on a raised surface, and not the floor.
Get Ahead! (See What I Did There?)
If you want to take your gains to the next level, and also sustain your gains and strength for the long haul, it’s imperative that at some point you look at the little things.
Getting a stronger neck can end up being a game-changer for your upper body health, nerve conduction, posture, and even chronic pain in the form of headaches or migraines.
You owe it to yourself to pepper this stuff in. You’ll be happy once you do.