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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
August 03, 2023
The most overlooked muscle trained in the human body is the neck.
Heck, is the neck even a muscle? Yes. Yes, it is. And since it's a muscle, we know we can train it.
Even though it's often overlooked, a strong and muscular neck is one of the most defining features, giving a lifter that jacked look that instantly portrays they're serious about their gym time. At the same time, a stronger neck will help prevent injury, and direct neck training can even decrease persistent pain.
This article will cover what you need to know about training your neck, including its benefits and the best exercises you can do.
Table of Contents:
Above, we noted that the neck is indeed a muscle. Technically, that's not entirely correct, as the neck is simply the area of the body that connects the head to the body. That's like saying the arm is a muscle.
However, the neck does contain muscles, including a ton of small, little muscles that provide stability and mobility for things like swallowing and breathing. Most importantly, there are four large muscles that you need to be aware of when training.
The trapezius muscle, also known simply as the traps, is a large muscle shaped like an elongated trapezoid (4-sided shape). The upper part goes up the neck, the sides run down the top of the shoulder, and the bottom lands about halfway down the back. It's so large that it's broken up into three parts:
Many people are only concerned with the upper traps as this is the part that supports the neck. It also raises behind the neck to provide that "jacked" look. While these may look good in the mirror, all the traps, even the lower ones, play a role in neck support and proper movement. This means that performing trapezius exercises is crucial to your training!
The levator scapulae originates on the cervical spine at C1-C4 and inserts on the medial border of the scapula.
It's a long thin muscle running down the neck's side, making it one of your posterior neck muscles. The levator scapulae's primary role is the elevation and retraction of the shoulder blades and extending and flexing of the neck laterally.
Not only is it important to train this muscle, but it's also important to stretch it! For some great exercises, check out our article on 5 Levator Scapulae Stretches.
The sternocleidomastoid is a large two-headed muscle that runs down both sides of the neck. The two heads originate from different sections, which means they have slightly different roles. One head originates from the medial third of the clavicle at your upper chest while the other originates from the temporal bone.
Its primary jobs are the lateral flexion of the neck and neck rotation. In addition, both heads can flex to cause neck flexion.
The scalene muscles are a set of three, paired, lateral neck muscles. These three pairs sit on the lateral neck's anterior, middle, and posterior.
They originate from the C3-C6 vertebrae and insert onto the first rib's scalene tubercle and superior border. The scalene muscles function as accessory muscles for breathing while also playing a role in all neck movements.
Training the neck is critical to any training program, as it's not just for looks. Here are a few of the many benefits we love.
After the pejorative "chicken legs," the term "pencil neck" is one of the most common jabs delivered to a man's physique. A small neck on a man can dramatically affect their physique and general presence.
Not only can it look off compared to the rest of your bodybuilding, it can make you look less intimidating. Including specific neck training in your program is all you need to get that "yoked" look.
This should be somewhat obvious, but a stronger, thicker neck can withstand more stress. Your neck contains the key muscles supporting your head and neck, ultimately protecting it from injury.
To prevent these injuries, you must exhibit high isometric strength, allowing you to mitigate strong movements from high-force impacts. If your head can't counteract these movements, it will snap back, increasing the chance of spinal injury or concussions.
Above, we saw how a solid, muscular neck can prevent injury. But what if you already have pain? You should still strengthen your muscles to find relief.
Performing either endurance or strength training effectively increases the Na +-K +-pump concentration. This causes an increase in the number of capillaries in the trapezius muscles, thus reducing pain.
There are a few more mechanisms by which neck training counteracts pain, but researchers still aren't sure which is the main factor. Regardless, it doesn't matter how it works; all we know is that it works.
Short-term training can provide faster results, but these are transitory and will disappear after training. Therefore, to ensure long-lasting changes, engage in regular strength training. Prolonged strength training will increase strength, range of motion and improve mobility, ultimately reducing pain.
A study from 2010 ran a year-long study on the effect of different training methods on neck pain1. These three were:
After a year, they found that all three methods for training the neck muscles positively affected neck pain. Strength training had the most significant effect while stretching was last.
As mentioned above, your neck muscles, specifically the scalene muscle, are active in breathing. This muscle constricts and expands to assist in respiration.
Weak neck muscles hinder your ability to breathe efficiently, which is especially important during high-intensity exercise.
I am now going to go over my favorite exercises to build a thicker neck. I first want to note that there are a lot of great exercises that will build a thicker neck. Your traps are part of your neck muscles, so any pulling motion will train them.
For example, deadlifts build thicker necks, but they won't be on this list as you should already be doing them. Instead, this list will include exercises more specific to the multiple muscles that support and manipulate your neck.
We said we'd include the shrug, but this version is slightly different from what you may have been expecting.
When most people perform shrugs, it's done so with the load beneath the traps so that the muscles are pulling the load up. There's nothing wrong with this - in fact, you'll perform a variation like this below. However, despite being rare, an overhead shrug is one of the best neck exercises you can do.
As for the rep scheme to follow, like other shrugs, you are better off using a heavier load as the movement pattern is so small. Hold the load at the top with an isometric hold for best results. Target 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps each, with a 5-second isometric hold at the top.
How to do the Snatch Grip Overhead Shrug:
Now onto the shrug exercise you're probably thinking about. If you haven't done it in the gym, you've likely seen people load up a heavy barbell and get to work.
When planning rep schemes, like the shrug above, you should use a heavier load with low reps and an isometric hold at the top. Aim for 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps each, with a 5-second isometric hold at the top.
How to do the Front Barbell Shrug:
If you have ever watched Olympic wrestlers, one thing you'll notice is that they all have thick necks. The reason is that they train neck bridges basically every day, as it's a move they can use to avoid being pinned.
What's awesome about the neck bridge is that you can do it anywhere since you only need your body weight. It also lets you train the neck muscles in a forward, back, and lateral direction, meaning you can hit every neck muscle. Neck flexion, extension, lateral... you get it all.
The neck bridge is a bodyweight exercise, so giving an exact rep scheme is difficult. Instead, use RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and perform reps until you hit a 7-8 (70-80% max intensity). If you have the strength, rotate through each direction in the same session. If not, rotate in different directions throughout the week.
Note: This is more of an advanced movement and may not be suitable for beginners.
How to do the Neck Bridge:
The upright row is another excellent exercise for growing your traps. In fact, it is one of the best neck exercises after the shrug in terms of muscle activation, but it requires a smaller load.
Looking for more great options? Check out these 9 Best Upright Row Alternatives.
How to do the Upright Row:
If you look at Olympic weightlifters, they all have bigger neck muscles than most due to the massive stress placed on them during the pull. Specifically, the neck muscles are worked during the second pull when you perform a powerful shrugging movement (we'll go over specific directions below).
The good thing is that you don't need to perform Olympic lifts to build bigger neck muscles. Instead, you can perform the snatch grip high pull. This movement starts by grabbing a bar off the floor with a wide snatch grip. You then perform the first pull with triple extension and an explosive shrug to pull the weight up.
When determining the rep scheme for your neck workout, keep in mind the snatch grip high pull is a power-strength movement. Further, you need to use solid form, or you can put yourself at risk of injury. As such, I suggest using heavier loads with low reps and high sets. This translates to 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps each.
If you enjoy these, try out some more Olympic weightlifting movements, featured in SET FOR SET's Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program.
How to do the Snatch Grip High Pull:
Now let's look at some specific questions lifters have about training their neck.
Growing a thick neck isn't necessarily hard. You don't even need designated neck workouts. You just need to make including neck exercises a priority. Further, you must be consistent.
The length of time it takes to grow a thick neck can depend on several factors.
Partially. Like every body part, genetics and your body type do play a role in how big your neck is naturally.
Yes. Using too much volume or too heavy of loads can injure the muscles in the neck. In addition, using poor form can also injure the muscle.
Putting muscle mass on your traps and other neck muscles isn't that difficult. All you need to do is lift with purpose and include a neck exercise or two.
These major neck muscles will grow just like your other muscles if you follow the basic principles of hypertrophy. Perform progressive overload, eat a surplus of calories, and use the exercises in this article.
Do that, and you can be sure no one will call you "pencil neck."
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