Sandwiched between your head and shoulders, the neck is the pedestal for your head. Your head houses your brain; the central computer responsible for every aspect of your life. Quite simply, if your neck wasn’t able to hold up your head then you would be unable to function normally. Neck muscles contract to adjust the posture of the head throughout the course of the day and have some of the greatest endurance of any muscles in the body.
Consequently ensuring that you have functionally strong neck muscles will make a major contribution to your overall wellness and improve your ability to perform every day tasks, as well as live an active life, and participate in fitness and sports activities.
Benefits of strong neck muscles
There are many benefits to strengthening what is typically one of the weakest muscle groups in the upper body:
Improved overall functional strength and appearance
A strong neck will contribute to overall functional strength. Additionally, toned neck muscles can improve your overall physique. Great for those low cut necklines - who wants to wear polo-necks and scarves all the time?!
Poor posture, awkward sleeping positions, and age-related stiffness can lead to muscle imbalances and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, which can lead to pain or headaches. People who spend long hours seated at a desk are especially vulnerable to neck issues. This is due to slouching forward while writing or looking at a computer screen, and often poorly adjusted chairs and desk heights, which places a lot of strain on their neck.
Whilst it is primarily important to maintain a good posture at all times, especially whilst seated at a desk, building a strong neck will help prevent pain and injuries that can occur as a result of poor posture (as well as train your body to adopt and maintain a better posture).
Protection against injuries
A strong neck will also protect you against injuries that can result from lifting heavy objects overhead (e.g. reaching for things above your head in cupboards and on shelves) or accidental impact. Your neck serves as the shock absorber between your body and head.
Consequently, if you are involved in any form of contact sport (e.g., rugby), building a stronger neck can reduce the chance of serious concussion by spreading out the damaging forces that can be generated by an impact to the head.
Improved sports performance
The strength of the neck can also impact the respiratory system and the quality of breathing as several of the neck muscles assist in respiration, especially during demanding exercise. Therefore stronger neck muscles will improve your sports’ performance.
Damaged, weak, or fatigued neck muscles can affect nerve impulses running from the brain through the spinal cord. This can diminish both static and dynamic balance as well as basic locomotive actions. A stronger neck can thus improve balance and locomotion, both of which are important aspects of every sporting and fitness activity you can think of.
Movement of the neck
The neck is the start of the spinal column and spinal cord and is made up of the seven cervical vertebrae. These are the smallest vertebrae in the body. The movements of the neck can be divided into four categories: flexion, extension / hyperextension, lateral flexion and rotation.
Neck flexion is “tilting your head forward” so that your chin moves towards your chest. The primary muscles involved in this movement are the longus colli, longus capitis, and infrahyoids.
Neck extension/hyperextension refers to the action of moving your chin away from your chest. If you continue to move your head backwards you will eventually be looking up - this is hyperextension. This movement recruits the splenius capitis, seminispinalis capitis, suboccipitals, and the trapezius muscles.
Neck lateral flexion this is the action of tilting your head to the side so that your ear moves towards your shoulder. The main muscles involved in this movement are the scalenes.
Neck rotation. Unlike owls, humans can’t turn their head 180 degrees. We can, however, turn our heads from side to side. Neck rotation simply refers to turning your head to the side. The specific muscles involved in rotation are the levator scapula and the suboccipitals, known as the deep neck muscles.
In terms of exercising your neck muscles, working all four functions of the neck will maximise muscle growth whilst minimising muscle injury.
Exercises for the neck
The following exercises will help you build functionally stronger neck muscles. A word of caution, it is very easy to injure your neck muscles if worked incorrectly. Focus on making smooth movements rather than sudden jerks. Also warm up properly, paying particular attention to your shoulder muscles as tight shoulders restrict movement of the neck. Here is an example of actions you can incorporate into your warm up to target the neck muscles.
Start by rotating your shoulders forwards and backwards in big circles, concentrating on taking them through the full range of motions.
Then extend this action by incorporating your arms.
Next, keep your shoulders still and relaxed and slowly turn your head from side to side, five times in each direction.
Then tilt your head forward and return it to a neutral position (head up looking forward), before gently tilting it backwards. Do this five times.
Gently take your ear towards your shoulder, whilst keeping the shoulders relaxed and still. Repeat five times to each side.
Lie on your back on a fitness ball such as Technogym Wellness Ball. Your feet should be hip distance apart and knees in line with your ankles. Make sure your shoulders are on the ball and your head extends out in front of the ball.
Lift your head and bring your chin to your chest for a set of 40 repetitions. Keep your head raised and look to your left for a set of 40. Repeat to the right.
Still keeping your head raised, touch your left ear to your left shoulder for 40 repetitions. Repeat to your right.
Go through this circuit 2-3 times. If you can’t do 40 reps initially do as many as you can and slowly build up as your neck becomes stronger
Isometric Neck Exercises - Front, Back and Sides
With your head and neck in a neutral position, place the palms of both hands on your forehead.
Gently push forward against your palms whilst contracting your neck muscles but resisting any movement of your head. Start with slow tension and increase slowly. Keep breathing normally as you execute this contraction.
Hold for a slow count of eight.
Release the tension slowly.
Rest for a count of 30 and repeat with your hands placed behind your head. This will be easier if your clasp your hands together with your elbows out to the side.
To perform the same exercise to the side, again start with your head and neck in a neutral position. Place your left hand on the left side of your head before performing the contraction. Then reverse the action to the right.
Variations: You can also do this exercise by placing a Technogym Wellness Ball against a wall and pushing with your head against this.
Weighted Lying Neck Flexion
Place a folded towel on a weight plate(s). Lie on your back on a workout bench such as the Pure Strength - Flat Bench, with your weight within easy reach. Or alternatively ask a training partner to pass it to you.
Place your feet on the bench and bring your feet towards your buttocks until you are comfortable and tilt your hips slightly so that your lower back is flat against the bench. Make sure your head extends out in front of the bench, but your shoulders are supported by it.
Place the weight plate on your forehead with towel placed in between for comfort.
Move your head up by flexing your neck until your chin touches your upper chest.
Now move in the opposite direction, hyperextending your neck.
Repeat this action for 8-10 repetitions.
Be careful not to jerk the neck and when hyperextending, take it slowly and don’t force your neck beyond what you can do comfortably. As already stated, it is very easy to injure the neck so start slow, perhaps without any weights and build up over time as your neck gets stronger.