Wednesday, June 24, 2015

5 Exercises to Strengthen Your Neck

In the prequel to this post, I explained why so many of us carry a lot of tension in the neck. Stress, poor posture, and breathing can all contribute to elevated shoulders and a heavy head. I taught you a few quick movements that will strengthen the muscles of the chest, back and shoulders, and today I want to teach you some more exercises that will emphasize the neck musculature.

Lately, I've initiated my posts with a little bit of an anatomy lesson, so I'd like to continue that trend and talk a little bit more about the prime movers of the neck and their functions. First, we have the sternocleidomastoid muscles. I know, that name has a hell of a lot of syllables. The sternocleidomastoids (say that 10 times as fast as you can) are two big, strips of muscles that are on either side of your throat. They rotate the cervical spine (the neck), flex your neck forward, and also flex it laterally. Next, you have the scalenes. The scalenes are several tinier strands that wrap around the front of the neck. They work in conjunction with the sternocleidomastoids and laterally flex the neck and help you breathe. There are several other muscles in the neck, of course, but these are going to be the few that I discuss for the purposes of this post.

Now, the majority of people spend most of their time in cervical flexion, meaning that they are looking down at a computer, a book, or a smart phone. The upper trapezius are lengthened and over-active, while the sternocleidomastoids (SCM) are shortened and tight. When upright, many people maintain this position, because the body is lazy and doesn't like to recruit any more muscles than it needs for a given task. We walk around all day looking like the hunchbacks of Notre Dame.

The primary role of the head and neck, though, is to maintain joint centration and navigate our centers of mass. If our heads are cranked forward, now the entire system is out of line. Your center of mass has shifted from its ideal position, your "center," directly over your pelvis. Ideally, we want the earlobes in line with the shoulders.

If your center of gravity is too far forward or backwards, all of your movements will be altered from your clean and jerk to your 40 yard time. Alignment = optimal mechanics and balance.

Many coaches of sports like wrestling and football prioritize training the neck to avoid concussions and other potentially traumatic traumas to the head. While many of these teams make use of high-tech machines to isolate the neck, I believe neck training is best done (especially initially) without any added weight. Your head should be more than enough!

Here are 5 of my favorite exercises:

1. Neck flexion
2. Neck Extension

3. Lateral Flexion  

4. Neck Rotation (prone) 
5. Neck Rotation (supine)

Each of these movements can be done for 1-3 sets of 10 repetitions. I recommend starting out with only one or two sets, because you may find that you will be fairly sore after these exercises. The great thing about these movements is that they don't require equipment, and they won't take you long. I recommend my clients do them upon waking up or before bed.

The idea is to realign your center of mass so that you can perform most efficiently. Your balance will improve, you will better your hip and shoulder stability, and all of your muscles will function as they should. Find your center and master your body.

Works Cited:

  1. Collins, Christy L., Erica N. Fletcher, Sarah K. Fields, Lisa Kluchurosky, Mary Kay Rohrkemper, R. Dawn Comstock, and Robert C. Cantu. "Neck Strength: A Protective Factor Reducing Risk for Concussion in High School Sports." J Primary Prevent The Journal of Primary Prevention 35.5 (2014): 309-19. Web.
  2. Falla, D., G. Jull, T. Russell, B. Vicenzino, and P. Hodges. "Effect of Neck Exercise on Sitting Posture in Patients With Chronic Neck Pain." Physical Therapy 87.4 (2007): 408-17. Web.
  3. Keating, Jennifer. "Predicting Short Term Response and Non-Response to Neck Strengthening Exercise for Chronic Neck Pain." Journal of Whiplash & Related Disorders 4.1 (2005): 43-55. Web.


  1. This information has been incredibly helpful. I am constantly having neck pain and I have paid tons of money for massages and chiropractors and even doctors. They all provide temporary pain relief. I have been doing these exercises everyday for the past few days and I already feel so much better. I don't have to think about neck pain anymore.

    Jacqueline Hodges @ Dr Koziol

    1. I'm so glad that you've found them helpful!!

  2. Will these exercises help tighten loose skin/ double chin?

    1. They will strengthen the muscles which will increase tonus, but ultimately improving body composition through a proper diet is most important!