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5 Neck Exercises Experts Recommend to Build Strength

Strengthening the muscles of your neck could help prevent injuries and alleviate neck pain. Try these neck exercises for a stronger neck.

The importance of neck exercises

You’ve probably noticed that football players can be particularly strong through the neck. This isn’t by accident, nor is it (solely) a byproduct of the sport itself.

Rather, football players spend hours in the gym each week developing strength and muscle mass in their necks (and the rest of their bodies) as a way to help prevent injuries commonly associated with the sport.

The muscles of the neck function as excellent shock absorbers when the head receives an impact, and they also help control and slow any quick or sudden movements to help prevent injury.

Just think about it: if you come to a quick stop while driving and your head snaps forward, it’s the muscles of your neck that respond quickly to control the action, then respond again as your head “rebounds” and snaps backward.

But even simple actions, like leaning your head forward at an angle to read texts on your phone, require your neck muscles to engage. This is why your neck may feel sore and tight if you’re constantly looking at your phone, which is sometimes known as text neck.

So while neck-strengthening exercises are super important for athletes like football players, they’re just as crucial for those of us who cheer from the sidelines.

(Ease upper back pain with these stretches.)

Athletic woman doing relaxing stretching exercises.DjelicS/Getty Images

Compound vs. isolation exercises

One thing to think about when crafting a neck-strengthening routine is how best to target the muscles of your neck.

The neck has numerous small muscle groups that play a role in how you move your head, shoulders, chest, and back. You can target them with isolated moves or compound exercises.

“Isolated neck exercises are imperative for strengthening after a specific injury or biomechanical imbalance,” explains Daniel DeLucchi, a chiropractor who practices in Seattle.

That said, compound exercises target multiple muscle groups at once, including the larger muscles. Because of this, they can end up offering a bigger bang for your buck during a workout routine, especially if you aren’t recovering from an injury or imbalance.

If you are dealing with pain or stiffness, a well-rounded approach is likely your best bet.

“When isolated and compound exercises are used together, it provides better stability and recovery as the body performs as a whole,” says DeLucchi.

When strengthening your neck, a solid, well-rounded plan is your best approach.

This should combine compound movements that strengthen the chest, shoulders, and upper back, as well as stability and isolation moves.

Consider the following options when starting your plan.

(Try these chest exercises you can do at home.)

Shoulder Shrug Neck ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-CShoulder Shrugs

Shoulder shrugs primarily target the trapezius or, colloquially, the traps. They’re commonly thought of as back muscles, but they actually run all the way up the back of your neck.

In fact, when you think of thick-necked football players, the traps are what they have developed so well to help prevent impact-related injuries to the head, neck, and back.

The action is just what you’d expect—you’re shrugging your shoulders in a controlled fashion. This can be done with or without weights, but to develop more strength, go ahead and use a set of dumbbells.

How to do it

Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand, your feet hip distance apart, and your core engaged.

Check your posture. Your ears should be stacked above your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.

Without using your arms to help, engage your shoulder blades, pulling them toward your spine. Shrug your shoulders as high as you comfortably can.

Don’t allow your shoulders and chest to roll forward or your neck to collapse downward to make the movement bigger. The goal is to really target the larger trap muscles.

Hold for a beat, then relax your shoulders back down.

Perform two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

(Don’t forget to stretch your rotator cuff.)

Rear Delt Dumbbell FlyCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-CRear Delt Dumbbell Fly

The rear delt dumbbell fly mainly isolates the rear deltoid that runs along the back of the shoulder, attaching at your shoulder blade.

This often-neglected muscle helps with posture and stabilization of the scapula (shoulder blade), which, through connections with other muscles, plays a role in the position of the neck.

The bent-over position of the reverse fly also requires you to work against gravity to engage the muscles of the neck to maintain head alignment with the spine.

How to do it

Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart, knees slightly bent.

Check your posture and engage your core. Keeping your torso straight and tall, maintain your perfect posture as you press your hips back, allowing your chest to tip forward until you reach a roughly 45- to a 60-degree angle.

Make sure your neck and head are aligned with your spine. Your neck shouldn’t be bent down or up. Allow your arms to hang straight down from your shoulders, your palms facing inward.

Bend your elbows outward slightly. From here, squeeze your shoulder blades together and lift your arms outward and upward until the dumbbells are at, or slightly lower than, shoulder level.

Hold for a beat, then reverse the movement, slowly bringing your arms back down.

Complete two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Supine Head LiftsCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-CSupine Head Lifts

Supine head lifts are one option for a more-isolated exercise to strengthen the muscles at the front of your neck while stretching the muscles at the back of your neck.

You can also perform the reverse movement by doing the exercise on your belly, strengthening the muscles at the front of your neck while stretching those at the back of your neck.

How to do it

Lie on a mat on your back with your knees bent, feet planted, and your arms at your sides.

Check your posture, engage your core, and retract your shoulder blades toward your spine. This should help create length at your neck, creating space between your shoulders and ears.

Keep your shoulders fixed to the ground as you perform the exercise.

Lift your head from the ground, using the muscles of your neck to perform the lift.

At the top of the movement, hold the position for a beat before reversing and lowering your head to the mat. Perform two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

(Try these home remedies for neck pain.)

Push Up ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-CPush-ups

Push-ups target the pecs, shoulders, and triceps. You may not think of those as neck muscles, but the pecs and shoulders attach at the clavicle and play a role in posture and stabilization of the neck.

Plus, you’re performing the exercise while keeping your body in a straight, plank position.

This requires engagement of the neck muscles to keep your head in alignment with your spine as you move.

How to do it

Start on your toes and palms in a high plank position. Check to make sure your core is engaged and that your body forms a straight line from the top of your head to your heels.

Your palms should be positioned slightly wider than shoulder distance apart.

Bend your elbows and begin lowering your chest toward the floor, keeping your body straight and aligned as you do so.

When your chest is just shy of touching the ground, press through your palms, reversing the movement to return to the high plank position.

Pay close attention to your neck alignment throughout. Avoid craning or dropping your neck, especially as you get tired.

Perform two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

(Chest stretches can help improve your posture.)

V Sit ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-CV-sits

V-sits are an excellent core exercise that helps develop posture and strengthen the deep abdominal muscles and spinal erectors. Of course, the spinal erectors also play a role in neck stability.

The goal throughout this exercise is to focus on posture and neck alignment, recognizing that you have to keep your shoulders down and back while avoiding craning your neck forward.

How to do it

Sit tall on a mat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Roll your shoulders back and retract your shoulder blades toward your spine, lengthening your neck to create space between your shoulders and ears.

Take a breath in. As you exhale, lean back until you feel your core muscles engage. Check to make sure your torso forms a straight line from your hips to the top of your head.

Lift your feet from the ground, coming into a V position. The goal is to lift your feet until your shins are at least parallel to the floor.

Hold the position for as long as you can with perfect form, aiming for 30 to 60 seconds.

Complete two to three sets.

Next, learn how to combat rounded shoulders.

Sources
  • Daniel DeLucchi, DC, chiropractor at Tuttle Delucchi Chiropractic & Massage in Seattle

Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C
I'm a fitness expert with a master's degree in exercise science and certifications in exercise physiology, yoga, sports nutrition, sports conditioning, behavioral change, and youth fitness. I've written professionally in the field for more than 10 years, with bylines in Men's Journal, VerywellFit, Runner's World, Health, LiveStrong, Onnit, Bodybuilding.com, and Thrillist. I'm also the author of the internationally-published book, Partner Workouts, published by DK Books. In addition to writing about health and fitness, I worked as a professor of exercise science for three years.

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