Neck Training for Balance, Speed, and Strength

By on November 12, 2019

You guys have been asking me to cover neck training for a while now. I’d resisted thus far though, as I never want to cover a topic until I have something genuinely new and interesting to present that I haven’t already seen on YouTube. Until I can put my Bioneer spin on it.

Vegeta neck training

So I spent a few days doing some heavy research and boy, there is a LOT of untapped potential in the neck that I’m now very excited to share.

Arguments for training the neck normally go as follows:

  • It’s aesthetically pleasing. Large musculature with a thin neck looks odd, and means you won’t look stacked when you’re wearing clothes. There are plenty of photoshopped images showing what bulky dudes look like with scrawny necks, and it’s not pretty! We have a higher abundance of androgen receptors in our necks and traps, meaning that these areas grow faster in response to testosterone. A thick neck is an evolutionary sign that you are alpha. A scrawny neck on the other hand is simply a target for your competitors.
  • It can prevent concussion in sports. Particularly in combat sports – having thick neck muscles helps you to absorb impacts and thereby prevents the brain from rattling in the skull. This can prevent concussive blows (study) which may prevent chronic brain damage over time.

Those are fairly good reasons to train the neck, but it turns out that the neck is actually far more crucial to your actual athletic performance and even mental performance than all that!

Neck harness training

The Hidden Benefits of Neck Training

Let’s not forget, the neck is the conduit between the brain and the rest of the body. This is the most important junction for your nervous system, so it’s rather crucial.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that strengthening the muscles of the neck can actually improve the transmission of signals from the brain to the rest of the nervous system. Of course this is also the main entry point for oxygen, so strengthening your neck may be a good way to protect against choke holds and strangulation.

Neck strength concussion prevention

More surprising is that your neck muscles actually contribute to your breathing action! Training your neck then can also theoretically improve vo2 max. Specifically, the scalenes which handle lateral flexion of the cervical spine (neck) contract and relax to help create pressure differentiation that acts like a secondary pump for air.

Your neck muscles actually contribute to your breathing action

And what about the neck’s role in keeping the head steady? When we run or jump, our neck and head provide a self-stabilising mechanism to help keep our vision level (along with the muscles in the eyes). During a landing the head is naturally pitched forward and will roll and yaw. As the trunk accelerates forward and backward, the head likewise risks being left behind affecting athleticism. The neck needs to counteract these forces to keep the head in place. At the same time, this helps to balance the entire body, and to provide the nervous system with crucial information about orientation and position to allow for correct balance, even eye movements use this data in order to help hold a steady gaze during movement.

The neck is also what we use to intentionally rotate and angle the skull. Your vision is a weapon: the ability to track objects and people crucial to sports, combat, and survival situations. A strong, fast, neck is critical to this. All this falls under the topic of “eye-head coupling.”

head-eye coupling training

In fact, here is a fun experiment: try keeping your head up and looking forward with one hand placed on the back of your neck. Now, still keeping your head still, dart your eyes from left to right. You’ll find you can actually feel small muscles in the neck flexing! Those are your splenius capitis right there (study).

This is a natural reflex that prepares the neck to follow the gaze and begin your next movement! Well know neck training advocate coach Mike Gittleson puts this simply as “where the head goes, the body follows.”

Studies even show that inducing contractions in the neck can actually lead to involuntary eye movements! (study)

Of course we also use the neck in order to generate torque when performing various acrobatic moves, and to help thrust ourselves into the air during a vertical jump. This really is a part of your “core” strength, and if you are training your abs but not your neck, then this can actually lead to imbalances – as we will see shortly.

We also use the neck in order to generate torque when performing various acrobatic moves

So yes, neck training is important. The next question: how do we go about it?

Common Neck Training and Isometrics

Conventional wisdom tells us that we can strengthen our necks with shrugs, deadlifts, rows, face pulls, and other movements that target the back. These will certainly strengthen the traps, providing the look of greater yoke and some head support. But it’s not enough when you consider all the roles that the neck has to play, as we just discussed.

The primary role of the traps is moving the scapular however, and as Jeff Nippard points out in his excellent video on the topic – this actually isn’t backed by the research. Rather, studies show that direct neck training is far superior when it comes to increasing the neck circumference.

Direct neck training generally means curling plates. To do this, you will lie on a bench so that your head and neck are jutting out just over the edge. You’ll then hold a weight to your head, with a thick towel in-between to prevent it hurting. Hold onto the plate to guide it, but make sure the neck is doing the actual work.

neck curls training

There are three primary exercises you can use in this manner. These are:

  • Neck flexion – Moving the head forward so that the chin touches the chest
  • Lateral neck flexion – Tilting the head from side to side, like a quizzical pup
  • Neck extension – Tilting your head back so that you are looking up at the ceiling

Make sure to use a relatively light weight – around 10lbs – and to build up extremely slowly. Do NOT go to failure, and stop if you notice any sign of discomfort. It’s just not worth injuring your neck.

Another option for this kind of training is to use a harness. This straps around your head, and allows you to dangle a weight plate directly.

 Another option is to use a band, or even to have someone else tug or push your head!

My preference though is to use isometric training, and this is what I recommend in my book. Isometric training means static training, and in this case you’ll be taking a hand and pressing it against the side of your face as you try to bend your neck in the desired direction.

isometric neck training

You’ll be using an overcoming isometric here, but I still advice against applying 100% force. Instead, aim for about 70 to begin with and work up. You can hold each position for a total of 6 seconds, and I recommend 3 reps.

We know from previous videos that this kind of isometric training will have an area of effect of about 30 degrees. That means you want to use three separate positions for each movement. That totals 9 reps for each direction.

Isometric training is not only highly versatile and convenient, but it also means that the resistance will be constant through the entire range of motion (an issue when using weights or bands). And as we’ll see, it actually allows for even more types of training.

Three More Neck Exercises for Your Consideration

These are not the only exercises I recommend for neck training however. Three other key types of movement are:

  • Rotation
  • Protrusion
  • Retraction

Rotation obviously means twisting the head from side to side.

This is actually one of the most important aspects of neck strength to train. That’s because twisting the head is of course that movement that comes prior to changing direction on the spot in athletics. It’s also one of the most common types of movement in a concussive blow: imagine being hit in the cheek with a hook. To prevent your brain rattling around like pills in a pot, you need to resist that force and remain looking mostly forward.

Twisting the head is of course that movement that comes prior to changing direction on the spot in athletics.

The reason this gets left out often though, is that it can be hard to train without specialist equipment. UNLESS that is, you are training your neck using isometrics. Which we are.

The same goes for protrusion and retraction, which means jutting your neck and jaw out forward (useful when running and when resisting a direct blow to the front of the head or face), or moving them directly backward along the sagittal plane. Turtling.

Add these additional six movements to your isometric routine then to train other muscles groups such as the splenius muscles used in rotation, and the levator scapulae.

Neck Bridges – Cool or Dumb?

There is one other movement you’ve likely come across if you’ve been researching this topic: the neck bridge. Used in wrestling and kung fu, this involves bending backwards in order to support your weight on your feet and your head.

This is a controversial movement however, with many people feeling it has a bad risk-reward ratio.

Shaolin headspring

The issue is that this exercise creates a lot of compression, which is best described by Jeff Cavalier from Athlean-X. As he explains: the neck bridge is a closed chain exercise, it places an awful lot of pressure on the vertebrae at the top of the neck. As we know, placing a lot of pressure on bone can cause it to build up and thicken. In the neck, this can lead to the creation of unwanted bone spurs (osteophytes). THIS is what leads to impingement, as there is less space for the nerves to travel through.

So it’s not a matter of doing the movement incorrectly, or not being strong enough. The issue is that over a long period of time, the neck bridge can cause unhealthy adaptations. And that’s on top of the obvious risk of making a mistake and injuring yourself in the short term.

Don’t risk your neck.

Do plenty of people use neck bridges for decades with no issues? Of course! But with there being such a risk, and so many other perfectly viable ways to train the neck, I don’t see there being any compelling reason to risk it. Even the yoga headstand emphasizes that the pressure should be predominantly or entirely on the forearms and shoulders.

Don’t risk your neck.

Posture and Neck Mobility

Want to go even further beyond? Then we might look to ballet science in order to see how to get even more from our necks. Here, we see a greater emphasis on balancing the scalene and levator scapulae in order to provide better stabilization from the neck.

If you develop muscular imbalances in the neck, this can cause an imbalance in the neck that can negatively affect balance and agility. This is a big problem today as we spend so much time texting and typing, and it might present itself as poor posture. For example, you may find that you have a forward head position, which could mean that your sternocleidomastoid muscle is compensating for a weaker transverse abdominis.

Pistol squat posture

Similarly, unbalanced tightness in one of the scalene muscles can actually cause your head to slightly tip to one side! Tightness in the jaw can even restrict head movement – try clenching your jaw as hard as you can and then looking left and right quickly. You’ll feel the difference!

How do we correct this? Our neck training regime will provide us with a good starting point, but beyond this, we should also work to maintain proper posture throughout the day. That means keeping the shoulders back and neck up – imagine that someone is trying to lift you up by your ears, bringing your neck up and back in the process, before slightly raising your chin. Imagine you are looking at someone with snooty disdain. This simple fix can help you to then bring in your TVA and to engage the rotators in your hips. This will improve your stability through every movement and it begins with the neck.

Hollow Body Hold

Shout out to Ballerina Badass for this tip!

It also becomes apparent that training the core properly – working the transverse abdominis with movements like the hollow body for example – should go hand in hand with proper neck training.

Stretching and warming up the neck can further help to allow for proper, healthy movement. Gently move the head from side to side, and try rolling it on the spot for a dynamic warm up prior to workouts. You can later use static stretches by gently pushing the head in each direction to the point where you feel a gentle – not painful – stretch. Stretching the shoulders and back is also important, and dancers will use a number of stretches and dance postures to help build better control and muscle memory.

Balance and Ballerina Neck Training

The neck contains many muscle spindles, which are used to relay information back to the body about the position of the head. This is used in conjunction with information from the eyes and the ear canals in order to ascertain balance.

In other words, if the head is tipped to one side, then the nervous system expects there to be a corresponding shortening and lengthening of various muscles in the neck that suggest you have intentionally tipped your head. In lieu of those, it suggests you are falling – and the body will automatically call a host of stabilizing core muscles – including those of the neck – into action to try and help right you again.

Practice moving while being consciously aware of your neck muscles and how they are contracting and relaxing to support your normal movement. Try to keep your head as level as possible using the ballerina stance I described as the rest of your body moves during calisthenics, martial arts, and other practices. Do this especially during movements that involve some aspect of balance, such as pistol squats. It’s hard work, but the eventual result will be a feeling of lightness and ease of mobility.

Conclusions

Neck training with harness

As you can see then, neck training is about much more than just plate curls. The cervical spine is the crucial end point of core stability and is the prime instigator of movement and balance. Greater strength in this area will improve your posture, your mobility, your balance, your resilience, and your ability to leap into action – turning you into an apex predator on the pitch and in life.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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