Neck Pain Relief and Prevention
Here’s a question for you. How many people do you think are looking at their phone right now in the world?
If you answered 989,382,739… you might be right! I don’t know. I was just looking for an answer like “a lot.”
Smartphones give us an unprecedented level of knowledge access and opportunity. However, they can make us sedentary… like, very sedentary. Like much of modern technology, smartphones make us stay still and fix our gaze in one direction. This puts a lot of pressure on the neck. Back surgeon Kenneth Hansraj even claims this pressure can be about as much as 60 pounds. This causes the so-called “text neck,” and it’s a severe problem. You might even be reading this on your phone, rubbing your neck sympathetically. We don’t move our necks much in modern life, and our muscles have atrophied in protest.
The good news of this tangent is the problem is not incurable. A consistent program of bridging helps or cures many spinal issues outright. Investing time in building a strong neck will save you decades of pain by keeping your noggin-holder limber and healthy.
Do you slouch? Most people do. This can come from hours of being hunched over a desk, straining one side of our neck while stiffening the other. Most necks are asymmetrically developed as a result, but following a solid program of neck workouts can solve this in sometimes as little as a few months or even weeks. Like the rest of our body, our neck muscles want to be strong, so give them the opportunity. Stand tall, sailor.
Awareness and Circulation
We haven’t even touched upon the most obvious function of our necks: connecting the body to the head. You know, the thing that holds our brain? Like any movement, neck exercises encourage and build blood flow to the working area. With our necks, this has the pleasant side effect of getting more fresh blood to our brains. This results in increased energy, situational awareness, and reflexes. That’s right; exercise can actually make you smarter. For a dingdong like me, I need every drop of intelligence I can get. I can’t afford not to work my neck.
Alright, enough technicalities. Let’s get into what the exercises will cover.
Fun With Bridges and Levers
Neck training methods can be broken down into two categories: isotonic and isometric. In simple terms, this just means you either try to move or try not to move during the exercise. Most people who already train their necks with calisthenics do so with neck bridges (also called wrestler bridges). There are many variations, but all involve lifting part of one’s body weight with the power of the neck. It’s easy to see why these are popular. They’re great for quickly building neck strength, it’s easy to scale their difficulty, and they require no equipment to perform. Plus, isotonic (movement) exercises are believed to build more muscle. Indeed, a great neck specialization workout can be done with neck bridges alone.
On the other side of the coin, there are isometric neck exercises: ones that involve holding still. Instead of counting repetitions, one measures the time the position is maintained. If you’re thinking that the top part of a neck bridge can also be held as an isometric exercise, you’re absolutely right. These exercises, which I broadly call neck levers, are less popular. If I had to guess why, I would say it’s probably more exciting training to do more of something than doing something for a longer time. Or maybe doing a lever exercise doesn’t feel hard enough.
However, I’m careful not to dismiss them. Remember when I referenced the principle of specificity? The best way to get better at doing something is just through doing it. We’re often called upon to hold our necks and head still. Some examples include getting in a car accident or getting punched in the jaw. In these cases, our neck muscles strain to keep the head stationary. Otherwise, the brain bounces around inside the skull and causes all sorts of problems. This is why I believe a portion of our neck training should be allocated to keeping still against resistance, which is the nature of levers.
This classic wrestling exercise is a staple among combat athletes. Not only does it strengthen the neck, but it also improves balance and flexibility. Because of the nature of bridges, your entire posterior chain will be tested, creating a chain of strength running along your spine. If you’ve never done this exercise before, the new positions can even make your hips and legs sore.
To lessen discomfort, one can use a folded up hand towel on the ground to cushion one’s head against the floor.
Front and Lateral
It is my preference to separate the front sets from the lateral sets. My reasoning for this is that there is an inherent difference between front and back neck muscles (the back are generally stronger). It is fine to work these separately. However, lateral neck muscles should be worked as evenly as possible to maintain strength-balance and minimize pain. I don’t want my front-side reps to detract from this. This is only my preference. Take these exercises, develop them, and make them your own.
- Stand with your feet approximately twice your shoulder width apart.
- Trying to keep your legs straight, bend forward slowly.
- As your head approaches the ground, place your hands on the ground and lower the top of your head between them (onto the towel). Adjust the width of your hands for comfort during the exercise. This is the starting position for front and lateral neck bridges.
To work the front side of your neck:
- Under control, lean your head back until your nose touches the floor. This is the bottom position for the front neck bridge. Do not hyper-extend your neck leaning too far back.
- Focusing as much on contracting your front neck muscles as possible, return to the starting position slowly and steadily by pushing your head down. Use your arms to assist as needed. Do not attempt to do this exercise very quickly.
- Repeat for reps
To work the sides of your neck:
- Under control, lean your head to the right until the tip of your left ear touches the ground.
- Using the strength of your lateral neck muscles, return to the starting position slowly and steadily. I find it helps to envision straightening your neck. Use your arms to assist as needed. Do not do this quickly.
- Pausing for a moment in the starting position, repeat for the other side and repeat for reps. Doing both sides once constitutes one rep.
Making this exercise harder might seem obvious to some: simply use less and less arm assistance until they are no longer needed to do the reps. However, if you’ve already tried removing the hands, you may notice your head sliding further away from your feet during a set. This happens because the hands are no longer there to provide friction and decrease slippage. It also makes the exercise much harder the further away you get. This is another way to progress in this exercise. I recommend using both variables to make this exercise harder.
This movement actually isn’t directly related to neck training, but it stuck with me in wrestling classes enough that I thought I’d include it here. It’s a neat way to go from doing the front and lateral neck bridges to the rear ones.
- After performing your front and lateral neck bridges, return to the starting position.
- Push off with both legs while keeping your head in the same place.
- Allow the power to carry your feet over your head.
- Prepare to land with your feet on the other side of your head
- Land in the starting position of a rear neck bridge.
The first time doing this can feel scary for some people. If it freaks you out too much, don’t do it. However, once your brain accepts that you can land consistently on your feet, you’ll become much more confident in the motion. It’s possible to reverse the movement as well. As in, go from belly up to belly down. However, this requires much more skill, flexibility, and explosive power. I won’t include too much in this section as it is not directly related to neck workouts, but it is a cool skill to master.
This exercise generally looks much more like a calisthenics bridging exercise. In fact, pushing from the starting position to a standard bridge (or wheel pose) is a bridge exercise progression!
- Lie on your back with your feet on the ground a few inches away from your butt. Your palms should be touching the ground on either side of your head with the fingers pointing towards the feet.
- Lift your back off the ground by pushing with your head, arms, and legs. The crown of your head, your palms, and your legs should remain in contact with the ground. You should be looking straight behind you. This is the starting position for the rear neck bridge.
- Under control, lean your head forward until the back of your neck gently touches the ground. This is the bottom position for the rear neck bridge.
- Using the power of your rear neck, slowly and steadily push your head back until you are in the starting position again. Use your arms if needed, but do not lift your head off the ground during the exercise. Some focus is necessary to keep the work on your neck and not your arms and legs.
- Repeat for reps.
Like the front and lateral neck workouts, progression comes from using less arm strength and moving the feet away. As I said, the rear neck muscles generally seem to be stronger, but resist the urge to progress too far beyond the standards of your front and lateral workouts. Keep balance.
Again, neck training is usually considered advanced. Take caution while training to avoid injury. As a general rule, I wouldn’t increase the difficulty of these exercises until I can do 15-20 solid reps at my current difficulty. While this does add some endurance elements to the workout, I find this is worth it to ensure safety. In terms of bone and muscle structure, the neck is much more complex than your legs and arms. As a result, injury is very likely if precautions aren’t taken. Never try testing your “one rep maximum” for neck training and never go to failure. Failing a neck exercise movement can mean pain and immobility for YEARS.
In addition, neck muscles seem to grow faster and stronger with higher reps. I’ve heard this is because of the unique combination of muscle fibers and tendons in the neck. I don’t know for sure on that, but I do know that higher repetitions can also help rehab and injury prevention. Moving your joints around nourishes them with fresh fluid and helps dispose of waste.
I generally include levers after I’ve done my bridges. Neck bridges are less intense and wake my muscles up for the sudden load that levers can demand. My research for this article mostly brought up “hanging” type exercises. While these are certainly impressive, I’ve always trained with “leaning” neck levers. Aside from there being no easy way to train the sides of the neck, I found the front version pressed a metal bar a little too tightly near my larynx for me. My jaw bones get quite uncomfortable, and it doesn’t get better (there’s no real muscle there to protect the bones).
Again, this is just me. If you’ve had great success with these hanging variations, that’s awesome! Let me know a little about your experience in the comment sections below.
Remember, just like with the neck bridges, keeping a folded up towel where your head is can make these exercises more comfortable. It doesn’t make your workout less effective either.
If you still don’t feel ready for your lever sets after neck bridging, there’s a simple solution available. I just lean against a wall. It’s basically a less intense version of the actual neck levers.
- Find a wall and get close enough to touch your left shoulder to the wall while you face along the wall.
- Gently lean your head left until it touches the wall as well.
- Move your feet away from the wall while keeping your head in place. Anywhere between 12-24 inches apart can work. The further your feet are, the more difficult it is.
- Place your left arm alongside your body. This will suddenly put much more pressure on your neck and head. Prepare for this. You may have to adjust your head’s point of contact to find the optimal position.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Repeat for your right side.
- Face a wall and stand approximately 12-24 inches away.
- Maintaining a rigid body, lean forward until your head touches the wall gently. Use your arms to lower yourself into place.
- Take your arms away and hold for 30 seconds.
- Stand against a wall, facing away, with your heels and shoulders touching.
- Move your feet away until your heels are anywhere from 12-24 inches away from the wall. Align them.
- Gradually straighten your body and hold the position for 30 seconds.
I included the above instructions to help people ease into the exercise. I’ve found that some people will just clang their head against the wall and call it done.
As you may imagine, neck workouts involving levers are very simple. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective though!
I use two progression variables to scale the difficulty of my neck levers:
- The height of the object touching my head. The lower the object, the more difficult the exercise.
- How much of my head I am placing on the object. The further away the point of contact is from my feet, the harder. The hardest contact point would be close to the crown of my head.
- Find a table or elevated platform. If you’re new to these exercises, using one around sternum height is an excellent way to start.
- Lean your head against the edge of the table. If it is a sharp edge, remember to use a towel. I find getting the contact point right below as a good place to start.
- Place your hand in from of your head for support and balance.
- Move your feet away until your body is straight.
- Hold for time. Aim for 1 minute holds before exploring harder variations.
- Remember to keep symmetry by working all sides of the neck as equally as possible. Work your weakest side first to find the standard.
Chair, stools, and beyond:
If you’re looking for an extra challenge, you can lever yourself on lower and lower objects. Chairs and stools come to mind. Maybe one day you can even lean on a stack of books! Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, but also keep safety as a priority. Always keep a hand on the object, even barely touching it, in case you suddenly lose strength. The bones and vertebrae in your neck and upper back have the potential to be incredibly lithe and strong, but they undeniably harbor potential for injury. Even slipping half an inch to an inch would mean serious injury. Strength and muscle are crucial, but they come as an afterthought to health and vitality.
Integrating Neck Workouts
Unless you’re a dedicated wrestler or neck model (do those exist?), you probably won’t allocate a workout day specifically for your neck. That’s fine. It’s arguably preferable to integrate your neck workouts with other workout days that involve your upper back, core, or spine. I find they go nicely with pull-ups, pushups, and bridges. If you’re a weightlifter, you can work these with your deadlifts and bench presses. These exercises constitute an effective way to build neck muscle and strength. However, they’re not draining enough to negatively affect the other exercises in your workout. There’s really no reason NOT to add them.
Here’s a sample neck workout routine:
- Warm up by gently rotating your neck and stretching.
- Front Neck Bridges – 2 sets of 20
- Lateral Neck Bridges – 2 sets of 20 (alternating sets with Front Neck Bridges)
- Rear Neck Bridges – 2 sets of 20
- 1-Minute Break
- Neck Lever Warm-ups – 15 seconds per side
- Table Neck Levers – 1 minute per side
- Chair Neck Levers – 30 seconds per side
- Cool down stretching
This can be done in as little as 15 minutes. You may get some funny looks, though.
Whenever a fight breaks out, I think everyone in the room instinctively checks out the size of the fighters. Larger is usually considered better, especially with chests and arms. However, I always make sure to check out the fellow’s neck. If he’s angry, it’s usually red and bulging, but it’s hard to hide a weak neck. Obviously, it’s not a deciding factor, but I always wince when I see a guy with big arms and a skinny neck get hit in the face. I can feel his upper spine strain against the heavy impact. I have a fear that one day I’ll see someone die this way.
Don’t fall into this trap. Even if you don’t plan on fighting anyone, training your neck can be extremely rewarding. Besides increasing your neck strength and building muscle, here are just some of the benefits you’ll see from dedicated neck training:
- Reduce Neck Pain
- Improve Circulation
- Heighten Senses
- Boost Energy
- Increase Flexibility
If you’ve gotten this far, I want to thank you for reading. This article took hours and hours of research, writing, and editing. Writing it has given me a stiff neck. It’ll be worth it, though, if the information helps anybody. I’d also like to hear your thoughts. Comment below if you have any questions or new ideas.