Arms, legs, chest, back, core, and then it’s neck day.
Most of us don’t think of the neck when we plan our exercises, but you do have neck muscles. We’ll talk about what and where they are, what they do, and yes, how and why to exercise them.
Let’s Talk (Reverse) Muscle Action
If you’re a regular reader of HTBM, or if you took high school anatomy, you should remember that muscles have an origin and an insertion on different bones. When the muscles contract or extend, these bones move closer together or farther apart.
We usually think of muscles as doing what they do when they contract, but you can still strengthen muscles by doing activities that extend them. This is called “reverse muscle action.” It’s a great way to get twice as much out of a workout but it’s also a great way to target hard-to-hit muscles.
The reason that this comes up in our discussion of neck muscles is that, while some muscles are pretty exclusively “neck muscles,” many neck muscles are muscles that you might already be aware of – you just think of them as back muscles or shoulder muscles. All neck muscles attach on the head and neck, but they also attach on the back and shoulders.
As well as being a handy way to introduce the neck muscles, this point will come up throughout the article – particularly when we talk about how and why to target your neck muscles in your workout.
Introducing the Key Players
We said initially that neck muscles attach on the back and shoulder. Most of them do but there are also muscles in the front and sides of the neck that attach around your sternum and the front of your ribs. But those are small and are more involved in chewing and talking than they are in actually moving your head. We’re really looking at the back of the neck here.
One of the largest muscles in your neck, the sternocleidomastoid, attaches to the back of the head, but then wraps around to the front of your body to attach on the sternum and the clavicle. These muscles allow you to do things like turn your head and bring your chin down toward your chest.
The four capitis muscles attach on the back of the head and on the bones of the upper neck. These muscles allow you to shake your head, as well as push your head forward and stretch your neck up.
The trapezius is one of the largest muscles of the back. It also makes up much of the back of the neck, connecting on the base of the skull and along a number of the neck vertebrae. The portion of this muscle that we are interested in today rotates and lifts the scapula – the “shoulder blade.” This is also true of a lesser-known muscle called the levator scapulae.
Finally, the major and minor rhomboid muscles connect the scapula to spinal vertebrae and also work to rotate and elevate the shoulder blade.
How to Work the Neck Muscles
An article on the neck muscles would be incomplete without a note on how to work them. It turns out, there are a surprising number of ways to work these oft-neglected muscles.
We’ll split this section into three parts: “neck exercises” that you do on back day, “neck exercises” that you do on shoulder day, and finally some special exercises that, as far as we know, our staff invented.
This is handy for organizing the article, but it should also be a handy reminder to you to incorporate “neck exercises” into your regular routine. We joked at the top of the article about “neck day” but in all honesty, you should be thinking about your neck as you structure the rest of your workout.
Some of the biggest “neck muscles” are muscles that most people think of as “back muscles” – the traps and the rhomboids. So, some of your favorite back exercises will also be working your neck.
The most common examples include overhead presses. For this exercise, hold a barbell at shoulder height and lift it up above your head. Then, gently return it to the starting position or the rack depending on how much you’re lifting. Remember, these are “neck muscles” but they’re also huge, so you might be able to lift quite a bit with them. Just remember to be safe.
To get the exact opposite action, go with a pulldown. This requires a specialized cable machine but if you have access to one, whether at home or at the gym, it’s worth your time.
More “classic” and accessible exercises for these muscles include pullups and chinups. Really, any exercise that involves your arms moving from below the shoulders to above the shoulders (and the other way around) involve rotating your shoulder blades, which is what these muscles are all about.
Similarly, during any core exercises that involve twisting your body twist your neck along with it. This won’t usually work your neck muscles in any meaningful way, but it can be a nice stretch for them. It might also help you get deeper into the form.
We don’t want to get too philosophical on you, but there’s a lot to be said for thinking about how your whole body moves, even in targeted exercises.
The following exercises usually fall under the classification of “shoulder exercises” but they do a lot to target the neck muscles in ways that few other exercises do. Both of them require dumbbells and, while we’re big on body resistance, you should probably at least have some dumbbells at home.
The first of these exercises is the dumbbell shrug. With one dumbbell in each hand and your hands at your side, bring your shoulders up toward your ears and then lower back to starting position for a complete rep. We never advise you to start a new exercise on a high weight, but you might be surprised how much you can lift with this weird little flex.
For the lateral raise, start with a dumbbell in each hand and your hands at your side just like you did for the dumbbell shrug. This time, raise your arms up and out at the shoulder – not bringing your hands forward or behind you, but keeping your arms in line with your body. If you can get your hands slightly above your shoulders, that’s fine, but shoulder height is enough.
Workouts We (Think We) Made Up
These next two exercises were, as far as we know, made up by HTBM staff. But, they’re both killer shoulder exercises.
First, sit in “lotus” – that is, on the floor with your legs crossed (if you aren’t at the gym, you might want to use a yoga mat for this one). Next, put one fist down on either side of your waist. Then, lift yourself off of the ground by straightening your arms. It works out the upper arms as well as some of the same neck muscles as the dumbbell shrug – and it’s good knuckle conditioning.
For the next exercise, start in that same position that you start in for the dumbbell shrug and lateral raise. Bend at the elbow to bring the weights up in front of you to about waist height. Now, from the shoulders, rotate your arms out and up so that the dumbbells are about in line with your ears and on either side of your head. Finally, extend your arms up from the elbows.
This exercise works your upper and lower arms, as well as your shoulders and, by extension, your neck muscles.
Why You Should Never Skip Neck Day
We’ve covered what neck muscles there are and where they are. We’ve even covered how to work them out. But an HTBM article would be incomplete without a “why.”
You might think first of aesthetics. Can you imagine being ripped and still having a pencil neck? To some extent, this problem solves itself. We’ve already seen that most neck muscles are also shoulder and back muscles so as long as you have a well-rounded full-body workout, your neck will probably get swole along with the rest of you.
However, there’s another reason. A more important reason. It’s one that you’ve heard before and you’ll hear again hanging around HTBM.
Your muscles do more than lift weights. They’re constantly exerting force on your bones throughout the day. While you work out, but also while you work. While you sit and stand, and while you sleep. If you only workout the muscles that you want to look good, this balance of muscle tension on your bones can get out of balance and cause problems.
This can be true with any muscle group anywhere in your body, particularly around joints. But think about your neck. Where your head meets your body – the home of the most sensitive portion of your spine surrounded by some of the smallest bones you have. Do you really want those muscles getting out of line?
On a related note, if you’re not used to neck exercises, don’t go too hard too fast. That’s a warning that we give on all exercises but again, some of these muscles are relatively small and they’re in a sensitive area. Always start unfamiliar exercises slowly and mindfully and don’t be afraid to start on a lower weight and work your way up.
That’s not all about neck muscles but it’s all we have time for today. If you crack a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, you’ll see that there is quite the bundle of muscles all around your neck. However, some of them really only move your head and we’re not about to tell you to start doing jaw-rotations with a ten-pound hat on.
So, hopefully, this article helped you to understand and appreciate your neck muscles as well as how and why to at least think about them while planning your workouts.
Caciolo, C. (ed.). “Men’s Health Total Body Workbook.” Rodale. Kutztown PA, USA. 2007.
Gray, Henry. “Gray’s Anatomy.” (29th ed.). Running Press. Philadelphia PA, USA. 1974.
Tortora, Gerard J. & Derrickson, Bryan. “Principles of Anatomy and Physiology” (14th ed.). Wiley. Hoboken NJ, USA. 2014.