If you’ve seen photos of Mike Tyson in his prime or perhaps Brock Lesner, you’d observe something unique about their stature. Above all that chiseled chest and well-built core muscles lie a wide super strong neck, capable of breaking rocks -well, that’s an exaggeration.

The neck muscles play really important physiological roles. Unfortunately, we typically don’t pay much attention to our necks until they become stiff or sore. Besides, training the neck is never the first thought on any athlete’s mind. However, a great neck could be the difference between a good and a great physique. So read on to learn all you need to know about neck muscles and neck muscle exercises

 

neck muscles anatomy

Anatomy of the neck muscles

The neck muscles refer to the body of tissues that sit beneath the skin of the neck. These muscles are involved in head movement and also serve to protect the brain stem and upper spine.

The neck muscles are divided into three groups based on their position and function. These are; anterior, lateral, and posterior neck muscles.

Anterior Neck Muscles

These muscles are found in front of the neck. They are further subdivided into the superficial, suprahyoid, and infrahyoid muscle groups. The most important  muscles that lie in the anterior neck include;

  • Platysma: This superficial muscle is a thin sheet that covers parts of the shoulder and upper chest and extends to the jaw. This muscle is involved in jaw movements and mouth contractions.
  • Sternocleidomastoid: This is another superficial muscle and is among the largest neck muscles. The sternocleidomastoid is involved in head movements and neck extensions. This muscle also controls the temporomandibular joint that lies in the jaw.
  • Suprahyoids: The suprahyoid are four muscles that work synergistically. These muscles connect the hyoid bone to the base of the mandible and skull to form the lower region of the oral cavity. These muscles function to position the hyoid bone and to lower mouth movement while swallowing or vocalizing. 
  • Infrahyoids: The infrahyoid are four muscles that sit below the hyoid bone and connect it to the larynx, sternum, and scapula. The infrahyoid muscles function to position the hyoid bone and coordinate the movement of the thyroid cartilage in the larynx during vocalization, chewing, and swallowing.
  • Anterior Vertebral Muscles: These are groups of muscles that sit just anterior to the cervical vertebrae and aid in head flexion. These include the;
    • Rectus capitis anterior and rectus capitis lateralis: The two muscles control head movement from the base of the skull.
    • Longus capitis and longus colli: These two muscles are engaged in side-to-side head twisting, and also aid in tilting and twisting the cervical spine.

Lateral Neck Muscles

Sit between the anterior and posterior neck muscles. The lateral neck muscles consist of the anterior, middle, and posterior scalene muscles that extend between the cervical vertebrae and the upper two ribs. These muscles are involved in ipsilateral neck flexion and are also engaged during breathing.

Posterior Neck Muscles

The posterior neck muscles connect the skull to the spinal column. Like the anterior muscles, the posterior neck muscle is divided into three layers – the superficial, deep layer, and deepest layer.

The superficial layer contains the trapeziuz, splenius capitis, and splenius cervicis muscles that help in neck extension and head rotation. The deep layer contains the cervical transversospinalis muscles, a group of 5 muscles that help in forward, backward and sideways head tilting. Meanwhile, the deepest layer consists of the suboccipital muscles, a group of four muscles that sit below the occipital bone of the skull and help in head extension in different directions.

front outermost neck muscles

Functions of the Neck Muscles

As already seen, individual muscles in the neck perform specific functions, majorly concerning different aspects of head movement. Collectively, neck muscles perform the following functions.;

  • Aid in mastication, swallowing, and speaking
  • Aid in moving the jaw and oral cavity for the purpose of creating facial expressions
  • Coordinate rib movement to aid breathing
  • Coordinates movement and tilting of the head in all directions
  • Supports and stabilizes the head and spine.

Neck injuries

Neck injuries are quite common. These injuries may be mild, resulting from poor sleeping positions or poor posture; or severe, resulting from trauma to the neck. Neck injuries commonly present in the following forms;

  • Sprains or strains: Sprains occur when there is a tear in a neck ligament, while strains are tears in a muscle or tendon. These injuries commonly occur due to overstretching or from minor impacts on the neck.
  • Stiff neck: While not particularly a neck injury, stiff necks are quite painful nonetheless. A stiff neck is commonly caused by moving awkwardly or placing the head in a position for prolonged periods.
  • Herniated disc: This injury occurs when the spinal disc becomes torn and the insides bulge out. Herniated discs commonly result from wear and tear, bad posture, or large impacts on the spine. 
  • Pinched nerve: This injury commonly occurs when the neck muscles or tendons pinch against the nerves around the neck, causing pain. Pinched nerves may occur secondary to muscle sprain or strains.

Neck muscle injuries usually present with varying symptoms, including headaches, shoulder pain, numbness in the arm, pain, and tenderness in the neck, and swelling and bruising around the neck.

neck muscle pain stretches

Preventing and Managing Neck Injuries

Neck injuries significantly affect daily activities, limiting movement and productivity. Almost everyone will get some form of a neck injury at a point in time. However, you can reduce your risk of suffering an injury by taking steps to protect your neck and spinal health. This includes;

  • Maintaining healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Strengthening neck, back, and core muscles
  • Sleeping healthy and in good positions
  • Limiting sudden rapid neck movements
  • Applying caution when lifting heavy objects or twisting and turning the neck.

Neck injuries will typically heal with home remedies. These include;

  • Heat therapy to relax muscles and improve blood flow
  • Cold compresses to reduce swelling
  • Use of skeletal muscle relaxants. These are prescription medicines that help reduce muscle spasms
  • Neck massages

 

Neck Muscle Exercises

Neck exercises are commonly employed in treating and preventing different neck injuries and associated pain. When the neck muscles become weakened, it can cause the neck to sag forward, causing increased stress on the cervical discs. This poor posture causes recurrent or chronic neck injuries with pain that radiates to other regions like the upper back, shoulders, and head.

Neck exercises help to relieve the symptoms and improve the neck posture to prevent this pain. There are two major neck exercises employed – neck stretches and neck strengthening exercises. Other useful neck exercises include; aerobic conditioning and trigger point exercises.

Neck Stretches

Neck stretches are key in resolving the pain that presents with common neck injuries. Even in the absence of injuries, neck stretches are beneficial because;

  • They help to increase flexibility
  • Improve range of motion
  • Reduce the pain and soreness after workouts or heavy lifting

Neck stretches are important and help to keep the neck healthy. They may the neck stronger, enabling it to support the back and arms.

How to do neck stretches

When starting any neck stretch, it is advisable to start gently to allow your neck to adapt to the effect of the stretch. Neck stretches should not cause you pain but instead relieve it. Therefore, when doing any stretch and you start to feel pain, stop, give it a rest and then try again later.

Some common neck stretching routines include;

Forward and Backward Tilt (Neck Flexion and Extension)

You can do these while standing or seated.

  • Start by placing your body in an upright position, with your back straight and head squarely over your shoulders.
  • Lower your chin toward your chest and hold this position for 30 seconds.
  • Slowly lift your head back up, then tilt your chin upwards till you’re looking upwards. Hold this position for 15 seconds.
  • Repeat this set as much as you like.

Ensure that your movements are slow and smooth as possible.

Side Tilt

You should do these while standing. Keep your feet hip-width apart and your arms down by your side.

  • Gently tilt your head toward your right shoulder till your ear almost touches the shoulder.
  • Hold your head in this position for 10 seconds then return your head back upright
  • Tilt your head towards the left side and repeat as before

Side Rotation

You can also do this while standing or seated

  • Sit with your back straight and keep your head squarely over your shoulders.
  • Slowly turn your head to the right until you feel a stretch in the side of your neck and shoulder.
  • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then slowly turn your head forward again.
  • Repeat on your left side.
  • Repeat for about 10 sets.
shoulder shrug for neck strengthening

Strength exercises for the neck

Neck strengthening exercises help to reinforce the neck muscles, making them more bulky and stable and improving posture. These exercises help to prevent the recurrence of neck injuries and also help with the associated pain.

Neck strengthening exercises majorly target the anterior and posterior neck muscles.

How to do Neck Strengthening Exercises

Specific exercises that help strengthen the neck muscles include;

Chin Tuck

The chin tuck is effective in strengthening the thoracic extensors to improve neck posture. The neck tuck also stretches the scalene and suboccipital muscles and is effective in relieving neck pain.

  • Stand upright with the spine against a door jamb and the feet out about 3 inches from the bottom of the door jamb
  • Pull the upper back and head backward until the head touches the door jamb. It is important to make sure that the chin is down so that the head is pulled straight back and not looking up.
  • Hold the head against the door jamb for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat this 10 times.

After initially performing the chin tuck exercise in a door jamb and becoming comfortable with it, the exercise can eventually be done standing or sitting without a door jamb

Prone Cobra

This exercise strengthens the muscles of the neck, upper back, and shoulder girdle. The prone cobra is done while lying n the flow and relies on gravity to provide resistance for the strengthening.

  • Lying face down, place the forehead on a rolled-up hand towel for comfort.
  • Place the arms at the side, palms down on the floor.
  • Place the tongue on the roof of the mouth (this helps stabilize the muscles in the front of the neck to assist in strengthening).
  • Pinch the shoulder blades together and lift the hands off the floor.
  • Roll the elbows in, palms out, and thumbs up.
  • Gently lift the forehead about an inch off the towel keeping the eyes looking straight at the floor (do not tip the head back and look forward).
  • Hold the position for 10 seconds.
  • Perform 10 repetitions.

Benefits of Neck Strengthening

  1. More aesthetic
  2. Reduces neck pain and headaches
  3. A strengthened neck stabilizes the head and improves performance in athletes engaged in contact sports

 

innermost deep neck muscles

Conclusion

Often overlooked, the neck muscles are as important as any other muscle group in your body. They are involved in various types of head and jaw movements and are also involved in breathing motions. The neck muscles are prone to different injuries, resulting in bad posture that causes more recurrent injuries. However, neck exercises, including stretches and strengthening exercises can help to relieve the symptoms of these injuries and bulk up the neck to prevent future injuries and even headaches. So, do well to add neck training in your routines as you will benefit greatly from it.

 

References

Muscles of the Neck: An Overview

Neck Muscles

Common Neck Injuries

How to Stretch your Neck

Neck Exercises for Neck Pain