If your neck is less than 15 inches, then you’re nowhere close to the powerful, assertive man you could be.
– Earle Liederman
Building a strong neck plays a vital role for contact sports like football and wrestling. In everyday life, a strong neck could prevent death in a catastrophe. It also looks impressive, striking fear deep into the hearts of lesser men. Perhaps training the neck represents the strongest case for isolation since compound movements fail to work the neck directly.
Make a fist as tightly as you possibly can. Use your other hand to feel your neck. If you squeeze hard enough, you will notice how the muscles tense up. When you create high tension, it radiates outward to affect seemingly unrelated muscles. The indirect effect seems at play here.
Hitting the major muscle groups with big, safe exercises will work the neck. If you push, pull, and squat heavy then the neck should get enough exercise. It also mirrors core muscles in activation. Consider that almost no bodybuilder isolates their neck, yet all of them display thick pillars.
Most trainees address their neck in ways that can harm them. Using a neck harness, they flex and extend their neck against weight. They may use the neck bridge exercise commonly performed by wrestlers and football players that uses too much range of motion. They may use a rotation or 4-way machine to train these muscles. Many trainees also include shrugs, unnecessary for both a larger neck and bigger traps.
The cervical portion of the spine is in the neck. You must avoid any exercise that moves the spine under a load. Flexion and extension of the spine increases the risk of disc herniation, pars, and other horrible problems with odd names. This comes from great shearing forces that try to snap your spine like a pencil. Heavy loads magnify this effect. The neck exists to keep your head facing forward for good posture, not for movement.
If necessary, do isometrics. This means resisting movement instead of allowing it. Sit or lie down. For flexion, place your hands on your forehead. Resist flexing for 3-5 seconds, pause, and repeat until fatigue. For extension, place your hands on the back of your head. Resist extending for 3-5 seconds, pause, and repeat until fatigue. Keep a good posture by relaxing your head and looking forward. Pull your shoulder blades back and keep your chest out.
Progress by adding more reps or a longer duration. Like the core muscles, the neck needs endurance, not strength. Although you could resist lateral flexion too, you can focus on just flexion and extension to hit all the muscles. Keep in mind that if you play a sport, you will naturally build the neck through practice.
Genetics and overall body size play a large role. You will not find a shameful pipsqueak, that collapses to his knees when you hand him chainmail and an axe, possessing a powerful neck. Neck size matches the rest of the body. Get bigger and stronger everywhere.
Rely on the big movements to train the neck. Avoid any exercises done with a range of motion. Perform isometrics only if needed.