Too little neck development will detract from your physique, yet too much will draw unwanted attention, harming its balance. Train as necessary to get your neck as wide as your head, through a variety of exercise options. Be careful though, as repeated movements under a load can be stressful to the cervical spine.
Training the neck embodies the classic bodybuilding concept of balance. It should be in proportion with the rest of the body, appearing strong without overwhelming the whole physique.
This goal of balance also gives us flexible exercise options, since we may not need to use anything except manual resistance with our hands or against a static object, since this could provide enough of a stimulus.
The neck is the most prominent muscle when wearing clothes, before even the forearms and calves which may be covered up with long sleeves. Developing it will make you look more impressive in everyday life.
The neck functions to stabilize during movement, similar to the core muscles, yet it really plays no active role in transferring force, and therefore may benefit from direct work.
The neck is rarely a muscle focused on generally or even for bodybuilding. Yet, trainees often ignore that it can both detract from a whole physique when both over or under-developed. You could be described as having a pencil neck or a “stack of dimes” as Larry Scott called it, or known for having a wrestler’s or bull neck. Neither conveys an aesthetic look.
Learn about the most important muscle for neck anatomy, along with some options to exercise the neck as a whole.
Neck Muscle Anatomy
The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.
The sternocleidomastoid is the large, prominent muscle seen mostly anteriorly on each side of the neck. This muscle has two heads that are easy to hit through any neck exercise. This is the main muscle that will add width to your neck, bringing it into proportion with the rest of the body.
As long as you take care of this two-headed muscle on each side, you can vary between lateral flexions, or flexing the head toward a shoulder, and neck flexions (chin to chest) with neck extensions (head to back of neck) to stimulate them almost equally.
While there are anterior, posterior, and lateral portions of the neck, once again, pairing neck lateral flexions to each side or neck flexion and neck extension seems to consider nearly all of them. Diagonal movements which overlap with everything, along with rotating the neck overlaps with lateral flexion, which appears safer, so we will consider these two pairings our options.
The goal is to develop this key neck muscle to get the neck as wide as the head.
Exercise Options for the Neck
The indirect growth received from other exercises can differ among trainees. You may indirectly get enough neck development, though this is less so for natural trainees since we rely on more direct growth, making all muscles harder to develop but more controllable.
- Manual Resistance
We have two options for manual resistance, which means using your hands or some object to provide resistance:
This means keeping the head in neutral and resisting movement in the four directions. This maximizes active tension, which will stimulate growth, but will not produce as much as getting a stretch with a fuller range of motion.
This means using enough manual resistance to keep things challenging throughout a fuller range of motion, emphasizing the stretch when fully flexed and extended. You will certainly feel more of a pump and soreness with this method, leading to more growth. This also is a bit riskier, since movement of the cervical spine is not natural, so could stress your neck more.
The challenge with manual resistance is that it is not as clearly progressive as increasing resistance, though keep in mind our goal is not to endlessly grow the neck, only to bring it into balance, so this is a viable option.
- Weighted Resistance
You could use a 4-way neck machine, a weighted helmet, or a harness that straps to the head. You could also perform wrestler’s bridge.
This option can grow the neck very quickly, so you may wish to perform this far less often, perhaps only once monthly, only progressing in weight and frequency to the point in which your neck is the width of your head.
Finally, it is important for safety to keep tension within the neck, never relaxing during any movement, especially through weighted exercise.
Training the Neck for Bodybuilding
An aesthetic physique looks great all-around, with no specific body part standing out. Depending on your genetics and current development, you will need to training specific muscles and perhaps even reduce others to balance things out. A weak neck draws attention though in the same way that weak legs draw away from an impressive upper body.
A neck that wrestlers often have would not be desirable for bodybuilding. Along with large upper traps, this would detract too greatly from the illusion of upper body width and create a less pleasing appearance.
This was another difference between the legendary Steve Reeves and his competitors. He worked his neck to achieve enough size but not too massive, looking like the complete package for it. He also had great posture and was a master poser. If you really study his approach, you can see a genius that gets overlooked.
This advice here may not be best if you want to develop a look of power, which involves a thicker core along with bulkier upper traps and neck. In this case, you may want to perform shrugs, work the neck heavier and more often, and do heavier movements for the core such as weighted crunches and perhaps side bends. Additional work for these areas certainly would be wise if training for contact sports like football and boxing.
You have to know what you want. The approach here focuses on an old-school appreciation for a classic physique, embodied by bodybuilders in the 1950s. These bodies were similar to Greek statues in that they possessed grace and form. Muscle were emphasized based on aesthetics and not overall development.
Consider training the neck. If striving for a balanced physique, only work it as needed to achieve a width no greater than the head. Try the options mentioned and see what works for you.