Athletes train the neck muscles to help reduce the likelihood of concussions. As important as that is, it’s not the only benefit of exercising the neck. Building strength in the neck can have a holistic effect on health. Some benefits include:
Reducing headaches and neck pain. A study in The Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine showed that women with chronic neck pain who did isometric, dynamic, and stretching exercises had a 69 percent decrease in headaches and a 58 percent decrease in upper extremity pain. Stretching alone decreased headaches, and benefits increased with the addition of strengthening.
Increasing blood flow to the brain. The neck is the only pathway to the brain. Working the neck muscles triggers blood flow which increases the amount of oxygen the brain receives—key to improving memory and focus, and reducing stress. It also may help raise energy levels and strengthen the immune system.
Improving balance. As the bridge between the head and the rest of the body, the neck connects all of the body’s motion by transmitting nerve impulses. Weak, fatigued, or even damaged neck muscles can impair those signals and, consequently, impact your overall balance. Strengthening can help bring balance back.
Training the neck can be done using body weight, bands, and specially-designed machines. Movements to train the neck are accessible to almost everyone and involve tilting and rotating the head up, down, side-to-side, and around.
Here is a basic bodyweight routine created by Erik McKay, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA) and Head and Neck Training Specialist. Start with about 10 reps per motion or per side and experiment with holding the positions to build strength. Start slow and increase reps and holds over time.
Lay on your back, lift your head off the ground, and touch your chin to your chest.
Come onto hands and knees. Start with your chin to your chest and slowly lift your head up. As you do so, imagine you are rolling your eyes up to the sky instead of just lifting your head, which helps correctly contract the muscles.
Lay on your right side and extend your right arm above your head. Your head should be resting on your arm. Lift your head to the side and try to touch your left ear to your left shoulder. Then lay on your other side and touch your right ear to your right shoulder.
Roll onto your back again and raise your head about an inch off the ground. As your head is lifted, try to pull your chin towards your throat. (This movement works muscles under your throat and may make it hard to swallow for a moment or two after. That’s normal!)
Lay your head back onto the ground. Then lift it directly up, as if you are trying to touch your nose to the ceiling.
Roll onto your belly and let your nose touch the ground and slide your chin up. Try to look at the space above your head as if you were looking through your eyebrows. Don’t lift your head fully.
Lay on a bench or table face down with your face and head floating off the edge. Keep your nose pointed to the floor and pull your head directly back with a slight chin tuck, keeping your head parallel to the floor. (This is the exact opposite of Movement 5.)
Lay on your back and rotate your head to the right, back to the center, to the left, and back.
As your neck gets stronger and the movements get easier, you can increase the difficulty. One way is to use gravity—lay on a table or bench with your head off the side as you perform the exercises. As you do so, you have to work harder to keep your head upright and moving. If you have a friend or partner with you, they can place their hand on your head and apply gentle pressure for a little manual resistance.
From fewer achy neck days to better balance and focus, the benefits of neck training are many.
Need more assistance? Try these 4 chair stretches for neck, shoulder, and upper back pain.