The signs and symptoms that you need to strengthen your neck
To begin, here are a few signs and symptoms that could indicate you would benefit from neck strengthening.
Your Posture Is Poor
Especially important for those who work at a computer most of the day, as slumping forward weakens the most important neck muscles on the front of the spine.
Those who are generally more flexible than others need more muscular support in the form of strengthening.
Your Neck Is Stiff
Sometimes stiffness is caused by weakness of our postural muscles, causing compensation and overload of other muscles.
You Have Shoulder Stiffness
Poor posture and subsequent weakness can cause excessive shoulder stiffness, which often happens when we sit for long periods while working or driving.
You’re Recently Recovering From An Injury
Strengthening should always be part of the recovery process, but first seek advice if you are unsure before attempting to strengthen a recently injured area.
What to consider before you strengthen your neck
Before deciding that a neck strengthening exercise is what you need, first check that you can’t get a stronger neck with some other, whole body, or even shoulder exercise first.
Because the neck is some distance from the shoulder and weighs 5KG, the long lever effect will be challenging enough for most people to simply resist gravity in all directions from a side lying position or plank position rather than enlisting a host of complicated resistance band exercises or harness devices. It would then be better to use (when more than gravity is needed for resistance) heavy shoulder exercises like carries, rows, or shrugs, which will cause strong neck muscle contraction and will stabilize both the shoulder and the neck together, before trying to add weights or resistance to neck exercises in isolation.
Once you have exhausted your ability to strengthen your neck via gravity resistance and shoulder exercise, then you should progress to neck specific resistance strengthening exercises. These should be supervised by a trained professional before being signed off that you can perform these specific exercises safely.
Are there any bad exercises for your neck?
In general, my view is that there are very few “bad exercises”, mostly there are either exercises your body is not prepared for, or exercises done improperly. One prominent example of this is “Couch to 5K”. It has very good intentions and works for many people. However, it often misses accounting for the range of physical states that we all find ourselves to be in. Some folks may need to take several years of work on a variety of physical and technical improvements before they have what is needed to finish a 5K without an injury. For example, one may need work on their biomechanics, addressing of old injuries, resulting compensation patterns, cardiovascular disease, or many other variables that may require a professional assessment or at minimum a number of hours of self-learning by trial and error. The same is true for strengthening one’s neck, and more often than not, jumping into a neck strengthening program without considering your unique situation is unlikely to result in a pain free and stronger neck.
The importance of neck posture
Posture of the neck is certainly important when considering strengthening the neck and should always include engaging the “abs of the neck”. Did you know that our neck muscles have “abs”, too? It’s true that the cervical spine and the lumbar spine (low back) are similar in that they have muscles on the front side to balance the muscles on the back side. Imagine you have a stack of tissue boxes as high as the length of your arms and you’d like to move the stack from one table to another, in one go without dropping any boxes. Naturally, you would walk up to the stack of tissue boxes and support them with both arms, one arm on each side of the stack, before lifting the stack up and carrying it to the other table. Without using both arms to support the stack of boxes, the stack becomes unstable, and is likely crumble onto the floor. Similarly, like stack of boxes needs both of our arms for stability front to back, the neck and lower back “abs” help stabilize the spine in a neutral position.
How to safely strengthen your neck
What you can do safely for your neck strength (unless you currently have or have a history of neck injury) is focus on strengthening the deep stabilizers of your neck against gravity first.
For example, a simple neck curl up looks easy to perform but is challenging for most when done properly (see picture below). Be mindful not to allow your chin to protrude when you lift and only perform a small range of motion.
And another version facing down is the prone chin tuck (see picture below).
Also, from the side can be performed to include lateral stabilization muscles of the neck. An example exercise would be to perform 4-5 sets of 30-120 second holds of each exercise.
Remember to seek professional guidance first
If you feel your neck would benefit from being stronger, be sure to seek advice from a professional first. It’s important to ensure that the exercises you are doing are right for your body. It’s also important to check that there are no other underlying issues which could be affecting your neck.