Many recreational weightlifters looking to improve overall strength don’t place much emphasis on neck workouts, but having a strong neck can improve your posture and can be the icing on the cake for a ripped or toned physique.
But, what are the best neck exercises for mass? What are the best neck exercises with weights? How do you structure a neck workout for strength and size gains?
In this article, we will discuss the muscles in your neck and provide step-by-step instructions for the following neck weight exercises and neck exercises for mass to help you maximize the effectiveness of your neck workout:
- Stability Ball Neck Bridges
- Dumbbells Shrugs
- Cable Shrugs
- Resisted Neck Flexion, Extension, and Lateral Flexion
- Prone Weighted Neck Extensions
Let’s dive in!
What Muscles Do Neck Exercises Work?
Most beginners and recreational lifters have a general sense of the muscles they are working in various parts of the body.
For example, if you are doing arm workouts, you will probably be able to name the biceps and triceps as being key muscles that you will be targeting in your arm exercises.
However, even if you are a fairly experienced weightlifter, you might have to have specific anatomy knowledge about the muscles in your neck.
While it is not necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of anatomy to get a strong neck, having a basic understanding of the muscles in your neck will help you understand the types of neck gym exercises to do and the muscles that you will be training in your neck workouts.
This will further help you think about how to properly activate your neck muscles during neck workouts, which can improve effectiveness.
Here are the primary muscles in the neck:
The trapezius, often referred to as the traps when speaking about the bilateral muscles, is a large, flat, triangular muscle that originates at the back of your skull and then fans downward through the neck to attach down in the upper back in three different locations.
The trapezius is a very large muscle, and it has numerous layers.
The superficial layer is one of the primary neck muscles.
The traps help extend the head when they are working together, and when one side of your trapezius muscle is contracting, it helps you laterally flex your head at the neck—bringing your shoulder down to your ear—and laterally rotate the head at the neck.
The sternocleidomastoid is a large muscle found on each side of your neck that connects three different points of the body (sternum, clavicle, and the mastoid process in the skull).
This muscle helps rotate the head and flex the neck to one side when the muscle is acting unilaterally. When both sides work together, the sternocleidomastoid assists in flexing the neck or bringing your chin closer to your chest.
The levator scapulae are long, thin muscles that help elevate and retract your shoulder blades and extend the neck.
There are two additional small muscles in the neck, the splenius, and the scalene. These muscles also assist in the movement of the head at the neck.
How to Structure Neck Workouts
Even when you want to build neck muscle mass and strength, it is generally advisable to use much less weight, especially if you are new to doing neck strengthening workouts.
Rather than using a higher percentage of your 1RM for fewer reps, it’s usually advisable to do more reps of neck exercises at lower weights.
You can perform sets to failure if you’re just doing bodyweight neck exercises.
Neck hypertrophy exercises such as shrugs can be incorporated into other upper body strength training workouts and can involve higher weights than exercises like resisted neck extension exercises.
Build up slowly, and if you experience any neck soreness or headaches after your workouts, you should decrease your training volume or consider working with a personal trainer to make sure you are using the proper form.
The Ultimate Neck Workout
Here are some of the best neck exercises for mass and strength:
#1: Stability Ball Neck Bridges
This is an advanced neck exercise for strength, and you will simultaneously work your glutes and lower back as you have to hold your body in the bridge position on an unstable stability ball.
Here are the steps for this bodyweight exercise:
- Lie back on the stability ball so that the back of your head rests on the ball and your feet are walked forward.
- Squeeze your glutes so that your hips are up, your body is in a strong bridge position, and your back is flat.
- Tuck your chin as you roll the ball with your head through the full range of motion of your neck, from flexion with your chin touching your chest to extension with your head bent backward.
- Perform 20-25 reps per set.
#2: Dumbbells Shrugs
Shrugs are one of the best exercises for your upper traps, but it’s also a good neck exercise for mass.
The bigger you can develop your upper back and traps, the thicker and stronger your neck will be.
Here is how to perform shrugs:
- Stand upright with your chest up, shoulders down, and chin tucked.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms down by your sides and palms facing your body (neutral grip).
- Squeeze your upper traps to lift your shoulders up towards your ears as high as possible.
- Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, and then slowly lower your shoulders back down.
- Perform 6-12 reps per set.
#3: Cable Shrugs
Including the cable shrug into your neck workout is one of the best ways to target your traps with more time under tension.
Doing this neck exercise with cables actually optimizes the workload on the traps because the path of motion of the cable better matches the muscle fiber alignment in the traps.
This also reduces stress on the shoulders.
Here are the steps to perform this cable machine back exercise:
- Stand in the middle of the cable machine with both pulleys on each side set at the lowest setting. Use the handle attachments.
- Keep your core tight and drive your shoulders up and inward towards your ears and a bit towards the back.
- Slowly lower back down.
- Perform 6-12 reps per set.
#4: Resisted Neck Flexion, Extension, and Lateral Flexion
The neck can move in several different directions and in different planes of motion.
Neck flexion is bringing your chin to your chest. Neck extension is bringing your neck back as if looking at the ceiling. Neck lateral flexion is bringing the side of your head (ear) to your shoulder.
There is also neck rotation, but there aren’t necessarily good neck exercises for neck rotation.
To perform resisted neck exercises for flexion, extension, and lateral flexion, you can use a flat resistance band such as the type used in physical therapy settings.
Cut a length that’s about 6 feet and then tie it in a knot around the upright of a squat rack or other pole so that it forms a loop.
Place your head in the loop so that you can push against the resistance of the band in each direction.
Perform 15-25 reps per motion (flexion, extension, and lateral flexion to both sides).
If you don’t have a resistance band, you can use your hand to push into your head and resist the motion direction for the neck exercise.
#5: Prone Weighted Neck Extensions
This is a good neck weight exercise for the smaller muscles along the back of your neck.
However, keep in mind that because this neck strengthening exercise is working these little muscles, you should go very light on the weights.
It is better to increase the number of reps rather than increase the weight that you are using.
Here are the steps to perform this neck strengthening exercise:
- Lie face down on a weight bench with your chest at the end of the bench so that your head is unsupported.
- Drape a flexible ankle weight over the back of your head to serve as your resistance.
- Slowly hyperextend your neck so that your face is no longer looking straight at the ground but is looking up towards the ceiling. You may need to use one hand to keep the ankle weight in place on the back of your head.
- Pause at the top of the range of motion and then slowly return to the starting position with a neutral spine.
- Perform 20-25 reps using a light weight.
Ready to try a different workout routine? Check out our guide to push vs. pull workout splits here.