I love a dose of neck work. Not only is it incredibly functional (more on that in a minute), a solid yoke looks downright impressive.
First though, a quick definition :
To a tailor measuring you up for a shirt (OK, imagine you’re getting married or something; you can’t wear t-shirts ALL the time), the yoke refers to the section from one shoulder to the other. Not around the back, but up and over the top. Bigger neck = bigger measurement.
To anyone who loves the iron, the yoke is simply the collection of muscles that sits around the neck and makes it look as though you’re permanently wearing one of those inflatable travel pillows. Those muscles help protect your neck from all sorts of damage (which is why you’ll often see footballers, wrestlers and MMA athletes working them seriously).
For a slightly more anatomical look at things, the yoke consists of :
If the first exercise that came to mind when you read the word ‘yoke‘ was the humble shrug, join the club. Although there are many ways to hit the traps, the shrug is at the top of the list for a good reason – it works.
The traps help with several movements of your arms above your head (picture the movement of a pull-up, for starters). The top shelf always gets a little harder to reach after a solid deadlift day.
Rear Delts (Posterior Deltoids)
These are simply the muscles at the back of the shoulders, and help to raise your arms behind you (think of a rear lateral raise).
Neck (Several muscles, all designed to rotate and tilt your head in various directions)
There are several muscles involved, but they have a common purpose : to help protect the cervical spine. And rotating/tilting the head of course.
If you’re a combat athlete, a strong neck will make it more difficult to knock you down (and greatly increase your options if you find yourself on the ground). If you’re involved in contact sports such as Rugby, it’ll help protect your head when you slam into an opponent. If you’re involved in high-speed motorsports (as a driver or rider), you’ve no doubt felt the physical strain as you take each corner. A strong neck will help reduce that.
In short, a strong neck is a great thing to have.
First let me point out that you can strengthen your neck without any equipment at all. The bodyweight exercises are just fine.
Still, if you want to make things a little more interesting, here are the types of neck-training gear available :
The Neck Harness : this is a great piece of gear.
I love the neck harness. I have one of my own. It is a devise that is like a dip belt for your head. It allows you to strap weight to hang from a chain underneath your chin. I use it by strapping up the weight, getting myself into “deadlift position” and then curling my head back against gravity and the weight.
If you have a partner, you can lay down on a dumbbell bench, with your head hanging off one end, and have someone strap the weight up behind your head and do curls that way.
I have a 50# kettlebell by my bed, with my harness right beside it, and sometimes, if I haven’t trained that day, and I won’t the next, I’ll strap it up and do neck extensions for reps.
Where to get them : online at places like Amazon, and offline at high-end fitness and sporting-goods stores.
Plate-loading Neck Helmet : I first saw these in the form of PDA’s infamous ‘Spartacus‘ , and they’re essentially just a helmet with a loading pin on top. Load it up (with a modest weight, it’s all you’ll probably need), and perform the usual array of neck movements.
Where to get them : online at places like eBay and Craigslist. Alternatively, these make a fantastic DIY project.
An exercise ball (sometimes known as a Swiss ball, Fitness ball or Stability ball) : This is one of my own favourites, because it provides a good level of control and is close to being one of those ‘anywhere, anytime‘ forms of training.
To see how you can use an exercise ball for neck work, take a look at the Will Heffernan video below.
Where to get them : online at places like Amazon, and offline at various fitness and sporting-goods stores. Be sure to look for terms like ‘commercial grade‘ or ‘anti-burst‘.
The 4-way Neck Machine : This is a great machine, albeit a little expensive. The picture at right will give you an idea of how it operates; the primary advantage is the ability to determine the resistance accurately, making it possible to plan a precise routine.
Where to get them : online from places like Amazon, eBay or Craigslist, and offline at high-end fitness and sporting-goods stores.
Whether you’re using your own bodyweight (or perhaps that of a training partner), or resistance in the form of something like a weight plate or kettlebell, these various technique videos will show you the basics :
- Neck Bridge Progression
First up, a staple of wrestlers everywhere – the bridge. Also shown are some very interesting ways to kick it up a notch.
- Neck Strengthening with an Exercise Ball
Grab the fitness ball – it’s the extremely creative Will Heffernan.
- The Neck Harness
There are several ways to use a neck harness (the basic technique is shown in the video below), including the somewhat unusual pulling a van approach. However you use it, it’s a great piece of gear.
NB : Siegmund Klein also performs some very interesting neck harness exercises in his ‘Super Physique‘ Course.
- Jaw Lifting : What, Why and How
Finally, a spot of jaw lifting. Although you may not think of this as a neck exercise, let me assure you that it is. Fantastic.
Of course, there are many, many more. For a little variety in your neck workouts, check out articles like A Little Yoke Work : 10 Exercises for a Bigger Neck. Good fun.
A Routine for Neck-Training Beginners
If you’re just entering the world of neck training, welcome. As I mentioned above, you don’t actually need any equipment (though it’s great if you do).
Let’s dive in.
Good news for anyone who is beginning neck training, “you” are pretty much all you need. I like Mike Bruce’s beginner program on Straight to the Bar, but another really simple beginner program is this:
Lay on your back on the floor, or on your bed, and just raise your head, curling your chin to your upper chest, as many times as you can. Then lay on your stomach, and raise your chin to the ceiling as many times as possible. Then lay on your side and curl your ear toward your shoulder as many times as you can, and then lay on your other side and do the same thing.
Many people who have never done any neck training have difficulty just laying on their back and curling just their head 20 times. It is a really simple starting point just using gravity. To progress, you could do more reps, do more sets, or start holding a book to your head as you do your repetitions.
Where to find out more
A number of these devices have been reviewed on this site, as well as on the forums and on Google+. Of these, my own favourites are :
- Gymchat 162 – Neck Training II
How, why and where. Fantastic discussion.
- Books such as Kelso’s Shrug Book and Bruce Lee’s The Art of Expressing the Human Body.
Think of a grip-focused Farmer’s Walk. Dan explains.
- Weighted Climbers’ Chins
These are not only challenging and extremely fun, they’ll do more for your upper back than you’d believe. Superb.
Sometimes it’s all about the weight on the bar.
- Simple Neck Mobility Exercises
In addition to the strengthening is a general focus on neck health (actually, that applies to any area of your training). John Sifferman takes a look at some simple neck mobility exercises that will help with exactly that.
There’s also an incredible array of articles and videos on this site. Use the search box at the top of each page, or get in touch directly.
Final thought on neck training
If a man has a strong neck, he probably is a man of power.
Whatever the reason, a strong neck is a fantastic thing to have.