I’m sure we’re all familiar with the term “pencil-neck” in the world of strength sports. Whether meant literally or figuratively, it’s not good to be one. So, the question begs asking: Are YOU a pencil-neck? If you’re not sure, then you probably are. If your neck looks like a stack of dimes supporting your head…you guessed it, you’re in pencil neck city. So, what to do about that stick-like abomination protruding from your collar? Read on and we’ll cover a sure cure to your problem.
Rather than naming each individual muscle in the neck, we’re going to cover the basic muscle groups and movements that each group controls. I’ll also outline how to work the muscle groups individually with resistance. The muscle groups and their respective functions are as follows:
* Rotators (responsible for rotation): Move the head from side to side, as if to look over the shoulder.
* Flexors (responsible for flexion): Move the head down, as if to touch the chin to the chest.
* Lateral Flexors (responsible for lateral flexion): Tilt the head to the side, as if to touch the ear to the shoulder.
* Extensors (responsible for extension): Tilt the head backward, as if to look skyward.
Why would one bother to train the neck? Aside from just enhancing the appearance, a strong neck is a huge asset in many contact sports. For anyone that boxes, wrestles, plays football, hockey etc, a strong neck can definitely help prevent a potentially catastrophic injury. We often overlook training this vital area for two main reasons. We either don’t know how to do it, or we don’t have the equipment to do so. Many of us think of neck training as either using a 4-way neck machine at the gym or putting on one of those nasty leather headstraps.
Although I’m not a fan of machines of any kind due to personal preference, I do believe a 4-way neck machine to be a valuable piece of equipment that is often overlooked. This piece of equipment works three of the four muscle groups through their respective ranges of motion, unlike the simple headstrap, which generally is only useful to work the extensors. Unfortunately, many of us do not have access to such a piece of equipment. But with a little improvisation, we can perform some exercises to cover all the bases without using anything other than some plates, a towel, a bench, and surgical tubing.
The 4-way neck machine does not work the rotators, so we’re going to resort to simple manual resistance to work this group. While the rotators can’t be worked with weight, you can simply apply resistance with your hand while slowly turning your head either right or left. I would strongly suggest that you ease into this and don’t use a great deal of resistance. Once you reach the limit of your range of motion, slowly increase the resistance and hold an isometric contraction for 5-10 seconds. Repeat the process, turning your head in the other direction, again holding the contraction when you can no longer turn the head further. Three to five sets of this should be more than sufficient to give ample work for this often overlooked muscle group. It’s also a good idea to do this exercise while seated, so your back/upper back muscles are relaxed. We want only to work the extensor group, so try to relax while performing this exercise.
For the flexors, you can use the neck machine if it’s available. If not, here are some simple things you can do to perform the exact same function. Again, the purpose of this group is to tilt the chin toward the chest. First, the simplest thing you can do is lie on a flat bench, face up, with your head over the end. Now, simply put a folded towel on your forehead and put a weight plate on the towel, holding it in place with your hands. Now, relax the head and allow it to drop downward. Proceed to slowly raise the head up as though you’re trying to tuck the chin into the chest. Be sure to use the hands only to hold the weight in place and not to help the next muscles perform the movement.
As with all neck work, start light and work slowly into the motions. I would not suggest using extremely heavy weight for low repetitions due to the fragile nature of the neck structure, especially if you aren’t used to training the neck with weight. Several sets of 10-15 reps should easily give enough work to start building this muscle group.
Another option is to take a simple piece of surgical tubing that’s available at any medical supply house or home improvement store (I got mine at Home Depot) and tie the loose ends into a knot. Now, you simply have a loop or circle of tubing. To work the extensors, all you need to do is sit on a chair or bench and place the tubing on your forehead. Take the other end of the loop and hook it on a doorknob, power rack or anything similar. Now, you simple let the head tilt back, then forward, where you’ll begin to feel the resistance. Once you’ve reached the limit of your range of motion, tilt again backward and so on.
You’ll have to determine how far to sit from the spot where you’ve anchored your tubing since the resistance will increase as you move farther away. Again, several sets of 10-15 reps will suffice. When you’re ready to increase the resistance, you can move farther from the anchor point, add another loop of tubing, or purchase a heavier gauge of tubing. You may want to wrap a towel or washcloth around the portion of tubing that will be resting on your forehead. This will make the exercise more comfortable and also help to keep it from slipping as you go through the motion.
The lateral flexors, which tilt the head left or right, can be worked in the same manner as the flexors. To begin, you will lie on a bench on your side, then rest a towel on the side of your head and hold a weight plate in place with your hand. Now, simply let the head tilt downward, then bring back upward as if trying to touch the ear to the shoulder that’s off the bench. Again, use several sets of 10-15 reps with moderate resistance before switching to your other side to work the opposing lateral flexor group.
We can also use the surgical tubing to work this group. Set up the same way you would when working the flexors, except this time sit with your side—rather then your back—facing the anchor point. Place your tubing loop over your head, allowing the tubing to rest just above the ear. Now, simply tilt the head toward the anchor point, then away, which will provide the resistance. Again, the same sets and reps apply, as well as the methods for increasing the resistance when it becomes necessary.
The extensors, much like the flexor groups, can be worked with a neck machine or a headstrap. To use the headstrap, the most common method is to take the end of the chain on the strap and hook it to a low-pulley or simply hang plates on the chain. Bend at the waist and place your hands on your quads, just above the knee. Now, you’ll focus on tilting the head backward as though you’re looking upward. Another option is to lie on a bench, face down with the head hanging over the end. Place a towel on the back of your head and place a weight plate on it. Now, while holding the plate in place with your hands, let the head drop down slowly, then raise it, bending only at the neck. Moderate resistance for several sets of 10-15 reps will be ideal, just as with the other exercises.
Our simple tubing exercise will also allow you to thoroughly work the extensor group. Sit on a bench or chair and place the tubing over the head. Now, hook the other end on an anchor point, which you’ll be facing. You’ll again want the tubing at a point near the top of the ear. Now, tilt your head forward, then backward to look up, then repeat. This is the same movement as used for the flexors, except in the reverse direction. The sets and reps should stay in the same range as previously mentioned.
What About Traps?
The “traps” or trapezius muscles are part of the extensor group, so they’ll get some work while doing the exercises mentioned under the extensor heading. However, they can be worked with some additional barbell exercises as most are aware. Primarily, most people associate basic barbell or dumbbell shrugs as the primary motions for the traps. The deadlift (and its variations) obviously works the traps very hard, especially during the lockout portion of the lift. You’ll see monstrous traps on powerlifters who have a big pull.
While the deadlift is nearly always a part of my routine, I’d like to offer a few lesser-performed lifts taken from Olympic weightlifting that will hammer the traps extremely hard. The most common lift in this category would have to be the power clean and to a lesser extent, the squat clean. Because the arms are kept very straight as long as possible during the pull, the hips, traps and upper back must provide the power to accelerate the bar before dipping under it to rack the lift.
The snatch also provides a massive amount of stimulation for the traps, primarily in the same way as the clean variations. The pull will have a hard “shrug” while the bar accelerates, just before dipping under it. I generally do the power snatch, where you don’t drop as low upon completion of the lift and the bar is locked out overhead while in what would be a ¼ squat position. Since I don’t anticipate competing in Olympic lifting, I don’t see a reason to go into a complete squat snatch, which does allow the use of more weight due to the deep bottom position you attain to get under the bar. I feel that the power clean and power snatch force you to pull much harder, since you’ll have less time to drop under the bar to rack it.
The high pull, also very commonly used by Olympic lifters, thoroughly works the traps. To do this somewhat uncommon lift, you can choose either a clean-width grip (about shoulder width) or a snatch-grip width (very wide) depending on what you prefer. The pull portion is very similar to that of the clean, which means you keep the head up, back flat, bar close to the body and use the hips, back and traps to move the bar vertically. You should make a conscious effort to not bend the arms or try to turn this into an upright row. The height of the bar at the completion of the lift should be to the sternum; you’ll also be up on your toes at the top of the pull. You’ll definitely have to shrug very hard during this lift, which will activate the traps.
For the three lifts I’ve just mentioned, I personally prefer sets of no more than 3 reps. The main reason for this is that Olympic lifts are very technique oriented, so doing lower rep sets guards against the deterioration of lifting form. In my own training, I also apply the same rep ranges to my deadlifts, often doing just 1 or 2 reps per set for the same reason. As far as shrugs are concerned, you can do as many reps as you like.
Just like other muscle groups, the neck can easily become tight or even have muscles go into spasm at times. Many of us that sit in front of a PC all day can definitely identify with the discomfort felt after long hours at the keyboard. A major culprit here is the tendency to slouch and let the back round and the shoulders roll forward while working. This is a huge problem that can definitely contribute to what might be perceived as a tension headache. My chiropractor once told me that the PC was one of the biggest boosts to his business. As we sit for hours, it’s natural to relax into this slouch position, which can cause tightness in the neck. I have suffered severe headaches at times as a result of this, although some may attribute this to eye-strain, which is often not the case.
One tension-releasing stretch requires that you sit in a chair and tilt the head to the right or left as far as your range of motion allows. Once you’ve reached the limit of movement, use your hand (left hand if stretching to the left) and apply gentle pressure to pull the stretch just a bit farther. Do not pull very hard at all; this is simply to help extend the range of motion using a bit of extra help. Hold the stretch for about 10 seconds and work to the other side. One important point is that if you have limited mobility in one direction due to injury or just tightness, be careful when working the agonists so you don’t create further tension instead of releasing tension.
You can also release some neck tension by performing a stretch very similar to the one I just mentioned. The only difference in this instance is that, instead of tilting the head directly right or left and pulling the stretch on that plane, you’ll be moving the head diagonally as though you’re trying to pass your head over your hip joint. Now, you’ll pull in that same diagonal direction once you’ve reached your range of motion limit. Just as in the other stretch, apply gentle pressure and pull lightly as you hold the stretch for 10 seconds. Both of these stretches are outlined in Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Beyond Stretching” book, which contains stretches for nearly every muscle group in the body.
Although not a direct stretch, one more thing that can help relieve tension in the upper back/base of the neck is to roll up a towel and place it in the middle of a bench. Lie on the bench with your head off one end and place the towel right between the shoulder blades. Rather than adding any sort of resistance to increase the stretch, just lie there as relaxed as possible and outstretch your arms to the sides. Just relax and breathe deeply, especially as you exhale. You can think of the great new Avant Labs products that will be forthcoming, or how much better you look with your thick, muscular neck.
Much like the tension caused in other parts of the neck, this type of tension is most often caused by slouching while seated for many hours. I’ve found this to be very useful after a long day at work. Rather than using a rolled up towel, which goes flat too easily, you might try a short section of a foam pool toy (often called a “noodle”) placed on your bench. This retains its shape very well and is just the right thickness to allow for a stretch without being uncomfortable.
I ran across another great low-tech method for releasing tension in the upper back in an article written by the late J.V. Askem in “Milo” magazine. All you need to do is place a golf ball into a tube sock. Hold one end of the sock and let the end with the ball drape behind you. Now, you can lean lightly against a wall and move slowly back and forth, letting the ball move across the areas of tension. This is a great “self massage” to do when you get that discomfort that seems to center between the shoulder blades. I frequently get a sharp pain in this area, especially when squatting, so this type of massage works great when there’s nobody else to coerce into working on the muscles in the area for me.
In short, the bit of time it takes to train and stretch the neck can improve athletic performance, add to your appearance and help prevent injury. If you suffer from tightness caused by long hours sitting on your tail at the office, the stretching alone should make your life more comfortable in general. The power you build in your traps will help all of your pulling movements and definitely add a finished look to your body. As always, I hope I’ve given some useful information and insight into training and maintaining this often overlooked muscle group. I know I frequently just don’t feel like I have the energy to perform neck work in general, but the benefits of doing so are well worthwhile. Should you desire any additional information or have any comments regarding this piece, feel free to contact me through the Avant Labs forums, its Private Message function, or through email.
Tsatsouline, Pavel “Beyond Stretching” Dragon Door Publishing
McCallum, John “Complete Keys to Progress” Ironmind Enterprises
Ironmind makes a headstrap that’s padded nylon, housing a metal frame. It’s extremely strong and comfortable, unlike the old leather headstraps.