Neck strengthening exercises

Welcome to my ultimate guide to Neck Strengthening Exercises for neck pain!

  • Do you suffer from neck pain?
  • Does it feel like it’s not getting any better?
  • … Or perhaps it’s even getting worse?

… then this post is for you!


The purpose of this article:

I would love to share with you the exact neck strengthening exercises that have worked both for myself as well as many of my neck pain suffering patients.
I am certain they can help you too!


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Some questions you may have…

Why do you need to do neck strengthening exercises?

My immediate response would be “Why not?“…

The only way your neck issues are going to improve is that if you actually decide to do something about it.

You do not have to live with pain!

Pain is not normal. It is a sign that your body isn’t working at its best.

These neck strengthening exercises are designed to help you address the factors that may be causing your neck pain.

Are neck strengthening exercises dangerous?

No.

The neck strengthening exercises are designed to be gentle and safe.

If you are unsure whether or not you should be doing them, please consult your local health practitioner prior commencing any exercises.

There are certain conditions such as cervical stenosis, nerve impingement, disc bulges, instability, vascular issues, arthritis (just to name a few), which may possibly get worse if you over do the exercises.

Do what you are capable for doing, assess how you respond to them and progress the neck strengthening exercises as appropriate.

How often do I need to do them?

My rule of thumb: Do them as many times throughout the day as you can. (More the merrier, I say!)

But as a general guideline, I would advise to aim for at least 2/week as a minimum.

Just take it easy for the first few days as it may take some time for your neck  to get accustomed to the neck strengthening exercises.


WARNING : These neck exercises are to be conducted in a gentle and safe way. They must not cause any sharp pain, dizziness or headaches. Period.


The ultimate guide to Neck Strengthening Exercises

I have divided this section into 6 different levels of difficulty.

Make sure you are able to perform all of the exercises comfortably before proceeding to the next level of neck strengthening exercises.

It is designed this way as to minimize the chance of performing an exercise that is outside your capabilities.

Level 1: Releases

Before you start any of the neck strengthening exercises, it is important that any tight neck structures are released to decrease stiffness.

Any build up of tension may make it difficult for you to perform the exercises properly.

Keep in mind: You will find certain spots that are quite tender to touch. These are generally the tight muscles you should be targeting! Keep at it!

[Duration: 10 minutes]

a) Sternocleidomastoid

These neck muscles are located at the front/side of your neck.

Although these muscles seem to rarely be the painful spots that people complain of, they are definitely common drivers of pain all around the neck region.

scm release

Instructions:

  • Locate the muscle using a pinch grip (see above for location).
  • Gently apply pressure between your thumb and index finger.
  • Adjust pressure accordingly.
  • Move up and down the side of the neck to cover all areas.
  • Repeat on other side.
  • Duration: 1 minute per side.
 

b) Upper trapezius/Levator scapulae

These muscles are usually the main areas people with neck pain point to when I ask them “where does it hurt?”.

They are situated at the back of the neck/shoulder region and often subject to overload.

upper trapezius release

Instructions:

  • Apply pressure to the upper trapezius and levator scapula region.
    • You can use a massage ball, go for a massage, use a BodyBackBuddy (in picture)
  • Spend at least 1-2 minutes doing this to both sides.
 

c) Sub-occipitals:

Situated at the base of the skull, these muscles are usually way over worked in individuals with bad posture (see post: Poked neck posture).

These muscles are usually the ones responsible for headaches.

sub occipital releases

Instructions:

  •  Whilst lying down, place a ball underneath the base of the skull.
  • Apply a gentle pressure into the ball.
  • Move your head around to target different tight areas.
  • Duration: 1 minute on each side
 

d) 1st rib mobilization

Several muscles in the neck attached into the 1st rib of the rib cage.

If the 1st rib does not move properly, the connecting neck tissues will also not move properly which can lead to stiffness/pain/overactivity of muscles.

1st rib mobilization

Instructions:

  • Place a strap over the junction between the neck and shoulder. (see above)
  • Firmly pull the strap in a downwards direction.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side.
    • Do not tilt your torso. Make sure only your head is moving.
  • Duration: 1 minute to both sides.

Level 2: Mobility

This level comprises of neck exercises which involve moving the neck through its normal movements.

This is an important step as obtaining normal movement will be the beginning of the healing process.

Remember – take your movements as far as you can go without reproducing any pain.

[Duration: <5 minutes]

a) Retraction (Chin tuck)

chin tuck retraction


Note: This chin tuck position is the starting position for all of your Level 2 neck strengthening exercises.

(This is to avoid starting from a forward neck position.)


Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, gently tuck your chin in.
    • Also known as “making a double chin”.
  • Make sure to keep your jaw and neck muscles relaxed.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

b) Flexion/Extension

flexion extension neck

Instructions:

  • Gently tuck your chin in.
  • Slowly look all the way up, then slowly look  all the way down.
    • Make sure that your chin does NOT jut out throughout the exercise.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

c) Rotation

rotation neck

Instructions:

  • Gently tuck your chin in.
  • Look all the way left/right.
    • Make sure that you do not allow your chin to jut forward at the end of the movement.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

d) Lateral flexion

lateral flexion neck

Instructions:

  • Gentle tuck you chin in.
  • Tilt your neck from side-to-side.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

e) Circular movements

Instructions:

  • Whilst keeping your neck as relaxed as possible, draw a circle with your neck.
  • Change directions.
  • Only move your neck as far as you are comfortable.
  • Repeat 10 times.

 

 

Level 3: Stretching


NOTE: Make sure you feel the stretch where you are meant to.

If you do not feel a stretch with these neck exercises, then it is likely that you are not stretching anything!


[Duration: 10-15 minutes]

a) Neck flexion stretch

neck flexion stretch

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, gently tuck your chin in and look down.
  • Place your hand at the back of your head and apply a downward pressure.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 2 times.

b) Lateral flexion stretch

neck lateral flexion stretch

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, tilt your head to the side (Ear to the shoulder).
  • Place your hand on the side of your head and apply a gentle pressure.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the side of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

c) Levator scapulae stretch

levator scapula stretch

 

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, look towards your armpit.
  • Place your hand on the back of your head and apply a downward pressure towards the armpit direction.
  • To increase the stretch, point your lower arm down to the floor to depress your shoulder.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the side/back of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

d) Front neck stretch

front neck stretch

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, look up and rotate your head to the side.
  • Place your hand on the collar bone on the opposite side to which you have rotated to.
  • Pull the skin on the collar bone downwards.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the front/side of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

e) Rotation with over pressure

neck rotation over pressure

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, turn your head all the way to one side.
  • Place your hand at side of your head and apply pressure.
  • Hold for 3 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Alternate sides.
 

f) Retraction with over pressure

neck retraction over pressure

Instructions:

  • Whilst lying on your back, tuck your chin in.
  • Place your hands at the front of your chin and apply a downward pressure.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

 

Level 4: Strengthen the Deep neck flexors!


This exercise is designed to strengthen the muscles that are responsible for placing your head and neck into the correct position.


[Duration: 10 minutes]

a) Retraction with deep neck flexor activation (lying down)

chin nods

Instructions:

  • Whilst lying down on your back, tuck your chin in.
    • “Make a double chin.”
  • Whilst keeping the chin tucked, gently nod and hold your chin towards your chest.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times/ 2-3 sets
  • Be sure to keep the neck muscles are relaxed as possible.
 

b) Retraction with deep neck flexor activation (progression)

Instructions:

  • Whilst lying down on your back, tuck and hold your chin in.
  • Gently pull your head off the floor.
    • You can use your hands to help you if required.
    • Hold for 3-5 seconds.
  • Whilst keeping your chin tucked in throughout, slowly lower head back to floor.
  • Repeat 10 times/2-3 sets
  • Be sure to keep neck muscles are relaxed as possible.

 


Level 5:
 Neck strengthening exercises


Level 1-4 neck exercises are a complete waste if you have no strength/endurance to maintain a good position of your neck.

Additionally – Strong muscles will allow the neck to tolerate much more load and stress.


[Duration: 10 minutes]

Isometric

a) Rotation

isometric neck rotation

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, place your palm on the side of your head.
  • Gently turn your head into the hand.
    • Match the force of your hand.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.
  • Alternate sides.
 

b) Lateral flexion

isometric neck lateral flexion

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, place your palm on side of your head.
  • Gently tilt your head into your hand.
    • Match the force of your hand.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.
  • Alternate sides.

Dynamic movements

c) Retraction

neck retraction against gravity

Instructions:

  • Lie on your stomach.
  • Support your forehead on a rolled up towel.
  • Gently tuck your chin in as to slightly lift your forehead off the towel.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

d) Extension against gravity

extension against gravity

Instructions:

  • Lie face down on a bench with your head off the side.
  • Whilst keeping your chin tucked in, lift your head up to a leveled position.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
 

e) Lateral flexion against gravity

neck lateral flexion against gravity

Instructions:

  • Comfortably lie on your side with your head supported by a pillow.
  • Gently lift head of pillow.
  • Hold for 3-5 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.
  • Alternate sides.

 

 

Level 6: Fixing your posture (the bigger picture)

This level involves dealing with your neck pain and treating it more wholistically.

Since all of the structures on your body are connected to each other in one way or another, they all influence each other.

Did you know: The source of your neck pain may actually be coming from structures that aren’t even located in the neck.

…Wait, what? Confused? Let that sink in for a second…

What does this mean for you?

It means that if you find that these neck exercises have not cured your neck pain, then you will need to search other areas of your posture that may be causing your issues.

You can do all these valuable neck strengthening exercises… and they will certainly work for most, but there may be some of you who may just have to look a bit deeper to find the pain generator.

… But – that’s why this website exists!

I would like to offer you the other solutions that you may not have already thought of!

Have a look at these other blog posts to get you started on fixing your posture:

Please feel free to ask me a question down below in the comments section if you are unsure of anything!

 

 

51 thoughts on “Neck strengthening exercises”

  1. How can I reverse the effects of having my neck sideways kind of like when you cradle your phone between ear and shoulders? Because of this bad posture my x-ray shows my neck leaning towards the left so I want to straighten it.

    Reply
    • Hey Steve,

      You can try stretching the neck the opposite direction to help stretch out the tight muscles pulling your neck to the one side.

      However- I would also recommend that you check to see if you have any side bends or perhaps scoliosis in your spine as this can encourage a tilted head.

      See post: Scoliosis Exercises.

      Mark

      Reply
  2. hey, first of all, thank you for this information
    is it possible to over do this exercises?
    is there any benefit for doing that more than once a day or should i stay at 1?

    Reply
    • Hey Norman,

      If you do it with enough intensity and there’s no adverse events from that, 1/day should be fine.

      If it suits you, you can do 2/day at a lesser intensity.

      Mark

      Reply
  3. Hey Mark, I suffer from neck pain and shoulder pain. Recently, it’s gotten worse because I pulled a muscle while I was sleeping somehow. For some reason, I also got a small fever at the same time this was happening and it lasted for 5 days with no other symptoms. Do you know if muscle pain can cause this? I’ve gotten headaches and felt slightly dizzy before but never had a fever accompany muscle pain.

    Reply
    • Hey Joel,

      There are some conditions such as the flu which can cause muscular aches.

      I am not aware of muscles causing fevers though.

      Might need to check with the doctor with this one!

      Mark

      Reply
  4. Hi, I am trying to do the rotation over with pressure exercise (e) but it hurts my neck muscles whenever I try to turn my head to the right. Do you have any other suggestions on exercises that would exercise the muscles that I use to turn my head?

    Reply
    • Hi Jopie,

      Here are some suggestions:

      1. Don’t apply an over pressure
      2. Apply only a gentle over pressure.
      3. Only turn your head to the range that is just before you feel the pain.
      4. If you feel a pinch on the right side when you turn to the right, consider stretching this right side by pulling your head to the left. (Lateral flexion stretch in this blog post)
      5. Look slightly downwards before rotating to the right.

      All the best.

      Mark

      Reply

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