Neck strengthening exercises

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

Neck strengthening exercisesImage courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • 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 has worked both for myself as well as many of my neck pain suffering patients. I am certain they can work for you too!

 


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Some questions you may have…

// So, why exactly 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 neck strengthening 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.

But having said, start the exercises at a comfortable pace and assess your response as you go.

// 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/day as a minimum.

Just take it easy for the first few days as it may take some time for your neck  to accustom to doing 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.

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


 

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 minimise the chance of performing an exercise that is outside your capabilities.

neck exercisesImage courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 and tend to develop a lot of tension in them. Although these muscles rarely seem to be the painful spots people complain of, they are definitely common drivers of pain all around the neck region.

 

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.

Instructions:

  • Apply pressure to the the neck/shoulder region with the BodyBackBuddy.
  • Spend at least 5 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.

 

 

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 mobilisation:

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.

 

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)

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 know as (make a double chin).
  • Make sure to keep your jaw and neck muscles relaxed.
  • Hold for 5-15 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.

 

b) Flexion/Extension

 

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

 

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

 

Instructions:

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

 

e) Circular movements

Video from Jennifer Van Barneveld-Pe

 

Instructions:

  • Whilst keeping your neck as relaxed as possible, draw a circle with your neck.
  • Change directions.
  • 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

 

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.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 2 times.

 

 

b) 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.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

 

c) Levator scapulae 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.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

d) 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.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 2 times.

 

 

e) Rotation with overpressure

 

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 overpressure

 

Instructions:

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

 

 


Level 4: Strengthen that neck!

This is easily my most favourite one out of all the neck strengthening exercises.

Not only does it look funny, it’s super effective!

Essentially – this exercise is designed to get your head into the correct position so that all your muscles are working properly. If your muscles are working properly, there should be no issue at all.

[Duration: 10 minutes]

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

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.
  • Be sure to keep the neck muscles are relaxed as possible.

 

b) Retraction with deep neck flexor activation (progression)

Video from Optimum care provider

 

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.
  • Whilst keeping your chin tucked in throughout, slowly lower head back to floor.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Be sure to keep neck muscles are relaxed as possible.

 


Level 5: Neck strengthening exercises

Level 1-3 neck strengthening exercises are a complete waste if you have no strength/endurance to maintain a good position of your neck.

Also – the stronger your muscles are, the more load they can tolerate.

[Duration: 10 minutes]

Isometric

a) 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

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

 

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

 

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

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.

For example, I have treated many patients whose neck pain was eliminated just by fixing the position of their pelvis.

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. (Sounds tricky? It can be.)

But – that’s why this website exists. I would like to offer you the other solutions that you may not have already thought of! Please have a look around the website if you haven’t already!

Have a look at these 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! I am more than happy to help.

 


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About

I am a physiotherapist who has personally experienced the pain as a result of bad posture. I would like to offer you some of the solutions that I and my patients have greatly benefited from.

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8 thoughts on “Neck strengthening exercises

  1. Hey Mark,

    One of my SCMs has been tightening up for several months now, causing headaches and dizziness. It seems to be extremely overactive as even the most basic strengthening exercises, like simple chin tucks, cause it to tighten up. I realize once it tightens up, I’m not really engaging my deep neck flexors anymore. So, do you know if there are any simple movements/exercises that would allow me to strengthen my deep neck flexors without tightening the SCMs in the process? Thanks

    1. Hi Shane,

      Great question.

      You will benefit from focusing on stretching and releasing your SCM first. This will neurologically reduce the muscular tension in the SCM.

      You will then need to focus on: A) RETRACTION WITH DEEP NECK FLEXOR ACTIVATION (LYING DOWN)

      Until you can activate your DNF without SCM, you should not progress to the other more difficult exercises.

      PRO TIP: as you perform a chin tuck, gently push your tongue to the top of your palate. This will help turn off your SCM.

      Mark

  2. Hello Mark,
    Your neck exercise have 5 levels. Are we suppose to do level 1 for say a month before moving on to level 2 and so on OR are we doing all 5 levels each time?

    1. Hey Phong,

      You can do whatever works for you. It depends on the condition of your neck really.

      I personally would recommend doing all of them if possible.

      Mark

  3. How many repetitions for the one with the video (b) Retraction with deep neck flexor activation (progression))?

    Thanks for sharing all this valuable info!

  4. Dear mark, I have had three neck surgeries. They were all fusions. My neck is very locked, and the pain is never ending. I also have bad posture, I cannot seem to correct it. Do you sell a tool I can use to force my body to the correct posture? Something that will help me to know when my posture is correct. I am in desperate need of help. I cut hair, and that work promotes bad posture. Please help, I’m desperate for help.

    1. Hi there Laura,

      If you have had fusions in the neck (especially at multiple levels), then your movement will definitely be limited.

      Make sure you be consistent with the neck exercises. It can take some time to correct your posture, but remember you have also had your bad posture for a long time as well. Consistency and patience is the key here.

      There are certain things that can “force you into correct posture” like Posture Shirts, taping, posture braces… however, if used in the long term, will make your postural muscles even weaker.

      Mark

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