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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28 thoughts on “Neck strengthening exercises

  1. Hi Mark. My neck is extremely tight. Coukd this be contributing to problems with my jaw? It locks shut and my mouth openong is very small. The masseters are very tight and feel overworked.

    Originally I thought the issue was with the jaw but could they be overworking and compensating for my weak, thin and tight neck?

    I wonder whether focusing on strengthening and loosening the neck will fix my jaw.

    1. Hey Alfie,

      You could be spot on!

      Jaw clenching can be a sign that you are compensating for weakness somewhere else in your body (esp. the neck).

      Try releasing (dig your fingers into the masseter) and stretching (pull your jaw downwards with your fingers on your teeth of the bottom jaw) to get some relief.

      Follow up with some neck strengthening exercises (namely forward head posture exercises) and see how it goes in the next few weeks.

      On top of that – make sure you address any activities or positions that you may be adopting on a regular basis that may be compounding the issue.

      Mark

    1. Hey Karen,

      Neck circles are awesome! … provided that the neck is able to tolerate them.

      This exercise is designed to take the neck into its normal full range of motion. If you don’t aim to train your full range of motion (pain-free), then you will never reclaim the full movement of a joint.

      Some people with forward head posture may need to ease off the combined movements of full extension/rotation to avoid compression of the joints.

      Mark

  2. hi mark! Im your one of fan Rabia.
    I’ve been reading your post hardly
    so, this case is I have neck strain on today morning.
    I can’t move head to left side. then Can I do these neck exercises you taught ?
    How can i do for my neck on today?

    1. Hi Rabaia,

      If your neck is in a lot of pain right now, I would focus on just gentle range of motion exercises. Stay away from any spikes in pain.

      Mark

  3. hi mark,
    would those stretches and exercises take care of the omohyoid muscle as well? or should I look for stretches that are specific to this particular muscle? it seems that first rib mobilization & front neck stretch should address this muscle, but I was wondering if I should go deeper,

    thanks,

    1. Hi Rouba,

      I haven’t specifically given exercises to strengthen the omohyoid muscle. However – with poor positioning of this muscle secondary to poor posture, its function can definitely be influenced. Or even worse – it can be recruited to do a movement that is not meant to do!

      But to answer your question, the stretches to the front and side of the neck will also include this muscle.

      Mark

  4. Hi Mark,

    I get dizzy the day after I go for long road bike rides. I think it has something to do with the flexion of my neck on the bike. It’s the only thing that sets it off. I have raised my handle bars to a more upright position and I’m no longer getting the tweaky neck pain I used to feel after rides. Although, after long rides I still get dizzy. When I say dizzy it’s not vertigo. It’s the sensation of brain fog, feeling off equilibrium, tired and irritated eyes. What neck stretches and strenghinging exercises do you recommend I focus on for this and when should I do these exercises? I have a 100 mile century I’m training for so stop riding is not what I like to hear :-). Thanks Mark! I really appreciate all this info you provide.

    1. Hey Camilla Chalmers.

      I recognize your name from the Facebook group 🙂

      With cycling, it is common to have your neck in a hyper extended position to see the road in front of you.

      This can jam up your neck joints and muscles at the back of your neck. This area can be associated with dizziness, eye pain, headache etc when tight/overloaded.

      You will need to stretch and release the area first.

      Follow up with Deep neck flexor strengthening.

      Try to maintain a gentle chin tuck/nod whilst riding. (This will be difficult due to the position of cycling. Just aim to keep your chin slightly nodded downwards by just a little bit and see how that goes)

      Mark

  5. Hi Mark I have a 9mm tear in the supraspinatus tendon and physio & needling not helping. I am to see orthopaedic specialist in 6 weeks, but really don’t want an op as they don’t seem to be successful. Am seeing a Prolozone (PRP treatment possibly) Doctor tomorrow. Can you suggest my best way forward and if exercises will help/repair tear. The position that is painful is putting my left arm outward against the wall and to put my left arm behind my back and upwards. I am 66 yrs old & do quite physical upper body work. I can lift my arms above my head easily enough. Any comments would be much appreciated.

  6. Hi Mark,
    Really like your posts, very informative. I work on my posture a lot, but still sometimes have trouble getting my head to release to the floor when attempting to lie on my back. It feels like the tightness is in my trapezius muscles more than my neck. Can you suggest any excercises to release the tightness and what may be causing it?

    Thank you in advance for your reply.
    All the BEST!

    1. Hey Robert,

      Do you mean you are unable to get your neck towards the floor?

      If so – make sure you are keeping your hip and knees bent. This will take away the arch in your lower back, which then may allow your neck to reach the floor.

      You will need to focus on stretching/releasing the muscles at the back of the neck.

      This post has many exercises that you can try: Forward head posture

      Mark

  7. Hi Mark,

    I had a concussion a half year ago, and i assume whiplash as well, since then i have had troubles with my neck and posture. i worked on my posture, and after a while i think i’ve gotten over most of the postural issues.

    I’m left with one issue though, my neck, i find that my suboccipitals, i think this is the case with my scm and possibly scalenes too, but mostly in the suboccipitals, even after releasing them multiple times, they keep tightening up, and when they tighten i get a tight feeling in the back of my skull reaching up and around, kind of makes it difficult to think and function normally, im relatively certain it has to do with these muscles because when i release these muscles the feeling fades,

    what could be causing this, and how can i get it to stop tightening up, because this happens throughout the day even though i keep good posture, i was told that it’s not from whiplash and so i’ve been trying to solve this problem, i’ve gotten a massotherapist to work on my neck, i’ve tried releasing it and stretching it, but the same issue arises that it tightens back up again.

    i have one suspicion of what it could be at the moment but i wanted your opinion on if you think this is a possibility and how i could solve it, i was thinking this could this be due to weak suboccipital / (semi) spinalis capitus etc, because in the past six monthes i’ve been very reluctant to look up at all, like say to look straight up at a bird or plane flying, or when i bend over to pick something up and lift head up to see something, because it makes the suboccipitals tighten up and then i have to go through the process to release them again, could it be that they are actually weak, and this is causing the muscles to tighten up whenever i use them, and if so and how would i go up about strengthening these muscles that let me look up?

    1. Hi there Joseph,

      The first thing I would check out is if you have a forward head posture.

      Check out this post: Forward head posture

      This head position forces the sub-occipital muscles to be over active.

      If you do not have a forward head posture, then you may be right in saying that these muscles are weak.

      A good way to strengthening them is to do the strengthening exercises as mentioned on the forward head posture post.

      Let me know how it goes.

      Mark

  8. What is a good position to be in to read? I find this to be the chain cause of my neck problems and it only enhances my dowangers hump.
    Thank you for all of the information you are providing! It is most helpful.

    Helen

    1. Hi Helen,

      You want to bring the book up closer to eye level. (This will reduce the need to look down too long.)

      I personally change positions quite frequently when reading a book. Keep moving!

      Mark

  9. 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

  10. 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

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

    Thanks for sharing all this valuable info!

  12. 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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