Sunday, March 20, 2022

Neck Training - Joseph Horiggan (1991)

Also comes in handy on Halloween!

Before we get to twisting and turning our heads about in search of a healthier, stronger and more shapely neck, we bow them and give THANKS to BOB WILDES from over at the IronHistory website. That might be a bit much, but do thank the people who help get this material onto your screen.

Here's a link to several other neck training articles, including a simple-but-genius setup courtesy of Terry Strand . . . Thanks again, Terry! 

Not all athletes train their neck muscles, but those who train them correctly often see impressive gains. Most football players and wrestlers perform resistive neck training, and it is also popular among some boxers and weight training enthusiasts. 

There is a variety of equipment and techniques for working your neck, including head straps, weight helmets, machines and manual resistance from a towel or your partner. They all have benefits, but as with every part of your workout, there are hazards and pitfalls to avoid in order to prevent injuries.

HEAD STRAPS. The neck strap, or head strap, as it's called, is an old standby -- probably the oldest form of neck training other than manual resistance. The strap goes around your head, and then you attach weights to a chain that hangs from the strap. 

You exercise the muscles at the back of your neck, the extensors, with the weight hanging in front of you; you hit the ones in front of your neck, the flexors, with the weight hanging behind you. The movements are done while you're either seated or standing.   

Trainees are typically advised to work their necks with high reps. The idea is that in order to get out 20 or so reps per set, you'll avoid using too heavy a weight; a heavy weight can strain and cause a variety of injuries to untrained neck muscles not used to such resistance. 

I cannot stress this strongly enough, but in neck training it can lead to the fatigue or tearing of the muscle and subsequent spinal cord damage that could leave you a quadriplegic -- that is , paralyzed from the neck down. 

You'll also want to avoid using an excessive range of motion, as this poses a risk of injury to all the muscles, ligaments and disks in the neck area.

HELMETS. You may have seen advertisements for these. They look something like football or motorcycle helmets except they have a fitting on top to attach the weights. You lie on a bench with your head and neck extended off the end to train both the flexors and extensors. Hugh Cassidy [see link above], a famous powerlifter of yesteryear, popularized the helmet and he wrote many articles about the gains he made with it. 

As with head straps, you don't want to use an excessive range of motion when you arch your head back in hyperextension. The greatest danger with this equipment, however, is caused by the way the helmet has total control over your neck.

MACHINES. Due to the popularity of weight training machines as well as the proliferation of companies that manufacture them, there are not a few neck training machines on the market. Some of these have a traditional weight stack through which you select the desired resistance. Others are plate loading, and with a third kind you adjust the resistance using handles and levers to vary the pressure on the pads that lie against your head. You can do rotation and side bending (lateral flexion), as well as neck flexion and extension on this third type of machine. 

With machine-oriented neck training the equipment that enables you to perform rotation movements can lead to trouble. Models that keep you in a position to live out your perverse fantasies Models that keep you in a position to perform the exercise in a strict manner may set you up for injury by putting too much torque on your neck. This can   quickly lead to strains as well as injuries to the vertebral disks. Some machines keep you from using a more natural movement when you perform the exercise, and when you add a full range of motion along with the resistance, you have all the ingredients for an injury.

MANUAL RESISTANCE. Not to be confused with Manuel resistance and other fawlty methods, as I said above, this is probably the oldest form of neck training. That doesn't make it obsolete, however. Manual resistance, whether you apply it with a towel or it is provided by your training partners hands, allows you to use resistance over a range of motion and is an easy form of isometric training. You can use it whenever there's no equipment available, and it's a convenient way to train your neck during a football or rugby practice of in a martial arts studio. 


This kind of resistance work brings amazing growth in both strength and size. David and Peter Paul, the Barbarian Brothers, represent the extreme in terms of what head strap training can do.

They have each used 250 pounds on the neck strap with the weight  both in front of and behind their bodies for 10 to 15 reps. They were planning to move up to 300 pounds until I advised them against it due to the seriousness of the risks involved. 

Hugh Cassidy moved 75 pounds for 15 to 20 reps with the weighted helmet. He did this on a bench in both the face up and face down positions. 

He had a neck measurement in excess of 20 inches, as do both Peter and David. Many of today's professional football linemen also have 20 inch necks. 

A final example is martial artist and boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb, who used manual resistance with towels to assist him in withstanding the punches of professional boxers. 

I said "martial" artist! 


Despite the potential gains it offers, neck training also has potential for serious injury, as described above. Bodybuilder/wrestler Don Ross

knows a thing or two about neck work -- he used to train his one bentover row machine at Gold's Gym in Venice. Ross used 315 pounds for reps in the facedown position and 200 for reps on another machine.

Based on his 30 years of experience lifting weights -- as well as the fact that he is a prolific weight training author -- I requested his input on this article. I recall reading some of his pieces on neck and trapezius training 15 years ago in IronMan. The end results of his experience reinforce my points about the potential risks. 

"The only regret I have about neck training is that I included side-bending movements that caused an injury," Don stated. "Also, the super-heavy neck training was not necessary. I started training my neck and abs due to the fact that I was a high school and then an AAU wrestler. Later, when I was performing professional feats of strength, I did extremely crazy things that I would not advise others to do. I would perform a wrestler's bridge over a bed of nails and hold three cement blocks on my chest. Then I'd have someone smash the blocks with a sledgehammer. I also bent a 7/8 inch steel bar while holding it in my teeth. I stopped the heavy neck work on the row machine when the sensation in my neck let me know that it had been enough. 

"Neck training saved my life as a professional wrestler on more than one occasion," Ross continued, "and there were two auto accidents, after which I was told that I should have died (except that my neck was so strong)." He advised other trainees not to make the same mistakes he made. "The machines are good if they are used sensibly," he said. "Don't train the neck sideways. Use controlled speed and avoid quick movements." 

He noted that women are traditionally told to stay away from neck training, but over the years he has come to include some light neck work in his female clients' programs because the women tended to "strain their necks during other exercises. But once I had them exercise their necks, the strains stopped."

In Figures 5 through 7 below Don demonstrates a movement that he adapted for neck training. "At the time of these photos I had a slight neck injury, and I found a way to work around it," he explained. "I hooked a up a strap to the overhead cable on the pulldown machine and placed it around my chin. Then I held the strap in place with my hands and slowly guided the movement. This allowed me to continue training my neck without any pain." 

This method won't necessarily work for everyone, Ross warned, "One other trainee who had a disk problem tried it, and it aggravated his neck," he related. "That just goes to show you the differences that can occur with any exercise." 

From your left . . . first photo: Don Ross demonstrates a unique neck training movement on the pulldown machine. Second: The starting position. Note how he holds the strap to give him complete control over the movement. Third: The finish position. Ross used this exercise to strengthen his neck after an injury to the area. 


In neck training it's important to not overstress the disks and ligaments that are located between the vertebrae. To that end you want to avoid letting your neck hyperextend too far when your are performing either flexion or extension movements. This could result in stress, particularly around the C5 or C6 vertebrae of the neck (where C stands for "cervical"). 

Your range of motion can also cause excessive stress to the area. If you use too great a range of motion, you may injure a disk, necessitating a complicated recovery process depending on how serious the damage is. This type of injury can bring you pain from your neck down to your shoulders, and you may feel numbness and tingling in your arm and hand. Should this occur, see your physician and do not continue to train your neck. 

Simply strengthening the neck muscles will not help at this point; you must resolve the inflammation and disk problem before you attempt to work your neck again. Even if a disk is not acutely or significantly damaged, training under these conditions can lead to gradual, "wear and tear" arthritic changes that cause pain and/or impingement of the nerves that exit the neck (brachial plexus), which, in turn, causes pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the upper extremity. 

Another neck training related injury is known as thoracic outlook syndrome. A common variety occurs when an athlete has attained a great deal of muscle development on the side of the neck (the scalene muscles, especially the anterior scalene) and the bundle of nerves that supplies the upper extremity is impinged, leading to symptoms similar to those of a disk injury. 

When an athlete suffers from thoracic outlet syndrome, the condition requires some sort of conservative therapy. If the symptoms are severe enough and conservative therapy fails to improve the situation, the next step is surgery -- this is where I'll skip a small section of the article that talks about surgery . . . 

Make sure that your initiation into neck training is slow and gradual. The same goes for any increases in resistance and range of motion. Give yourself an entire year to simply get used to the exercises and to allow your neck to develop somewhat before you think about pushing this bodypart any harder -- if that even becomes necessary. The Barbarians have trained for 17 years to get where they are now. Don Ross has trained for three decades. Most professional football players have been doing some sort of neck training since they were 10 years old. 

Allow for the necessary time to achieve your goals. You cannot push your neck the way you push your other bodyparts. The consequences are very serious. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  

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