Neck pain is no laughing matter. I’ve had chronic neck pain as a result of a badly set-up workstation, and acute neck pain that was caused by an accident. I can tell you that both affected my life in big ways – including interfering with sleep and making me very unhappy. After all, whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down, your neck is involved.
In my article Neck Pain Relief, I discussed in depth the causes of different types of neck pain, and how you can treat it. I also shared some of my favorite pain-relieving neck exercises and yoga poses.
However, one of the most important things to you can do to prevent pain in the first place is to strengthen your neck muscles. Strong neck muscles are more resistant to strain, will be able to hold your head up in better posture, and will provide stability and support which takes stress off the cervical vertebrae, disks, and ligaments that are so easily injured.
Now, to keep my neck strong and prevent neck pain, I include a couple of neck exercises in my regular workouts. I’ve experimented with lots of different exercises and some have proved better than others. In this article, I want to share some of my favorites.
CAUTION: If you are new to neck exercises, take it easy at first. Doing too much too soon can lead to a stiff, sore neck. Always do less than you think you can, and build up both the exercise intensity and volume gradually over a few weeks. If any of the exercises hurt, stop and try a different one.
I’ve listed these exercises in order of difficulty – with the easiest first. If you are new to neck exercises, make sure you start at the top of the list and work down, only moving to the next section once you’ve mastered the one before.
Isometric neck exercises
These are the simplest neck strengthening exercises. They require no equipment and you can do them anywhere and anytime. Isometric exercises involve no movement which means they are ideal if you have any existing cervical vertebrae problems and just want to work the muscles.
1. Side neck flexion
This exercise works the muscles on the side of your neck. Place your left-hand flat against the side of your head. Keeping your arm tense, push your head against your hand. Hold for ten seconds, rest a breath, and repeat. Remember to change sides and do the same on the right side too.
2. Neck extension
In this exercise, you will be working the muscles on the back of your neck. These are the muscles that hold your head up against gravity. Interlace your fingers and place them on the back of your head. Keeping your arms tense, push your head back into your hands for ten seconds. Rest and repeat a couple more times.
3. Neck flexion
This exercise works the muscles on the front of your neck. Place your palms against your forehead. Keeping your arms still, press your head forward into your hands. Hold for ten seconds, rest, and repeat.
Bodyweight neck exercises
These simple exercises can also be done anywhere as they require no equipment. Because they involve neck movement, they are a little more difficult than the isometric exercises described above. Do each exercise as many times as it takes to feel the target muscles working. This could be as few as 5-10 or as many as 20 or more. Rest one minute and then do another set.
1. Head lifts
This exercise works the muscles on the front of your neck. Lie on your back on the floor. Bend your legs and put your feet flat. Lift your head off the floor and touch your chin to your chest. Lower your head and repeat. Make this exercise a little harder by lying on the end of your bed so your head hangs down and back between reps.
2. Reverse head lifts
Lie on your front with your hands folded under your head, legs straight. Lift your head off the floor so your chin is clear of your hands; look up towards the ceiling. Lower your head and repeat. Make this exercise a little harder by lying on your front at the end of your bed so your head hangs down between reps.
3. Side head lifts
Lie on your side, preferably on an exercise mat for comfort. Lift your head up and try to touch your ear to your shoulder. Lower your head and repeat. Do the same number of repetitions on each side.
Resistance band neck exercises
Resistance band neck exercises can be easier or harder than bodyweight exercises depending on the bands you use. Some bands are very strong, while other bands are less so. The best bands to use are the wide, flat type because they won’t dig into your skin and are much more comfortable. A good brand to look for is Theraband (you can find it at amazon.com).
The number of reps you do depends on how strong your neck is, and how strong your band is. Do as many as it takes to really feel the muscles in your neck working.
1. Band neck extensions
Like all neck extension exercises, this one works the muscles on the back of your neck. Loop your band over the back of your head and hold the ends in your hands. Push your head back against the resistance offered by the band.
2. Band neck lateral flexion
This exercise works the muscles in the side of your neck. Hold the band in your left hand and loop it over your head. Keeping your arm still, push your head over toward your right shoulder, away from the band. Come back to the center and repeat. Do the same number of reps on each side.
3. Band neck forward flexion
Hold one end of your band in each hand. Raise your hands and place the band across your forehead. Keeping your arms tense, press your head forward against the band. This exercise works the muscles at the front of your neck.
Stability ball neck exercises
Most people use a stability ball for abs exercises, but it’s also a great way to work your neck too. Make sure your stability ball is properly inflated, clean, and free from nicks and cuts – you don’t want it to burst while you are using it.
Not got a stability ball? Why not? They’re great! You can use them for so many things. I really like this one available at amazon.com.
1. Stability ball lateral flexion
To work the muscles on the side of your neck, stand next to a wall and place the ball between your head and the wall. Press the side of your head against the ball and squeeze it. Keep going until you feel your neck muscles really working, and then change sides.
2. Stability ball neck bridge
This exercise works the muscles on the back of your neck. Sit on your stability ball with your feet flat on the floor. Walk your feet forward and then lie back. Keep on walking forward as the ball rolls under your back and up toward your shoulders. Keep going until the ball is behind your head and you can feel your neck muscles supporting some of your weight. Walk back in and repeat.
3. Stability ball front bridge
To work the muscles on the front of your neck, place your ball against the wall and rest your forehead against it. Walk your feet back so your weight is supported on your forehead. The further back your feet are, the harder this exercise will be. Hold for as long as you comfortably can. Make this exercise more demanding by nodding your head.
Neck harness exercises
Neck harnesses are popular in sports like bodybuilding and boxing. They provide an easy way to make your neck exercises harder. I’ve put these exercises at the end of this list because, potentially, they are the toughest. If you are interested in taking your neck strength to a new level, consider buying a neck harness. They are cheap, light, and portable, but very effective. Remember to start light to avoid unnecessary aches and pains! The neck harness I use is available at Amazon.com.
1. Neck harness extensions
Performed sitting or standing, this exercise works the muscles on the back of your neck. Wearing your neck harness with the weight at the front, lower your head down towards the floor, and then look up toward the ceiling. Keep your movements slow and deliberate for best results.
2. Neck harness flexion
This exercise works the muscles on the front of your neck. Wearing your neck harness with the weights at the back, lie on an exercise bench with your head just off the edge. Curl your head up and touch your chin to your chest. Lower your head and repeat.
Note: the video shows this exercise performed with a weight plate and not a neck harness. Don’t worry – just follow my instructions and you’ll be fine!
3. Neck harness lateral flexion
Lie on your side on an exercise bench with your neck harness on sideways, and the weight hanging down toward the floor. Lift your head and try to touch your shoulder with your ear. Lower the weight and repeat. Swap sides and do the same number of reps on the opposite side.
If you currently have neck pain, a lot of these exercises may be a little too much for you right now. However, once your neck pain has gone, strengthening your neck muscles can stop it from coming back. Start at the beginning of the list with the easiest exercises and then, as you get stronger, work your way toward the more demanding exercises near the end.