A strength coach is faced with an important decision; to train the neck directly or to omit targeted neck training. Many coaches feel that the neck does not need special treatment as they believe that it gets trained sufficiently during heavy compound movements. Others feel that the neck should be trained directly as they believe that failing to do so would “leave room on the table” in terms of neck strength. Some coaches believe that neck strength is overrated, while other coaches feel that neck strength is an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In this article I’m going to teach you some important concepts in neck training which will allow you to make an educated decision as to whether or not you should train the neck.
The neck can flex, extend, laterally flex, and rotate, just like the rest of the spine. Figure 1 illustrates these joint actions.
Figure 1: Neck Extension and Flexion, Neck Rotation, and Neck Lateral Bending
Although functional anatomy knowledge is always helpful, I don’t believe it’s not absolutely necessary to memorize all the different neck muscles as there are a lot of them. Figure 2 depicts the neck musculature.
Figure 2: Muscles of the Neck
It is important, however, to understand which muscles have the best leverage for various motions. Ackland et al. (2011) is the first study to examine muscle moment arms in human neck muscles. Think of muscle moment arms as lever-lengths, and the longer the length the better leverage the muscle has for torque production.
The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) has the largest moment arm (best leverage) for neck flexion, while the superior and middle trapezius fibers have the largest moment arms for neck extension. The splenius capitus and semispinalis capitus also display good leverages for neck extension.
The muscles with the best leverages for neck lateral flexion are the anterior scalenes and SCM. The middle scalenes and levator scapulae also possess significant lateral bending capacity.
The superior and middle trapezius, sternocleidomastoid and semispinalis capitis sub-regions were the greatest contributors to contralateral (opposite side) axial rotation, while the rectus capitis posterior major, obliquus capitis inferior and splenius capitis were the greatest contributors to ipsilateral (same side) axial rotation.
Here’s a direct quote from their paper, which stresses the importance of having strong muscles that produce neck rotation:
Our results demonstrate greater neck muscle torque potential in lateral bending and flexion–extension movements than in axial rotation. Lower capacity of the neck muscles to generate axial rotation torque during vigorous sporting activities may indicate greater vulnerability of the neck to osteoligamentous and muscular damage during forceful axial rotation movements than equivalent flexion–extension and lateral bending movements. As the superior and middle trapezius and sternocleidomastoid had substantial axial rotation torque potential, and are some of the largest neck muscles by cross-sectional area, strengthening of these muscles may significantly enhance active neck rotation torque.
This information is all well and good, but it doesn’t take into account muscle activation. The force produced by a muscle has to do with it’s physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), moment arm (lever length), degree of activation, and passive contributions (if stretched sufficiently). So just because a muscle has good leverage doesn’t mean that it’s the best muscle for the job as the muscle needs to be highly activated as well to produce large amounts of force. In the case of neck extension, for example, I don’t believe that the traps fire very hard. Test it out for yourself right now and perform a 10 second isometric manual neck extension hold and you’ll see for yourself.
Vasavada et al. (2001) showed that out of the various neck motions, humans are strongest in neck extension, followed by neck lateral bending, followed by neck flexion, followed by neck rotation. Figure 3 will make things easier for you to understand.
Figure 3: Isometric Neck Strength in Men and Women
As you can see, men are at least twice as strong as women in neck strength at all motions. These results are greater than those found in other studies, for example a study by Chiu et al. (2002) showed that Chinese men possessed only 20-70% more isometric neck strength than women, and Jordan et al. (199) found that males were only 20-25% stronger in isometric neck strength compared to women, and that this trend reversed at around 70 years of age (women’s strength surpassed men as the men’s strength diminished while the women’s strength was maintained).
Over the years I’ve noticed that strength coaches are biased toward neck extension strength, probably because of the popularity of the neck harnesses. While neck extension strength is important, it is my belief that for many sports the neck should be strong in all directions, such as martial arts, football, rugby, and hockey.
For example, we need eccentric neck flexion strength to absorb neck extension forces as in a left hook to the nose.