4 Steps to Begin Training the Neck

Football season is upon us, and we’re going to start seeing all those neck injuries and concussions again. If you’re planning your in-season program and have never done it in the past, now is a great time to start training the neck.

Strengthening an athlete’s neck has been shown to help dissipate energy away from the brain during collisions to the head.  As reported in Athletic Business magazine this year “Eight years ago, the injury epidemiologist Dawn Comstock joined the faculty at Ohio State University and established the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System — an NFHS-endorsed online tool that hundreds of certified athletic trainers across the country use weekly to report injury exposure and incidents, logging up to 300 distinct variables for each injury in the process. It was the first and remains the only database of its kind.

In February, Comstock presented findings from a subset of research that she calls an “exciting” first step in linking neck strength to concussion risk and, potentially, prevention. Data collected on 6,704 student-athletes indicates that for every single pound of improved neck strength, an individual reduces his or her concussion risk by 5 percent.”

That is unbelievable evidence showing that we CAN make a difference.  For a long time, we just thought a thick neck looked great and allowed guys to hit harder.  Now we know that training the neck can also save their brain.

Training the neck doesn’t have to be complicated, either.

Here are a few things to consider before you begin.

Step 1

You first have to decide what sort of resources you have available and do the best you can with them. Most of the time manual resistance (MR) neck exercises are going to be a readily available option, so I’ll be using them in my examples. MR exercise is a great option when you have lots of athletes to train and minimal equipment. Many of us are in that situation.

If you aren’t comfortable teaching MR exercises, you have to start out learning the basics. They’re exercises that need to be learned and taught correctly. If they’re being performed incorrectly, they can be dangerous and useless. Even if you’re comfortable using MR for some exercises like shoulder side raises, but have never learned the neck movements, you’ll need to.

Some of the area high schools I’m a part of are fortunate enough to have great neck machines and I urge you to use these if they are available.

Step 2

If Manual Resistance exercises are going to be your choice when training the neck, you have to make sure that your athletes will be mature enough to do them correctly. They’ll be spotting each other directly and some athletes just won’t be mature enough to handle this without stern warnings.

For example, I’ve attempted in the past to implement them for varsity volleyball and cheerleading…it failed. It went well the first time, but not the second or third, so I had to make the decision to drop the idea. We were only able to do shrugs and that’s ok.  This experience doesn’t mean I won’t try again, but at that time women’s varsity volleyball and women’s varsity cheerleading weren’t ready. I’ve had success with freshman football at the same school, so maybe it wasn’t an age issue.

Think about what you have to work with and who will be doing the exercises. Be patient and put some thought into how you’re going to convey the importance of doing these correctly. If you can get the young athlete to buy into the importance of strengthening the area it’ll help a lot.  I’ve found it to be extremely easy to sell the idea to coaches and parents. Having them on board will always help.

Step 3

Now you have to decide which exercises you’ll be doing. I’ll make this easy for you. You’re going to do MR Front Neck, MR Back Neck, and Shrugs.  That’s all you need to start training the neck.


These exercises are going to be the safest and most efficient to implement.  I like lateral flexion, but I only like it done in certain machines and spotted MR by experienced coaches. Also, the movement takes twice the time since you would have to do both sides. It may not be necessary. I’ve actually started with front and back, then added a lateral movement later.

What about rotation you ask? I think rotational movements are unnecessary because of the nature of the muscles involved in rotation and flexion.  They are the same, so I’m just going to do the movement I think is safer to train. It’s sort of like killing two birds with one stone.  Always think practically about your training.

Step 4

When and how you implement these exercises is going to ultimately be up to you. This is where we tend to over-think things. Just keep it real simple and don’t get set on “there’s only one way” to do things.  Here are some examples of how I’ve implemented neck training in the past.

  1. Everyone comes into the weight room at the same time, so I have everyone partner up and get the exercises done together. This has worked great for me in the summers and winters when everyone shows up together at the same time.
  2. They all trickle in at different times whenever they want for 2 hours, so I constantly run around coaching. I like to stay away from this one, but it happens. You just have to do your best with it and smile.
  3. They trickle in during a 10-15 minute period for the same workout.  It works to just have them do a general warm-up or even start other parts of their workout. Then when everyone gets there I’ll start the neck training.

How you do the training is up to you and there’s thousands of ways to do it. Each school I go to and even the different teams within that school have neck training implemented different ways. What you choose should be consistent if possible.

Some research has demonstrated a greater increase in cervical extension strength (Back Neck) when groups trained 2 times per week compared to just once. This same research demonstrated that you might only need 1 set of the exercise to attain a strength increase.  So, the basic thinking is done for us. Perform at least 1 set of the exercise at least 2 times per week on non-consecutive days and you’ll be off to a great start.

The workout can look like this:

  1. MR Front Neck X 10
  2. Shrug X 10-15
  3. MR Back Neck X 10
  4. Shrug X 10-15

If the exercise is done correctly, sets of 10 for front neck and back neck will put the muscles under enough tension to produce an adaptation.  Starting at 10 will allow me to increase stress during the exercise by just increasing the number of reps. All things being equal, if I add 2 reps to front neck after a couple weeks of 10, I’ll be progressively overloading. I’ll stop at 15 reps before I add another set to the workout.  If the repetition speed of the neck exercises is 4 seconds (2-3sec. eccentric/2-3 sec. concentric) and you’re doing 15 reps, the set is about a minute long. That’s plenty of time under tension for just anyone to increase the strength and thickness of the neck musculature.

If this workout is done during the season, I suggest doing them on Monday and Wednesday.  This gives you 2 sets of front neck, 2 sets of back neck, and 4 sets of shrugs each week and that’s certainly enough to make significant progress.

Right now is a great time to start using some of these ideas with your workouts. You may feel some soreness the first couple of times, so be sure to start slowly and perform the exercises at the end of practice so you’re not fatigued during drills.  Training the neck can pay huge long-term dividends, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll enjoy the benefits.

Adam ShrugAdam Stoyanoff MS, CSCS is a former college strength coach and currently a coach at Total Performance in Wixom, MI.  He has spoken at several coaching clinics and is a co-author of the Stronger Season In-Season Strength Training Program.

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2 Responses to 4 Steps to Begin Training the Neck

  1. Mike December 4, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    Do you think doing this 3x a week (Mon/Wed/Fri) would be too much for 13-17 yo athletes?

  2. Stoyanoff December 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Good question Mike. I’m assuming we’re talking about 9-12 graders at your place. The workout I suggested above can certainly be done on those days. By the end of the week, you’d be finishing 3 sets of Front Neck, 3 Sets of Back Neck, and 6 sets of Shrug. If it works well into your workouts, there’s no reason to believe that sort of volume would be too much. I’ve seen it work great in that way.

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