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Baggy shirts can hide arm development on a par with Justin Bieber's; sweats might camouflage "forgotten" leg days. But a pencil neck, forget it! No running, no hiding, it's exposed.
Big lifts = Big Muscles
I don't think I am going to have to convince any ProSource readers that compound movements provide the most bang for your buck and stimulate overall muscle growth, fat loss, secretion of anabolic hormones, and functional performance benefits.
Performing just a few big lifts will equate to gains all over to an extent.
There is a notable exception, howver, and it's the neck!
The average serious strength trainer has a more developed neck than the lay public pencil neck, but to truly maximize neck strength and size, you will have to directly train the neck.
The European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology confirmed this via a flagship study published in 1997 entitled "Specificity of resistance training responses in neck muscle size and strength."
The study consisted of three groups: 1) a resistance training group that trained performing squats, deadlifts, push presses, high pulls and barbell rows, 2) a second resistance training group that performed the same strength training movements in addition to neck extensions with a harness three times a week and 3) a third group that did not workout at all.
The resistance training group that did not train neck extension did not increase neck strength compared to subjects that performed neck extension work that increased neck extension strength by an impressive 34% over the 12-week duration of the study. The group that performed neck work increased the cross sectional area of neck musculature by 13% compared to no increase for subjects that did not directly work the neck.
Bottom line, if you want a big, strong neck, you have to train your neck!
How Quickly Can this Happen?
The Naval Health Research Center demonstrated, in a 2006 published study, that significant increases in neck strength were evident in both static and dynamic strength assessments with a month of neck resistance training. Total neck size increased by 13%; this can be the difference between average and projecting a persona of power.
The study also showed that military personnel that regularly trained the neck had fewer injuries and far less sick days; I'd venture to say the same benefit would apply to the UFC fighter or the deskbound company man.
So, significant increases in neck strength and size can be realized in as little as 1-3 months according to scientific literature.
From a training standpoint the neck has four major functions: flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation. Let's look at what each function means and more importantly how we can strengthen each.
Neck Flexion is a "churched up" way of saying tilting your head forward, the chief muscles involved are the longus colli, longus capitis, and infrahyoids. These neck flexor muscles can easily be worked on a four-way neck machine, by facing the machine and putting your forehead against the pad, then tilting your head forward against the resistance and performing repetitions.
Unfortunately four-way neck machines have gone the way of the dodo bird, to make room for chrome machines, bosu balls and other "functional advancements." Instead of crying alligator tears over this blasphemous charade, realize that where there is a will there is a way! We can perform this movement against a resistance band, provide resistance ourselves against our forehead or even have a competent partner resist. Try 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
Neck Extension refers to the action of moving your chin away from your chest. The mainstay muscles in this action are the splenius capitis, seminispinalis capitis, suboccipitals, and the trapezius.
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Neck Harnesses cost as little as twenty dollars, and it would be tough to find a piece of equipment that offers a better return on investment for functional power and physique enhancement.
Obviously neck extensions can be done against bands, self- or partnered resistance, but none of these ways duplicate true pig iron nor do they provide the liberating feeling of banging out rep after rep on the ol' harness. For neck extension exercises start with 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.
Neck Lateral Flexion in lay terms means tilting your head to the side. The primary muscles involved in this function are the scalenes. On a neck machine you would sit to the side, put the side of your head on the pad and tilt your head sideways against resistance toward your shoulder.
If you have no access to a neck machine, do this against a resistance band, resist yourself or find a partner. Do 2 sets of 10-20 reps.
Neck Rotation simply refers to turning your head to the side. No gym machines mimic this function, so you are your own here. Turn your head to the side, trying to look over your shoulder, do this both ways providing resistance with your hand. Do 8-10 reps each way for two sets.
These movements should be done a minimum of twice a week, and preferably three times or more. Wrestlers have the most developed necks in the world, and they work them daily. Three times a week will bring rapid results.
A strong neck will contribute to overall functional strength and a more balanced functional, powerfully looking physique.
Working all four functions of the neck will maximize growth along with minimizing injury whether it be in a cage fight or at the annual Labor Day church flag football game.
Go forward and be a pencil neck no more!
Conley, M. S., Stone, M. H., Nimmons, M. M., & Dudley, G. A. (1997). Specificity of resistance training responses in neck muscle size and strength. European Journal Of Applied Physiology & Occupational Physiology, 75(5), 443-448.
Have you ever tried exercises targeted at your neck muscles? Have they helped you fine-tune your physique or prevent injury? Let us know in the comments field below!