Say goodbye to your skinny neck. It doesn't matter how big your arms or shoulders are, if your neck isn't up to par, you still won’t look the part. That is the sad reality. But you don’t have to suffer from pencil neck syndrome anymore.
To get a thick neck, you must directly train the neck using various flexion, extension, and lateral flexion neck exercises. This is so you build the Sternocleidomastoid muscle which is responsible for the thick neck look and increased circumference.
Not only does having a thick neck look powerful, but it may even serve a functional purpose. But first, we must understand some basic anatomy so we can target certain musculature with certain exercises.
Table of Contents
- The Anatomy Of The Neck
- What Is The Ideal Neck Size For Aesthetics?
- The Benefits Of Training Your Neck
- Neck Exercise Selection
- Neck Exercises Without Equipment
- Is The Neck Bridge Safe?
- How To Build A Thick Neck
- Is Neck Training Safe?
- Does Your Neck Get Thicker From Working Out?
- Do Shrugs Build Your Neck?
- Do Deadlifts Build Your Neck?
- Do Bodybuilders Train Neck?
- How Often Should You Train Neck?
- How To Make Your Neck Bigger Overnight
The Anatomy Of The Neck
There are only two main muscles you need to concern yourself with when looking to build a big neck. These are:
This muscle is what gives that wide, powerful look to the neck. As it is a superficial muscle (closer to the surface), it can quickly transform your neck into an oak tree.
It runs down the side of your neck from just below your ear to the clavicle (collar bone). It is responsible for lateral flexion (ear to shoulder), rotation (looking left or right), and when working together, dorsiflexion (looking up), and flexion (looking down) of the neck.
This gives us a lot of exercises we can use to build the Sternocleidomastoid muscle.
The trapezius muscles span a large surface area of your back. Most importantly, the upper traps connect from your AC joint (the bony joint on the top of your shoulder) through to your spine right into your skull.
The upper traps are responsible for the shrugging motion of the shoulders (bringing your shoulders to your ears), moving your arms overhead in abduction when arm angle is greater than 90° (e.g. going past shoulder level when performing lateral raises), and elevating the scapula (shoulder blades) during these movements.
In my experience, building the upper traps won't directly make your neck thicker. But it does add to the overall "shelf" of the upper back area which aids in the power look.
Additionally, there are deep muscles in the neck that supplement the movement of the neck. However, these aren't important enough to cover as they won't aid neck size and they are trained through exercises that target the above muscles.
What Is The Ideal Neck Size For Aesthetics?
Turns out, mathematics discovered in ancient times can help us determine the ideal neck size for aesthetics. Specifically, the Golden Ratio. You may have heard of this before as the magic number that has been used to identify the perfect male physique.
This number is 1.618. The ratio between the circumference of the shoulders and waist circumference is the most common reference where shoulder circumference should be approximately twice that of the waist.
The same can be applied to the neck. The neck can be a little over half of the circumference of the waist for Golden Ratio neck aesthetics.
For a 30-inch waist, this would entail a 15–16-inch neck. The average neck size of the general population ranges is between 14-15 inches [1,2,3]. We don’t do average at Lift Big Eat Big! And a 30-inch waist isn’t conducive to lifting big weights.
As a follower of the Lift Big Eat Big philosophy, your waist is likely 32-inches minimum leaving you to grow a 16+ inch neck for the Golden Ratio. And either way, we follow the Lift Big Eat Big ratio of getting large and powerful. A thick neck is one way to exude a powerful look.
The Benefits Of Training Your Neck
Neck training benefits far exceed just having a thick, powerful-looking neck. Having a thick, strong neck may even save your life one day if you’re in an unfortunate car accident.
Every one-pound increase in neck strength is enough to reduce your risk of concussion by 5%. I like those odds. Safe to say, if you are repping out neck curls and extensions with a 45 lb plate, you are well on your way to protecting yourself.
Neck Exercise Selection
When lifters go to train their neck, they often limit themselves to the neck harness and some neck curls (known as neck flexion). No doubt, these are great neck exercises. But we can do SO MUCH MORE than these to spice up our neck training and to build a well-rounded neck.
Concentric Based Neck Exercises
Concentric neck exercises are the typical neck exercise you'll see at your local gym (actually I doubt you see anyone training their neck at the gym, but I digress). They are the easiest to implement and require no special equipment. Usually just a plate and a bench.
Plate Neck Flexion
Also known as the neck curl, we can train the Sternocleidomastoid as well as the deeper neck muscles involved in flexing the neck. This exercise is very simple. Simply lie on your back on a bench with your head hanging off.
Slowly lower your head to like you are trying to look at the back wall. Then slowly bring your chin to your chest. If you are new to neck training, don’t use any external load. The weight of your head will be more than enough.
When you are ready to start loading, I would recommend starting with only 2.5 kg (5 lbs). Seriously, this is the neck exercise you will be weakest in out of all of them. And neck strains are no good.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-20 reps.
Plate Neck Extension
While we target the Sternocleidomastoid muscle, we also train the top of the upper traps. All you need to do is lie on your stomach on a bench with your head hanging off. Slowly lower your head like you are trying to look under the bench and then slowly lift your head like you are trying to look at the ceiling.
This will be the neck movement you will be strongest in. Start with no external load and as you feel comfortable, start with the 2.5 kg (5 lb) plate. Most likely, you will be able to go heavier with the 5 kg (10 lb) plate with no issues.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-20 reps.
Neck Harness Neck Extension
The trusty neck harness! If you’ve dabbled in neck training, then you’ve probably tried this device. I would highly recommend the Iron Neck Alpha Neck Harness. It is the best quality neck harness I have ever used and the most cost-effective. Further, it's the only neck harness that will let you also do the isometric exercises later shown in this article.
You can get a 15% discount on the Alpha Neck Harness using code "LBEB"
You can perform these sitting or standing. It’s up to you. Place the chain through a weight plate. I would recommend starting with the 5 kg (10 lb) plate and working up from there. Simply nod your head up and down like you are saying yes to someone. Easy as that!
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-20 reps.
Plate Lateral Flexion
Lateral flexion is often neglected (even more than actual neck training) which is sad as you can get the largest range of motion in the Sternocleidomastoid muscle moving your ear toward and away from your shoulder. We know that a large range of motion under tension is a great recipe for muscle growth.
Again, you will lie on a bench but this time on your side. Place your bottom arm’s hand on the floor to support yourself. This means your shoulder will also be off the bench. Slowly lower your ear to your shoulder and then slowly bring your head up and your other ear to your other shoulder.
You will be just as weak performing lateral flexion as you will be performing neck flexion. So, start with no load and gradually build to using the 2.5 kg (5 lb) plate.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-20 reps.
Have forward head posture? This is a great exercise to address that and build some serious mass of the Sternocleidomastoid, upper traps, and the erector spinae at the back of your neck. You will need a resistance band for this exercise.
A blue and orange of these resistance bands are what you will need for the protraction/retraction. Simply tie the band to a sturdy object and place the band around your head. You will do this facing your band and also facing away from your band.
Slowly push your head forward until your back starts to move with it and then reverse the motion by pulling your head back and tucking your chin. It will be like a slow-motion "Giggity" from Quagmire in Family Guy (this is the best reference I could think of).
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 5-15 reps both ways.
Isometric Based Neck Exercises
Isometrics can be a great way to induce muscle growth. It occludes blood flow to the muscle creating a hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) state within the muscle . A perfect storm to build up high levels of metabolic waste products which signal muscle growth!
Further, isometric neck exercises are perfect to use alongside concentric neck exercises as they are very easy to perform and you won't get the same muscle soreness from them.
Band 4-Way Neck Isometric
This is my go-to neck exercise to start my neck workout. It’s also one of the first neck exercises I prescribe to neck training newbies. Tie a band around a sturdy object and then loop it around your head.
You will hold a static position with band tension in all four directions. Hence the 4-way neck isometric. The four sides are facing the band, facing away from the band, and facing 90° from the band each way.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-45 sec all directions.
Iron Neck 360° Spin
This is a neck training device you may not have seen or heard of. It really is one of a kind and I love it. So much so I decided to dedicate an entire review to the Iron Neck. This device will allow you to train your neck in ways that are physically impossible otherwise.
P.S. you can use the same discount code "LBEB10" mentioned above for 10% off.
This particular exercise allows you to train your neck at every angle imaginable. Once on, simply keep your head and neck still while you shuffle in a circle. Make sure to turn both ways so you don't get too dizzy. I prefer doing 5 in one direction and then 5 in the other.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10 reps.
Iron Neck Left & Right
Remember how I stated the Sternocleidomastoid muscle is responsible for rotating the neck? Until now, there hasn't been an effective way to load this movement. With the Iron Neck, you can crank the friction dial-up to get wicked resistance while turning your head. Serious game changer.
You can perform these neck exercises facing the band, facing away from the band, and also facing 90° from the band on both sides. This is my favorite Iron Neck exercise that not only builds mass but improves the range of motion my neck can move.
Simply face any direction and no your head like you are saying “no.” Really accentuate the looking over each shoulder to get the most range possible.
Recommended sets and reps: 1-4 sets x 10-20 reps in all directions.
Eccentric Based Neck Exercises
I would not recommend you try this exercise. It is very intense and can potentially cause injury due to the intensity. Further, it uses costly machinery. While you could substitute machinery for a training partner, stick to the concentric and isometric exercises in this article.
I just want to show you this as it’s an interesting application for training the neck that could spark potential gains in those with many hours of neck training under their belt. When I did this exercise, I was training my neck a lot and doing a lot of grappling so my neck was used to the abuse.
Eccentric Overload Protraction and Lateral Flexion
This particular setup used the 1080 quantum and the Iron Neck Pro. The 1080 quantum is a beastly piece of equipment that has many different features. One of them is the eccentric overload feature which can pull you at a constant speed at a load of 40 kg.
As the setting is isokinetic (constant speed), it can’t be slowed down no matter how hard you resist. Meaning you are producing a lot more force than the concentric and isometric exercises. Up to 30% more force to be exact.
And eccentric contractions seem to create the greatest muscle-building response . The rationale behind using this exercise is sound. However, be cautious as this kind of loading on the neck may not be good in the long term.
Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets x 1 rep
Neck Exercises Without Equipment
For whatever reason, you may not have access to equipment to train your neck. Maybe you workout at home with your bodyweight and bits of furniture. I’ve got you covered so you can build a thick neck at home with no equipment.
All you’ll need is a towel. Just make sure it’s long enough to wrap around your head and still hold. A long hand towel is usually a good length or you can use a thin bath towel. Everything can be replaced with a training partner as well!
4-Way Towel Isometric
A simple way to perform 4-way neck isometrics is to place a towel around your head and resist while you hold it in place. It can be pretty tiring on your arms but then you're getting a jacked neck and arms so it's a win-win.
Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets x 6-20 sec each direction
Towel Neck Curl, Extension, and Lateral Flexion
You can perform all of these movements where you would normally use a plate and instead, replace it with a towel. The exact same setup is used but for the extension and lateral flexion, you will need to place one hand on the floor for balance.
Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets x 10-20 reps each direction.
Is The Neck Bridge Safe?
You may have noticed I didn’t list the neck bridge. While the neck bridge is likely safe in moderate doses, there’s no need to use the exercise to build neck muscle when you’ve got plenty of other low/no risk options.
The problem is axially loading the neck (compression of the spine) and then moving around side to side (shear force). The combination of both can increase the risk of muscle injury .
For this reason, I avoid the exercise and avoid recommending it as a thick neck modality.
How To Build A Thick Neck
Now we get into the details of how to get a thick neck using the information presented so far. So I’m going to give you an example neck workout that you can use to thicken your neck. Just make sure you have some savings so you can buy new shirts that fit your new neck.
In my experience, performing light 4-way neck isometrics with the band or 360° spins with the Iron Neck is the perfect neck warm-up. It prepares the neck for everything coming later in the session. Further, you get extra neck strength work added to your workout.
If you don’t have any equipment, you can perform bodyweight neck curls, extensions, and lateral flexions or even perform standing movements that have no load such as looking left and right, up and down, and performing neck circles.
Thick Neck Workout
This will be a 3-day neck workout. 3-days is usually the average number of days people will train per week so if you do train more than 3 days, you can repeat sessions if you please.
A1) 4-Way Neck Isometric
3 x 20 sec/side
B1) Neck Flexion
3 x 20
B2) Neck Extension
3 x 20
A1) Neck Lateral Flexion
3 x 20/side
B1) Iron Neck Left & Right OR Band Protraction/Retraction
3 x 10/side
A1) 4-Way Neck Isometric OR Iron Neck 360° Spin
3 x 20 sec/side OR 3 x 5/side
B1) Neck Harness
3 x 10
C1) Neck Flexion
3 x 10
Is Neck Training Safe?
Neck training, like training any other muscle group, is completely safe if done correctly. The problems come when lifters go too heavy too quickly, with loose form and using a lot of momentum. The neck must be trained slowly and with intent.
It can be easy to injure your neck especially with the small, deep muscles involved in the movements. Hence the need to progress very slowly.
Does Your Neck Get Thicker From Working Out?
Your neck can definitely get thicker from working out. Specifically with weights. The Sternocleidomastoid muscle is what will give you that thick neck look. Building this muscle through various flexion, extension, and rotation neck exercises will maximize its growth.
Do Shrugs Build Your Neck?
Shrugs build the upper traps which are considered part of the neck musculature. However, shrugs will not increase the circumference of your neck. A thick neck is built from directly training the neck.
Do Deadlifts Build Your Neck?
Deadlifts build your upper traps (among various other muscles) but don't directly build your neck.
So, train your neck directly to see an increase in neck size.
Do Bodybuilders Train Neck?
Firstly, bodybuilders generally don’t train neck as it’s not part of their judging criteria. You’ll often see bodybuilders in the physique and fitness categories with very thin necks. However, they are judged on the size and symmetry of the rest of the body.
How Often Should You Train Neck?
You can train neck every day if you wanted to. It’s all about how you manage the volume and intensity of work. The 3-day example I gave could be used every day if you dropped all the sets to 1-2 and only performed 1-2 exercises each day.
Most importantly, isometric exercises can be performed more often as the soreness and stiffness from them are limited in my experience. If you are new to neck training, start with two days a week. If you are more experienced, 3-4 times a week will accelerate your neck size.
How To Make Your Neck Bigger Overnight
There are no shortcuts to muscle growth. But a vicious pump can increase the size of your muscles temporarily. That’s why you’ll find the bros in the gym on a Friday night doing arms. Gotta fill those sleeves before a night out (too bad it doesn’t work for personality).
The same rules apply to your neck. If you get a crazy neck pump through various neck flexion, extension, and lateral flexion exercises, you can make your neck bigger overnight. But remember, this is only temporary and the extent of your pump will be dictated by your training experience.
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