Short answer: The neck could grow from the total body tension generated during “global” exercises such as the deadlift and the rack pull, but that isn’t the case for everybody.
Individuals whose neck muscles do not respond to indirect training and those who wish to maximize their neck size and strength will have to implement neck work to fill out the region.
In addition, combat sports demand direct neck training to minimize the chances of knockouts and submission into uncomfortable positions.
Don’t Heavy Deadlifts Guarantee a Massive Neck?
The 5×5 professors and other mythical barbell sensei have burdened the deadlift with the task to be the ultimate neck builder. This isn’t surprising since those experts try to fix every training deficiency or muscular imbalance with squat and deadlifts.
If you look at yourself in the mirror during heavy barbell pulls, you’ll see the front of your neck getting engorged with blood; veins popping everywhere.
Why? After all, you’re not lifting the weight with your neck.
The phenomenon is called full body tightness. The higher the number of contracted muscles, the greater the force production. The neck and even the jaw muscles tense incredibly hard to increase the tension through the entire body.
The same could happen even during isolation exercises like curls, but the effect is more pronounced when the entire system is taxed to the maximum.
Furthermore, the deadlift isometrically trains the traps which insert at the base of the skill and participate in neck extension.
However, the neck is not a limiting factor during deadlifts, rack-pulls, or other full-body lifts. You are not going to miss a deadlift because your neck is not strong enough. The primary movers during deadlifts are the spinal erectors, the glutes, and the hamstrings.
Therefore, deadlifts do not guarantee maximal neck hypertrophy.
FAQ: If deadlifts don’t build massive necks, how do you explain all the powerlifters with 20-inch + necks?
Several explanations come to mind:
- High overall mass
When you weigh 275lbs/125kg, it’s hard to have a pencil neck even if you wanted to. It could be smaller in comparison to other body parts, but it cannot be skinny.
The delusional natural permabulkers aspiring to break the powerlifting records naturally should always be reminded that their powerlifting idols aren’t/weren’t natural. The incentive to take anabolic drugs as a strength athlete is just too high. An ordinary man cannot reach the top level completely naturally.
The consistent anabolic drug regimen of powerlifters allows them to carry a lot of muscle mass under their layers of fat. In return, the high percentage of lean body mass substantially increases their chances of getting a thick, muscular neck without direct training.
Also, the traps are known to have a great density of androgen receptors and often blow up during steroid cycles.
High-level sports act as a filter for the people who are the most genetically suited for the activity. Many of the men competing for the highest places on the podium have a genetic predisposition to be strong and muscular.
Strength sports are dominated by men with thick frames and robust joints. A thicker skeleton equals bigger muscles by default.
FAQ: What about shrugs and rows? Can they produce a massive neck?
Shrugs and rows work the traps and contribute to the thickness of the neck from the back. However, the true width and imposing effect of the neck comes from the flexors (the front) which shrugs and rows do not work directly.
A Study: Direct Neck Training Boost Growth Substantially
A study from 1997 investigated the effectivity of direct neck work by splitting 22 young men into three groups:
Group 1: Regular resistance training + Neck training
Group 2: Lifting without direct neck work
Group 3: No training
The first cluster did basic compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, push presses, barbell rows, and rack pulls) three times a week for a total of 3 months.
The second did the same movements plus neck extensions for 3 sets of 10.
The group that did direct neck work enjoyed neck gains whereas the others didn’t.
The neck extensors (splenius capitis, semispinalis capitis and cervicis muscles) reported the most growth.
The study concluded as follows: short-term resistance training does not provide a sufficient stimulus to evoke neck muscle hypertrophy unless specific neck exercises are performed. (more)
The findings are not that surprising because compound lifts do not work the muscles of the neck directly.
The neck gains would have been greater if the subjects in the study had done exercises for the neck flexors too.
My Experience with Neck Training
Around 2017, I bought a neck harness and initiated a neck training regimen. I began doing neck extensions with weights, neck curls with plates or bands, and side to side training with a light band for high reps.
I worked up to around 45kg/100lbs on the neck extensions and stopped at that point not only because those were all the weights that I had at home but due to occasional joint pain too.
When you do heavy neck extensions, you feel them in the entire back.
My neck grew from that protocol, but if I were to do it again, I’d use less weight and do more repetitions.
The above is my neck training gear – the weird metal thing in the middle is a loading pin made from old pipes. I also use it as a “Hungarian core blaster”.
Does a Bigger Neck Make You More Attractive?
At the time, I was heavily sucked into the realm of online dating; my main motivation to do neck work was to get higher on the looks scale.
Ironically, I don’t think I got “looks points” out it primarily because my neck was average beforehand. Meaning, I wasn’t a pristine pencil neck brah. The increase may have had some effect on the way I look in the eyes of the ladies, but I certainly didn’t experience a surge of female attention.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, your face and the thickness of your wallet matter the most when it comes to modern dating.
I don’t know if you remember, but in this post on dating, I talked about a skinny guy who is the boyfriend of an extremely pretty girl even though his calves are bigger than his quads. He’s truly anorexic and owes a lot of his success to his attractive facial features.
Nonetheless, if you have a very skinny neck, you would benefit from working it. Most of the visual gains would come from training the front part.
Combat Athletes Train Their Necks Directly for a Reason
Wrestlers, boxers, MMA fighters, and other combat athletes train their necks to avoid being pushed into disadvantageous positions and to minimize the chances of a knockout.
In general, knockouts are caused by movements of the brain inside the cranium after a hard hit. Since the job of neck muscles is to stabilize the skull, a stronger and thicker neck creates a better defense and could prevent excessive head twisting.
One of the few ways to condition the neck to sustain similar hits is to train the surrounding musculature directly since no compound exercise has the same effect on the area as shown by the study cited above.
For that reason, neck training will remain part of combat sports forever.
Is it true that headbanging will give me a bigger neck?
The evidence suggests so. Men like Corey Taylor from Slipknot and George Fisher of Cannibal Corpse have gotten some pretty big necks from headbanging alone.
While you can expect a thick neck from a guy like George Fisher because he is big all over, the case of Corey Taylor is different – his neck is disproportionally massive and dwarfs his other muscle groups.
Therefore, one can conclude that singing aggressively and headbanging have resulted in some serious neck gains for him even though his bodyweight isn’t that high.
Nevertheless, headbanging isn’t the most practical way to thicken your neck for many reasons such as:
Those men do headbanging for an unknown amount of time during their shows. It’s not like they headbang for 30 seconds during a concert and wake up with huge necks.
They are also doing a lot of singing and head nodding to the beat. Their “neck training volume” is just too high.
- Headbanging is not that healthy.
Headbanging can cause an injury, especially when done for extended periods by untrained people.
Not everybody likes metal…and not every metal fan likes to headbang.
Ultimately, a well-structured neck routine consisting of basic movements done with moderate resistance is a far more efficient and comfortable way to build up the neck muscles.
Are neck bridges safe for the neck?
People argue on this topic a lot. Some say that wrestlers have been doing bridges for decades if not longer without adverse side effects while others consider the movement dangerous because it compresses the cervical spine and could potentially cause impingement and damage to the disks over time.
The neck bridge is a risky movement and has many disadvantages. Wrestlers and other fighters many need it to avoid getting pinned, but if you’re training for more general reasons, basic exercises would be a better choice.
A great benefit of simpler drills is that you have more control over the resistance.
Is neck training effective for natural lifters?
I doubt that an average natural could get a lean 20-inch neck, but improvements are definitely possible even naturally.
If your neck is untrained, it will have no choice but to respond.
How can I train my neck at home?
Option 1: Neck harness + bands
A decent neck harness and a few bands will allow you to do neck extensions and curls easily. In the video below, you see football players training this way.
The main benefit of bands over weights is that they are quicker to change and make curls somewhat more comfortable.
Doing neck curls with a harness and weights has always been frustrating for me which is why I used plates and bands to train the front part of the neck.
Option 2: Just bands
You could do many exercises with bands. The downside of this method is that the band may slide too much. If it’s of poor quality it may even tear and slap you in the face.
Option 3: Plates
Neck extensions and curls can also be done by placing a plate on your head. The shortcoming of this methodology is that it facilitates cheating (e.g., turning the neck curl into a sit-up).
Micro loading is also difficult unless you have a great variety of plates of similar size and different weight.
Option 4: Partner
Another way to train the neck is with resistance provided by someone else.
How often and when should I do neck training?
It makes more sense to do neck work at the end of a session or on rest days.
The neck recovers fairly quickly. In the past, I trained it 3 days a week and didn’t notice overtraining issues.
How many reps per set should I do?
When I was somewhat obsessed with neck training, I went as low as five reps on the neck extensions but don’t recommend it. You get nothing out of heavy attempts. Stick to a higher rep range (12-20) and focus on perfect technique.
As headbanging has shown, the neck responds well to lots of repetitions with fairly light loads.
Summary: what are the main benefits of direct neck training?
- Neck growth. Compound exercises do not generate hypertrophy of the neck muscles for everyone. People with “giraffe necks” could benefit from targeting the area directly.
- Protection. A stronger neck protects the spine, the skull and its contents better than a thin one. Nonetheless, don’t think that a thick neck would make you indestructible. It won’t.
Moreover, if you don’t train properly, the exercises themselves may cause problems.
- Tough brah look. The neck is always visible and can create the illusion that you are significantly bigger than you are.
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Conley, M., Stone, M., Nimmons, M. and Dudley, G., 1997. Specificity of resistance training responses in neck muscle size and strength. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 75(5), pp.443-448.