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Train The Neck Seven Ways

Mike Gittleson was the Director of Strength & Conditioning at the University of Michigan for 30 years and was a part of 15 Football Championships in that time. He explains when you train your neck, Train it Seven Ways.

Michigan Football Team

The normal head weighs between 12 and 20 pounds depending on the size of the individual. Whoever took the time to figure this out and study this certainly has issues. But it seems I have issues of my own…

One summer just before a team conditioning session, I walked on to the field, prior to warm ups, to find a spirited, somewhat heated, debate among the players . Of all things, the argument was about who had the biggest head. There was a clear division. Players took sides.  A lively debate, I might add it was getting quite animated. ”OK men lets settle this issue inside.” I said.

I took a clipboard and pad, and we all filed into the weight room. There were about 70 athletes. We crowded around the old Toledo scale that graced the entry way. Each man was subsequently required to lay down and rest his head upon the scale. We were about to weigh everyone’s head, this was more than an argument about size, it also had to do with what was inside. This was college, brains mattered.

An assistant strength coach palpitated each athletes neck muscles to assure that each head was resting properly while being weighed. The purpose was to negate any cheating if one was so inclined. It was science at its worst, and entertainment at its best.

Each player was formerly introduced, position rendered, and each head’s weight clearly and loudly announced to the anticipating team amongst their “oooohs and aahhs” of delight. The suspected big bulbous heads that led to this controversy were weighed last, much to the chagrin of those who were the most vocal in the argument.

I think what intrigued me the most was the insane interest that the team had about each of their teammates head score. Big heavy heads were okay, average heads were okay, but having the heaviest head, or now even the lightest head, was apparently not.   Of course my weighing each head did nothing to quell the argument, and added to the controversy as you might guess; but it did make for a lighthearted prelude to a difficult run.
 Michigan Football Team

Protecting heads big or small has always been important to me, and was always the focal point of my training.  The neck was trained each workout session.  The first exercise an athlete should do in beginning their exercise regime, is the neck.

Neck ExerciseBefore the advent of the neck machine, I used Manual Resistance for training. Reading an old Strength and Health Article, “A Strong Neck and Powerful Jaw” , you can see the prelude to Manual Resistance was exercising with self imposed resistance, instead of working with a partner. Adding a partner to assist neck training was what we did as young strength coaches because we were advanced in the latest techniques, that is, pre- neck machine strength training…..

Manual Resistance was a good thing but had its limitations. Some of the limitations were the quantification of results, poor spotting, and poor methodology, really in actuality; there were a menagerie of issues.

Neck Exercise

The things I disliked the most about manual training had nothing to do with methodology, and everything to do with the huge amount of time involved in teaching and coaching. When it came to the front of the neck, the athletes spitting and slobbering on my hands and each others’, especially during the flu season, it got to me.

Neck Exercise

The development of the Neck Machine was figuratively and literally a life saver. I ended up with a dozen neck machines in the facility. I was a neck fanatic, a neck freak.

Neck Exercise

During a high speed collision, the athlete does not have time to contract the neck muscles. so why spend so much time training this area?

Having a sport or car collision causes whiplash. If you have a small cylinder, or neck, there is more bend during the collision. If the cylinder is bigger, there is less bend. So a pencil sized, cylinder (neck) of the same material (neck muscle), bends more than a big round can sized neck.  This is simple reasoning for training, easy to understand, even if someone hasn’t taken physics.

Human anatomy

Also remember neck muscles wrap around the spines vertebrae, vertebral artery, and spinal cord. and if you want to protect the neck then, ”bubble wrap it with muscle tissue”.  My job as the strength coach was to protect the athlete and keep the athlete on the field. They don’t forget their helmets at practice, and I wasn’t going to forget their necks in training.

The neck musculature can be broken up in to two distinct functional units: The muscles that extend and flex the head and the muscles that extend and flex the cervical spine.  This is where training the neck gets a little tricky; it is very like training your arms.

Human AnatomyHuman Anatomy
Holding a dumbbell and bending your elbow with your hand fully supinated, exercises the bicep. Holding the same dumbbell and keeping your arm straight and bringing the dumbbell parallel to the floor, now exercises the anterior deltoid, and does very little in strengthening the bicep.

The neck is no different.  There are several functional units of musculature that move the head and spine differently, and you don’t always treat them as one thing, if you want to fully exercise the neck. You can train the capital muscles of the head, or you can train the muscles of the cervical spine, but you cannot maximize their development by trying to train them as one unit. Knowing this, and paying attention during exercise, increases the volume of the neck. Of course, you need the right exercise tool, a device that allows you to differentiate.

Pendulum Neck Machine
Here is another thought about neck muscles, when someone strains lifting an object,  or squats,  with a barbell, or squats on a machine, you can readily see all the muscles of their neck contract under the strain. The rigid organs, called bones, function to move and support the load. Your neck holds these bones of the upper torso in place, gives you support, and allows other groups of your musculature to transfer force, and attend to moving the object.  You need a strong neck to provide a base to participate in moving the load.


You need to overload the muscles of the neck, to grow, to stabilize, to transfer force, to contract quickly, as you would any other muscular group. To think the muscles of the neck will simply adapt to their ultimate capacity by pulling on objects or simply shrugging with objects, is contrary to the cellular function of the musculature.

To make muscles grow to the capacity they are capable of, you need a neck machine. Neck machines allow you to Overload.

You want to train at least 5 Movements on a neck machine:
1.    Front 

Neck Exercise
2.    Back

Neck Exercise

3.    Right Side

Neck Exercise

4.    Left Side

Neck Exercise

5.    35 Degrees of Nodding                                                 The Pendulum 5 Way Neck machine was designed to incoorperate this movement. The people at Rogers Athletic can put you in touch with me to further explain this movement.

6.    Shrug Low & High
You need elevation, as in a shrug or a pulling movement. The problem with the shrug is that most people can lift with their traps more than they can hold with their hands, so you need a great shrug apparatus that allows you to handle the appropriate weight to overload.  Or maybe you should strengthen your hands so you can use a bar…

Neck Exercise

7.    Kelso shrug

                                                  ………..and you need scapula retraction to build the appropriate tissue to dissipate force.

Protect athletes from head and neck injuries.


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