Neck Strengthening Exercises

Neck pain is a common complaint. Although cortisone injections, prescription pain relievers, or over the counter pain medications can help, they offer only temporary relief. The evidence supports exercise as an active approach to help get rid of a pain in the neck.

There are many causes of neck pain. Arthritis, like degenerative disc disease (the gradual deterioration of spinal discs), and herniated discs that pinch nerves are all potential sources of pain. Muscle strains and injuries like whiplash, which stretch the neck muscles beyond their normal range, also may cause severe pain.

Imaging tests, including x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, help diagnose neck pain caused by arthritic changes or herniated discs. Since degenerative spine conditions and disc problems in the neck can lead to symptoms like tingling, numbness, and weakness in one or both arms, imaging also helps to rule out more serious conditions with similar symptoms, like neck tumors.

Most often, neck pain is termed nonspecific, meaning it lacks a discernable cause. Sources of nonspecific neck pain might include poor posture, teeth grinding, or activities like driving or reading upright in bed every night. Psychological factors, like anxiety and stress, also may be a factor as many people seem to hold tension in the neck.

Regardless if the cause of neck pain is arthritis or a nonspecific type, exercise is essential. Strong muscles reduce pain by taking pressure off arthritic joints and discs. The stronger your muscles are, the more support they will provide and the less likely they will be to get achy and fatigued.

A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association assigned women who had desk jobs and nonspecific neck pain to one of three year-long exercise programs: (1) a strength-training group that used resistance exercises targeting the neck, (2) an endurance training group that performed neck exercises without resistance, or (3) an aerobic exercise only group. At the study’s end, the aerobics group had less neck pain and disability, but their gains were small compared with the endurance and strength training groups. And on measures of neck rotation, strength, and flexibility, the strength-training group scored 47%, 82%, and 53% better, respectively, than the endurance group.

Another study, published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, recruited women with chronic pain in the trapezius muscle, which runs from the shoulder to the neck called trapezius myalgia. Some women did strength training exercises with dumbbells to target neck and supporting shoulder muscles. A second group of women performed fitness training that consisted of riding a stationary bike without holding the handlebars. Both groups worked out 20 minutes a day, three times a week, for 10 weeks. A third group received only health counseling. The group that did strength training reported 75% less pain both immediately following the workouts and several weeks after the study ended. Despite the well-known cardiovascular benefits of fitness training, the fitness group felt less pain and stiffness only immediately after working out. The counseling group showed no improvement.

These neck strengthening exercises are commonly recommended by Physical Therapists. You can start with light dumbbells (2-8 lbs) and then work up to heavier weights as your strength increases. Try 12 repetitions of one of these recommended exercises. If you’re not struggling on the last repetition, the dumbbell is too light; if you’re struggling early on, it’s too heavy. Keep to a regular schedule, like three days a week for about 20 minutes per session. Try completing at least three of the suggested exercises each session and rotate the order of the exercises each time you work out.

Strength training can be intense if you’re not used to weight lifting. Talk to your doctor before embarking on a strengthening training program and progress slowly, being careful not to strain your neck. Stop if you feel pain and take a few days off to let your muscles recover. If the pain persists, see your doctor.

Neck Flexion Lateral Rise

Neck Flexion

Lie on the floor with your head supported by a pillow. Lift your head, bringing your chin to your chest without lifting your shoulders. Once your chin touches your chest, lower head and relax for 5 seconds. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions once a day, resting 1 minute between sets.


Lateral Rise

Stand straight with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides. Raise both arms to shoulder level and then lower your arms slowly. Work up to performing 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting 1 minute between sets.


Dumbbell Shrug Upright Row

Dumbbell Shrug

Stand straight with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides. Shrug your shoulders up, contracting the trapezius muscle for 1 second. Work up to performing 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting 1 minute between sets.

Upright Row

Stand straight with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing the front of your thighs. Raise the weights to your chest (hands should be shoulder level and elbows parallel to the floor) and then lower your arms slowly. Work up to performing 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting 1 minute between sets.