My goal is not to revisit what smarter people than me have been saying about neck training but rather to introduce a simple way to create an effective system to program and train an athlete's neck. This system has to be understood by all the athletes and transferable to all sports.

Why Train the Neck?

If we exclude the aesthetic aspect, the strengthening of the neck intervenes mainly in the goal of prophylaxis. The neck muscles help preserve the cervical spine's integrity and fight against shock-related accelerations that can cause concussions. Neck training is mainly found in combat sports such as judo, boxing, wrestling, or rugby to withstand direct shocks and pressures. It's also found in motor and extreme sports to resist centrifugal forces.

Numerous studies have shown that increasing the strength and muscle mass of the neck reduces the risk of injury and is a factor in reducing and predicting concussions, which are one of the scourges of modern sport (Alasdair R Dempsey, 2015) (David C Viano, 2007) (Jaclyn Caccese, 2017). 

Necks with greater cross-sectional areas and stiffness can protect the head from linear and angular accelerations and displacements and reduce peak velocities due to impacts (Christian Chavarro, 2021). Neck strengthening responds to a need to prevent serious injuries such as concussions or cervical spine damage. Therefore, neck training is essential in all sports where the head undergoes direct or indirect pressures and shocks.

Neck in Sport 

In sports, if we observe the majority of situations where the neck muscles are used, their role is to block the movements of the head. Let's take, for example, the case of boxing with a punch hitting the forehead. In this situation, the role of the neck is to prevent the head from moving backward and prohibit anti-extension. 

Take, for example, a driver who takes turns at very high speeds. Again, the neck's role is to prohibit movement by preventing flexion towards the outside of the head—lateral anti-flexion. In the majority of cases, the role of the neck is to preserve anti-movement. 

However, there are some situations where the neck is used to create movement, such as in certain wrestling sports. Overall, this is quite rare.

Neck Movement

Neck movements can be classified into four main categories: 

  • Flexion 
  • Extension
  • Side Flexion
  • Rotation

Thanks to these four main movements, we can reinforce all the random movements in sport because they are combinations of the four main movements. In addition to these four main movements, there is also protraction and retraction. They correspond to the action of pushing the chin forward for protraction and bringing the chin back for retraction.

By taking the four main movements and transforming them into anti-movements, we obtain:

  • Anti-Flexion: Prevents the head from tilting forward. Example: Resisting a wrestling clinch. 
  • Anti-Extension: Prevents the head from tilting backward. Example: During a direct punch to the face.
  • Anti-Lateral Flexion: Prevents the head from tilting to one side. Example: To resist centrifugal force when turning. 
  • Anti-Rotation: Prevent the head from turning to one side. Example: Resist a hook in boxing. 

Anti-rotation work is a bit particular because of the relative weakness of the cervical rotators. Applying uncontrolled external forces such as partner pressure could be quite unsuitable. It's pretty complicated to work on rotation and anti-rotation without using very specific equipment. 

In addition, the upper and middle trapezius play a central role in rotation and anti-rotation and could compensate for the specific work of the rotators. Due to the complicated implementation of the specific work and the important role of the trapezius, I omit direct anti-rotation and rotational exercises. Instead, I strengthen the upper and middle trapezius at each session to reinforce the work of the lateral stabilizer. 

It's also very important to strengthen the neck in all axes of movement. A flexion to extension ratio imbalance has been associated with higher head angular and linear accelerations. Promoting strength symmetry between muscles is a strategy to mitigate injury risk in other anatomical parts of the body (e.g., the knee). Neck symmetry in muscle strength between flexors and extensors is crucial in neck stabilization (Zachary D W Dezman, 2013) (Christian Chavarro, 2021). 

However, if you Google neck strengthening, the first image you will find will be a boxer doing extensions against a cervical helmet. This may not seem like the most appropriate exercise because the majority of the impact the boxer will experience will come from the front or side and engage his anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion (preventing his head from moving backward or sideways). Therefore, the axial and lateral neck flexors should be prioritized and not the extensors. 

In the culture of sports, neck strengthening is often associated with extension work. For reasons of specificity related to the sport practiced and to injury prevention, it is important to strengthen the neck on the three main movements, if we accept that the trapezius muscles replace the anti-rotation work.

Create a Blueprint

The neck training must meet two objectives: Improve the stabilization of the cervical spine on the three main axes of movement and increase the muscle mass of the neck muscles.

Training Modality

As for the core, I will use three training modalities: Stabilization, strengthening, and chaos. The difference will be in the organization of the training modalities. To respect the principles of neck training and make it more efficient, I think it is necessary to divide the work into two distinct parts. There is a stability part that focuses on anti-movements and a strengthening part to develop muscle mass. The neck training must be divided into two parts because each part meets a distinct objective and requires a specific type of work. For the development of stability, I will prioritize isometric work, which on the other hand, is not necessarily the most appropriate and efficient means for the development of neck muscle mass.

transfer to performance chart

In stabilization, the objective is to concentrate on posture and thus consolidate a correct motor pattern on each of the anti-movements. During stabilization work, we will work on the double chin position or retraction to maintain the cervical spine in a neutral position. The secondary objective is also to fight against the postures of protraction permanently brought by the life of every day (time spent on the phones and other screens). The emphasis is on simple exercises without movements to concentrate on posture. 

The stabilization work breaks down into three levels:

Level 1: Isolated Isometric

Work of the neck without simultaneous use of other muscles. Learning of retraction.

Level 2: Whole Body Stabilization

The neck stabilization work is done with an engagement of other muscle chains to get closer to the specificities of the sport. In sports, neck stabilization is rarely done in isolation. There is a permanent engagement of other muscle chains when working on the neck. For example, in car racing, the driver must stabilize his neck simultaneously with the shoulder girdle. These stabilizers allow him to hold the steering wheel (concept of double task). In American football or rugby, the player must stabilize his core at the same time as his neck when he suffers a percussion while running.

Level 3: Chaos

Chaos aims to produce stability in an unpredictable environment. The underlying idea is to prevent the anticipation of movements and to force the body to react by "reflex" as in sports practice. 

For neck training, I will use two sub-categories: Direct chaotic perturbation and the dual task. The direct chaotic perturbations correspond to the stabilization of the cervical spine when subjected to direct pressure, The double task refers to the stabilization of the cervical spine when the body must perform another task simultaneously (Example: During scrum the player must stabilize his spine and simultaneously push his opponent). 

An example of direct chaotic disturbance would be to resist cervical pressures from a partner by having their eyes closed, which creates a direct random disturbance on the neck. An example of a dual-task exercise is a lateral anti-flexion against a band where one performs a good morning or squat simultaneously. Chaos mode work is very important for injury prevention and should be done on exercises that respect the specificity of the activity.

In contact sports and healthy individuals, prior activation of neck muscles before a collision has been shown to significantly decrease the peak linear velocity and change in acceleration of the head (Eckner JT, 2014).

Isolated StabilizationMotor ControlSelf-Resisted Isometric
Full Body StabilizationMotor Control & Sport TransferIsometric with Full Body Exercise
ChaosSport TransferClosed Eyes; Random Parter Push & Pull, Dual Task
StrengtheningMuscular DevelopmentClassic Set and Rep Scheme

Strengthening corresponds to the objective of developing muscle mass. The objective is to create sufficient stress on each axis of movement to increase the muscle mass of the neck. Be careful, though. There are important differences in strength between the different axes of neck work— extension and anti-flexion is the strongest movement, lateral flexion and anti-lateral flexion is the second, flexion and anti-extension is the third, and rotation and anti-rotation is the last. 

The strengthening part will be divided into two levels: Concentric and eccentric. I use a classic progression which consists of a progressive increase in volume at a stable intensity at the beginning, then a reduction in volume to increase the intensity linearly. Then we progress on accentuated eccentric tempos, which allow to reinforce the work of braking and absorption of forces.

Organize the Neck Training

Regarding the programming of the sessions, I think that two sessions per week are optimal. I focus each session on one part of the neck work. So, I do a stability session and a hypertrophy session. I find it easier for athletes to understand stability or hypertrophy if there is only one training goal per session. Working the same muscle group twice a week allows the necessary volume to be divided to avoid Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) resulting from the sessions. DOMS can be detrimental, especially for athletes in contact sports. 

The frequency of training will also improve muscle development. Suppose you practice a sport with repeated matches, such as American football or rugby. In that case, I think that the hypertrophy session should be the one furthest away from the upcoming match because it produces the most muscular stress. Therefore, it could reduce the strength of the neck muscles during matches. I would schedule two neck strengthening sessions in an ideal world: one hypertrophy session and one stability session. 

In practice, it is not always easy to incorporate two sessions in the week for professional athletes. In this case, I organize a rotation of sessions each week. One week focuses on stabilization and another week focuses on strengthening.

To incorporate neck training, I use neck circuits (performed during specific time slots), or neck exercises during recoveries (in weight training sessions). 

Session Construction

For the construction of the sessions, I use the following model most of the time :

  1. Warm-up: Bloodflow and Mobility
  2. Neck Circuit Stability or Strengthening 
  • 2A) Anti-Flexion/Neck Extensor
  • 2B) Anti-Extension/Neck Flexor
  • 2C) Anti-Flexion Latérale/Side Neck Flexor
  • 2D) Traps Strengthening

I often use the EMOM (Every Minute On the Minute) format for neck work. Every minute the athletes have to start the next exercise. A round of four exercises takes four minutes. If you program three sets (three rounds of four minutes each), the circuit is completed in twelve minutes, plus the warm-up. The EMOM setup is easier to incorporate the neck training circuits into the athletes' busy days. The goal is to have a system that is simple to implement, even in team sports where you are training dozens of athletes simultaneously. The EMOM circuit format allows you to calibrate the time and organize the rotations between exercises simply by using a timer or stopwatch.

Depending on the period of your training and the background of your athletes, there are two models of stability planning in my opinion. There is a classic linear model where we organize the progression of all neck movements in the same way progressively. There is also a model with variations, more adapted to athletes experienced in this type of work, where we plan a rotation of the modalities over different work weeks. The linear progression model is very appropriate for off-season and pre-season training.

Pre-Season Neck Anti-movement 
Off-season at homeIsolated stability 
Week 1Isolated stability
Week 2Isolated stability
Week 3Full body stability
Week 4Full body stability
Week 5OFF
Week 6Full body stability
Week 7Chaos stability
Week 8Chaos stability
Example of training modality progression during a eights weeks pre-season

Personally, I use in-season rotation of training modalities on stabilization. I adopt this type of planning in-season to maintain variety and, therefore, motivation during the season and always work on one of the anti-movements in its most transferable form without too much attentional cost. The problem with working in the chaos or dual-task mode is the attentional cost it requires from the athlete. Maintaining this work on three exercises for too long is not optimal, as there is a risk of losing the athletes' focus. By using the chaos or double task modality on only one exercise per week, we can solicit the three axes of anti-movement once every three weeks without the risk of losing the athletes' focus.

Anti-FlexionAnti-ExtensionSide Anti-Flexion
Week 1Isolated StabilityChaosFull Body Stability
Week 2Full Body StabilityIsolated StabilityChaos
Week 3ChaosFull Body StabilityIsolated Stability
Example of in-season training modality variation during a three-week block

Determining the starting workload for your athletes depends on their background, their sport, and the timing of the training. Depending on the sport, neck stabilization efforts can be very short and intense in team sports and much longer in combat or motor sports. This is why the stabilization work time must be coherent with the sport practiced. 

Here are some examples of planning that I use with my professional rugby players

Example of set and rep progression during pre-season

Stability: Set and Rep During Pre-Season
Off-SeasonWeeks 1 & 2Weeks 3 & 4Weeks 5 & 6Weeks 7 & 8
ModalitySelf-Resisted IsometricSelf-Resisted IsometricFull Body StabilityFull Body StabilityChaos Stability
Set & Rep3x15''/side4x15''/side3x15''/side4x15''/side3x10''/movement

Warm-up (Yes & No): Set and Rep During Pre-Season

Off-SeasonWeeks 1 & 2Weeks 3 & 4Weeks 5 & 6Weeks 7 & 8
Set & Rep20/side/exercise20/side/exercise30/side/exercise40/side/exercise50/side/exercise

Goal: All the rep UNBROKEN

Concentric Phase
Weeks 1-2Weeks 3-4Weeks 5-6Weeks 7-8Weeks 9-10Weeks 11-12
NoteMaintain same weightIncrease the weightMaintain same weightIncrease the weightMaintain same weight
Eccentric Phase
Weeks 13&14Weeks 15&16Weeks 17&18Weeks 19&20Weeks 21&22Weeks 23&24
Strengthening3x10 tempo 30104x10 tempo 30103x8 tempo 30104x8 tempo 30103x6 tempo 30104x6 tempo 3010
NoteMaintain same weightIncrease the weightMaintain same weightIncrease the weightMaintain same weight
Example of Neck strengthening progression

Traps: Set and Rep During Pre-Season
Off-seasonWeeks 1-2Weeks 3-4Weeks 5-6Weeks 7-8
Stability Session: Dumbbell Shrug3x15-204x15-203x15-204x15-203x15-20
NoteUse maximal weight in the rep range
Strengthening Session: Barbell Shrug3x123x124x123x104x10
NoteMaintain same weightIncrease the weightMaintain same weight
Example of traps (lateral stabilizer) strengthening progression

Exercise Bank

This section will give you an example of neck exercises for the three anti-movements. Anti-rotation is worked by trapezius exercises like shrugs variations and the high pull.

Neck Warm-up : 

  • Lying on back: Focus on flexor muscles
  • Quadruped position: Focus on extensor muscles


Isolated Stability

  • Self-resisted isometric with hands behind the neck

Full body stability

  • Neck bridge anti-flexion
    • Level 1: Hands support
    • Level 2: No hands 
    • Level 3: Add weight 
  • Neck anti-flexion with band in quadruped position
  • Neck anti-flexion with head harness on GHD 3x15"


  • Neck anti-flexion Chaos: partner pressure closed eyes

Dual task

  • Neck anti-flexion + good morning (dual task: neck stabilization + hip hinge)
  • Neck anti-flexion + Pallof press (dual task : core and neck stabilization)

Neck Extensor Strengthening

  • Neck extension with plate
  • Neck extension with leg extension machine


Isolated Stability

  • Self-resisted isometric with hand on the front
  • Retraction learning on wall

Full Body Stability

Neck bridge anti-extension on bench

  • Level 1A: Knees and two hands on floor
  • Level 1B: Knees and one hand on floor 
  • Level 1C: Knees and no hands on floor 
  • Level 2A: Feet and two hands on floor 
  • Level 2B: Feet and one hand on floor 
  • Level 2C: Feet and no hands on floor
  •  Neck anti-extension against band


  • Neck anti-extension chaos: partner pressure closed eyes

Dual Task

  • Neck anti-extension + lateral raises (dual task: core stabilization + shoulders movement)
  • Neck anti-extension + lunge (dual task: core stabilization + legs movement)

Neck Flexor Strengthening

  • Neck flexion with plate
  • Neck flexion with band

Side Anti-Flexion 

Isolated Stability

  • Self-resisted isometric with hand on the side 

Full Body Stability

  • Neck side anti-flexion in good morning position
    • Variations: Inclination; feet position
  • Neck side anti-flexion in quadruped position


  • Neck side anti-flexion chaos: Partner pressure closed eyes
  • Neck side anti-flexion against partner

Dual Task

  • Neck side anti-flexion + good morning (dual task: neck stabilization + hip hinge)
  • Neck side anti-flexion + lateral bear walk (dual task: neck + core stabilization)

Side flexor strengthening

  • Neck side flexion with plate


In conclusion, I hope I have correctly explained the critical importance of neck training for athlete safety along with a logical model to implement. The idea is to create a framework to build a progressive and coherent neck strengthening protocol. The exercises, volume, and intensities are just examples to make the system understandable. Of course, like all systems, this one must be largely adapted according to your preferences, the athletes, their experience, and the sport.

Build a strong neck. 


  1. Alasdair R Dempsey, T. J. (2015). THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NECK STRENGTH AND HEAD ACCELERATIONS IN A RUGBY TACKLE. 33rd International Conference on Biomechanics in Sports.
  2. Christian Chavarro, N. D.-L. (2021). Neck strength in Rugby Union players: A systematic review of the literature. The Physician and Sports Medicine.
  3. David C Viano, I. R. (2007). Concussion in professional football: biomechanics of the struck player--part 14. Neurosurgery.
  4. Eckner JT, O. Y. (2014). Effect of neck muscle strength and. Journal Sports Medecine.
  5. Jaclyn Caccese, R. T. (2017). Head and neck size and neck strength predict linear and rotational acceleration during purposeful soccer heading. Sports Biomechanics.
  6. Zachary D W Dezman, E. H. (2013). Neck strength imbalance correlates with increased head acceleration in soccer heading. Sports Health.

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Romain Guerin is a French strength and conditioning coach for professional rugby. He worked with the under 16 France team rugby league, rugby league academy, and police special forces. Romain earned his master's degree in sport science and other certifications like Westside Barbell® Special Strength Certificate and EXOS® certification. He can be reached at Follow him on Instagram @romainguerin_pro.