When building a thicker neck in the gym, the benefits are numerous, and there aren't any drawbacks.
A thicker neck is more than just aesthetically pleasing; with more meat around your neck, you're less prone to various neck injuries, either from sports or activities of daily living.
But you need to be smart with how you go about widening and thickening your neck. Otherwise, you won't get the results you're after and may find your neck becoming downright painful rather than bigger.
But don't worry, I've got you covered in this article.
Here’s how to get a thicker neck: Building a thicker neck requires neck exercises like the barbell shrug, reverse shrug, and the SCM side crunch. You’ll also need to eat 1.2 and 2.0 g of protein per kilogram (2.2 to 4.4 lbs) to fuel the required muscle growth. You'll also want to train about 3 times a week to ensure greater success.
Just as when training other muscles in your body, adding size to your neck takes consistent effort and a hefty dosage of patience.
Still, if you're dedicated enough, you can get to a point where others take notice and start dropping compliments while at the same time feeling the effects for yourself (less pain, better function, etc.).
So, let's take this from the top. I'll walk you through:
- The benefits of having a thicker neck
- Basic neck anatomy
- 3 exercises to thicken your neck
- Nutrition to ensure a thicker neck
By the end of this article, you'll be pointed in the right direction for the journey to the neck of your dreams.
Benefits of Having a Thicker Neck
If you're looking for how to build bigger neck muscles, it can take some dedicated effort, but the effort is well worth it; a neck with adequate strength and endurance will lead to fewer aches and pains as you venture down the road of life.1,2
When neck muscles lack adequate strength and endurance, it can lead to further issues, such as poor neck mobility, postural dysfunction, excessive tension, headaches, and other issues that can reduce the functional capacity of your neck.2–5
The result can be a notable decrease in quality of life (just ask any of my patients I treat in the clinic).
So, whether you're looking to build a thick neck to prevent injury in your sport or just want to keep your quality of life as high as possible, thickening your neck is a smart move. And, of course, it just looks good, too.
Basic Neck Anatomy
The neck is a rather complex region of the body (lots of tissues and structures are packed into this small region). Thankfully, you don't need to know the details. What you do need to know, however, is the key muscles worth targeting with your exercises for a thick neck – these will be the ones that give you the greatest bang for your buck.
Special note: If you have a history of nasty neck pain, make sure you slowly build into your neck strengthening routine, and if something doesn't feel right, get an evaluation from a qualified professional; neck exercises should never be painful.
The main neck muscles you must be aware of are the trapezius (particularly the upper fibers of this muscle) and the sternocleidomastoid (often shortened to the SCM).
Both of these muscles are superficial (just under the skin) and are the largest muscles that run up along the neck. Let's look at each of these in a bit more detail since they will help make the upcoming exercises much more intuitive.
Yes, there are plenty of other muscles within the neck, but for practical purposes, these are the ones we need to consider.
The Trapezius Muscle
The trapezius is the large trapezoid-shaped muscle on your upper back. It is divided into three sections (upper, middle, and lower). The upper fibers run from around the top of your shoulder blades up to the base of your skull (the occipital protuberance).
These fibers are responsible for helping produce the shrugging motion of bringing our shoulders up towards our ears. They also have a role in producing upwards scapular (shoulder blade) rotation – which will come in handy for a muscle-building neck exercise you'll learn shortly.
It’s also a critical muscle to target when learning how to perform effective back workouts.
The Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) Muscle
There are two SCM muscles – one on each side of the front of the neck. Their role is to flex the neck (pull the chin down to the chest) and rotate the neck either left or right. This muscle is often quite visible on slender individuals or when individuals rotate their necks in either direction.
What About Other Neck Muscles?
The other neck muscles are much deeper and smaller than the trapezius and the SCM. They're not worth mentioning for this article since individual neck muscles can't be isolated with training. So, the bonus of learning effective exercises for the trapezius and SCM is that:
- You'll train the large, superficial muscles that will be easiest to notice neck growth
- You'll hit multiple other muscles of the neck within the exercise.
As an example: When you learn how to do reverse shrugs (in an upcoming section), you'll also hammer the levator scapulae muscles and challenge the postural muscles of your neck, such as the splenius capitis and semispinalis capitis.
And when performing the SCM side crunch, you'll also simultaneously target the scalenes and deep cervical neck flexors.
So, we're going to get the best of both worlds by going after these two critical neck muscles.
3 Exercises for a Thicker Neck
Alright, the moment you've been waiting for: the tried-and-true neck exercises for mass that will beef up your neck, keep you out of pain, and give you the neck you're longing for. You won't need much equipment, which is nice since not every gym has specialized neck-strengthening equipment.
The main points to be aware of with big neck exercises are:
- Be consistent – like any other muscle in the body, increasing muscle size takes time. Your best bet is to perform your neck exercises twice or three times per week. Generally speaking, it usually takes 6-8 weeks before the first signs of muscle growth are noticeable.
- If you aren't used to performing neck strengthening exercises, start light and ease into it – the neck can be quite delicate, and tweaking your neck is a lousy experience and can interfere with the rest of your lifting.
- There's no room for “ego lifting” in neck training. It's not about using excessively heavy loads that impress other people; it's about providing adequate stimulation to make your muscles respond and grow while minimizing any unnecessary stress or strain the rest of your neck (joints, discs, etc.) must endure in the process.
Remember: Sensations of effort and fatigue in your neck during any of the best neck workouts are to be expected, but pain is not. If you find any exercise to be painful in your neck, it's best to forego it for the time being or attempt to modify it to avoid any pain being produced.
Exercise 1: The Barbell Shrug (and Variations)
The barbell shrug is a classic (and battle-tested) exercise for building a bigger neck.
It's also perfect for performing since barbells are readily accessible in the gym. It goes directly after the upper trapezius fibers (while also getting the levator scapulae). This is the exercise to make the backbone of your neck-thickening pursuits.
Believe it or not, back exercises like these can help improve your bench press, so don’t skip the barbell shrug.
How To Perform The Barbell Shrug:
- Hold a barbell in your hands with a moderately heavy weight. You can pick the barbell up off the floor or from pins in a squat rack, your call.
- Using an overhand grip, with your hands about shoulder-width apart, raise your shoulders to your ears while keeping your elbows straight.
- Hold this top position for three seconds, then slowly lower your shoulders back to the starting position.
- Repeat for 15-20 repetitions. Yes, it's a higher rep count, but this repetition range will likely lead to greater muscle hypertrophy (size) gains than heavy shrugs (which build more raw strength).
A lighter weight will also allow you to perform a larger range of motion for your shrug, stimulating more of your upper trapezius fibers than with a smaller range of motion.
The starting position for the barbell shrug
The top of the shrug movement (when the upper trapezius fibers are contracted).
For this exercise, use a weight that absolutely exhausts your upper back and neck by the time you get to your last rep. By using a larger range of motion, holding each contraction at the top for three seconds, and performing a higher repetition range, your muscles will be under tension for a much greater duration of time than a standard shrug, which will help facilitate muscle growth.
Variation 1: If you're looking for some variations of this exercise, you can perform the movement with dumbbells rather than a barbell. Neither the barbell nor dumbbell version is better than the other, so pick whichever works best for you.
Variation 2: You can also perform barbell shrugs with the barbell behind your thighs rather than in front. It's still the same movement, but the theory is you stimulate the upper trapezius fibers slightly differently than when the barbell is in front of you. I'm more of a fan of the barbell being in front, but, as they say, “variety is the spice of life.”
It's not a bad idea to learn all the key details on the differences between barbell and dumbbell shrugs, as it will provide more key information to help you beef up your neck.
The main benefits of the barbell or dumbbell shrug are that it's incredibly simple, only requires a barbell and some plates (standard equipment), and is a proven exercise for building up neck size.
The main drawback you might run into is that grip strength can be the limiting factor when trying to hold onto the barbell. If this happens, consider using lifting straps to get around this common issue.
Exercise 2: The Reverse Shrug
The reverse shrug is the lesser-known cousin of the standard barbell shrug, which is an absolute shame since this exercise hammers your upper trapezius fibers.
The only caveat here is you'll want to make sure you have adequate shoulder health and mobility so that you can raise your arms near a full 180 degrees above your head (if you can't get near this range, you might have a tough time with the movement).
This exercise hammers the upper trapezius fibers due to the extensive amount of upwards rotation your shoulder blades must produce.
Remember: the upper trapezius fibers shrug the shoulders and rotate the shoulder blades upwards.
How To Perform the Reverse Shrug:
- Grab a barbell with a wider-than-shoulder grip (you'll need to play around with the exact width to determine what feels best for you).
- Raise the barbell above your head and then straighten your elbows. Keep your shoulders in a neutral position (DO NOT PULL THEM DOWN AND BACK – doing this in the overhead position will put you at risk of shoulder impingement). Your starting shoulder blade position should be the mid-range of fully pulled down and fully pushed up (i.e., a neutral position).
- From the starting position, press the bar directly upwards as if trying to get it to touch the ceiling. Your elbows should always stay straight as your shoulders shrug up to your ears.
- Hold this top position for three seconds, then slowly lower down to your starting (neutral) position.
- Perform for 15-20 repetitions. Try to keep your reps unbroken, meaning you don't pause at any point between each rep.
The starting position for the upwards shrug. The arrows represent the direction you push your shoulders (think of pushing them upwards towards your ears).
An outstanding benefit of this exercise is its ability to stimulate the upper trapezius fibers (leading to a bigger neck) while also improving overall shoulder strength and health. The downsides here are that the movement can only be performed with a barbell (dumbbells are a bit tricky with this exercise) and that you need a healthy and mobile set of shoulders to perform the exercise.
Exercise 3: The SCM Side Crunch
The SCM side crunch may look simple, but it is deceptively fatiguing (tiring), which is a good thing; fatiguing muscles through a repeated challenge is what makes them gain strength, endurance, and size.
All you'll need for this exercise is a space on the floor to lie down or a workout bench – either is totally fine.
Since the function of the SCM is to flex the neck and rotate it, this exercise will challenge both of these muscle functions, making it quite a tiring exercise for your neck. Remember, this is a big and powerful neck muscle on both sides of the neck, so having a dedicated exercise to target it is essential for beefing up your neck size.
How To Perform The SCM Side Crunch:
- Lay down on the floor or a workout bench and rotate your head to the side as far as comfortable. Let your head rest on the floor or the workout bench.
- While keeping your neck rotated, lift your head off the floor as high as possible. Hold this position for approximately five seconds, then slowly lower it back to the starting position.
- Repeat for fifteen to twenty repetitions.
- Once you've performed all your repetitions, rotate your head to the other side and repeat the process.
The starting position for the SCM side crunch. If full-rotation is too difficult or uncomfortable, you can perform this exercise with less neck rotation.
The finishing position for the SCM side crunch.
If you find this exercise is too easy or becomes too easy after a while, an easy fix is to grab an ankle weight and drape it across your forehead when performing the exercise.
Ankle weights can range from five to ten pounds and are the perfect way to comfortably add some resistance to the movement. They're also rather inexpensive, so you can likely pick up a pair of them for only a few bucks.
The main benefit of this exercise is its simplicity; no fancy neck harnesses or devices are required, and it really goes after the big, beefy SCM muscle on the front side of the neck.
Nutrition for a Thicker Neck
The most effective neck-building and strengthening exercises won't mean much if you don't provide your body with the necessary nutrients and substances to grow your muscles. Thankfully, there's no need to overcomplicate any of this if you want to add some notable size to your neck.
Just as with any other muscle (or groups of muscles) within the body, muscle growth requires a surplus of protein (often referred to as a positive nitrogen balance), which the body breaks down to then build new muscle. This positive nitrogen balance ensures the body is in an anabolic state, meaning it always has more protein coming into the body (ingested) than what is being lost or broken down.
There's an entire world of scientific nutrition that could be discussed here, but that's not the intent of this section. The goal, rather, is to assure you that your body is getting what it needs to increase the girth of your neck.
So, here's the nutrition information you need to know:
- The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dieticians of Canada all recommend that active individuals (i.e., those participating in sports and physical exercise) consume between 1.2 and 2.0 g of protein per kilogram of their body weight daily.6,7 So, if you weighed 90kg, this equates to between 108 and 180 grams of protein consumed daily.
- Nutritional supplements may help, but they should not be the backbone to building a bulkier neck. Instead, you want to make sure you get the vast majority of your macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) from naturally occurring food sources when possible. Suppose there are nutritional deficiencies that are still present after optimizing your diet with whole, healthy foods. In that case, it may then be worth trying to plug any remaining nutritional gaps with supplements.
- It may be worth consuming some easily digestible carbohydrates and protein within an hour of completing your training session. It's believed that there is an anabolic window that occurs within approximately one hour after training, where the body utilizes and partitions these nutrients more effectively than at other times in the day.8–11 While there is conflicting evidence to show this anabolic window truly exists, there doesn't appear to be any downside in consuming these nutrients within the post-workout window.
Common Neck Training Mistakes
The most noteworthy mistakes to mention are those that lead to pain and injury; not only is this a miserable experience, but it will prevent you from being able to keep training your neck, ensuring you don't pack on any added size to the muscles.
So, don't make any of the following mistakes:
- Don't try to push through pain. Pain will only hinder your road to effective neck training (and overall neck health).
- Don't train your neck muscles every day. Give them a good workout, then let them rest for a day or two before your next session.
- Don't go ridiculously heavy on any direct neck training. Necks can be sensitive and delicate. You can likely go heavy on your standard shrugs, but keep the resistance on the moderate side for other neck exercises.
Tips for Getting a Bigger Neck Fast
Tips on how to get a thicker neck is a pretty easy topic to cover. If you want to get a bigger neck as fast as possible (while staying natural):
- Train your neck three times per week, and go hard on shrugs since this is the muscle that produces the most notable size improvements for the neck.
- Eat plenty of protein (see the nutrition section above if you haven't already read it).
You'll thank yourself for taking the time and effort to learn how to get a thicker neck. It starts with knowing which muscles to target and how to fuel them appropriately throughout the process. Do this for a few months, and results should be evident. Not only will your neck muscles become bigger, function better, and be less prone to injury, but they will also let others know that you take your training seriously and know what it takes to build a thicker neck.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some answers to other frequently asked questions that individuals have when looking to perform strength training for their necks or increase their neck size!
How Can You Train Your Neck at Home?
Yes. Training your neck at home is possible and can be done either with home equipment or without any home equipment. Though equipment provides more versatility and exercise options, challenging neck exercises can be performed without equipment by:
- Laying on your back and lifting your head in various ways
- Sitting upright, placing your hand or hands onto your head, and pressing your head into your hands (while your hands prevent your neck from moving). This is known as isometric training and can be an effective way to begin to strengthen and train your neck.
Will Our Necks Shrink if We Stop Training Them?
Yes. Neck muscles are like any other skeletal muscle in the body; when we do not challenge them to move against enough (or any) resistance, they shrink through a process called muscle atrophy, which results from continual disuse of the muscle(s).
Do Deadlifts Build Thicker Necks?
If heavy enough, deadlifts will stimulate the upper trapezius fibers (which run upwards along the backside of the neck), potentially adding to increased size and thickness. However, they shouldn't be considered a primary exercise for building a thicker neck since most of the muscle emphasis during the exercise is placed on the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.
How Long Does It Take To Get a Thicker Neck?
Adding enough muscle mass anywhere to become visible takes consistent training and patience. Muscle hypertrophy (the process of a muscle becoming larger) generally takes six to eight weeks (if all other training parameters are performed ideally).12 Other research, however, have shown favorable changes to take place within a shorter timeframe.13
Does Your Neck Get Thicker As You Gain Weight?
Necks will get thicker as you gain weight, but it's important to realize that merely gaining weight does not mean your neck thickness will be from added muscle mass. Fat mass can be added around the neck and will likely be what's added if you're gaining weight but not strengthening your neck muscles throughout the process.
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About The Author
Jim is a physical therapist, strength & conditioning specialist and former competitive powerlifter. He loves treating lifters and other active individuals in the clinic and working with them in the gym in order to help them move better, feel better and maximize their training potential.