The Best Neck Exercises for Pain

Neck exercises that improve strength routinely offer better and more permanent pain relief for neck pain than stretching. There are instances when your neck pain is nerve related and not purely muscular, but even then I find most of my patients benefit from strength exercises to help reduce tension and restore normal motion. Here’s my 4 favorite neck exercises.

4 Neck Exercises to Reduce Pain and Improve Strength

  1. Packing the Neck
  2. Neck retraction + extension
  3. Alternating Shoulder Flexion against wall
  4. Full range of motion shrug

#1 Pack the Neck Exercise

Good For: General neck position that makes EVERY exercise a neck exercise

  • Make a double chin
  • The effort of the double chin should match the effort of whatever exercise you are doing

Since this makes EVERY exercise a neck exercise, just do this with exercises to make the low back stronger for COMPLETE spinal strengthening.

Also make sure you are looking forward, NOT down. A way to think about this is if you were wearing a hat, the bill of the hat should be parallel to the floor

    correct technique for packing the neck exercise
    hat bill parallel to the floor

    I could probably just stop the blog article here but my SEO plugin says I have to hit 300 words and say “neck exercise” several more times.

    #2 Neck retraction + extension exercise

    Good For: Muscles on the back of the neck that often feel tight

    • Lay with your head off the edge of a surface
    • Pack the neck, then slowly look up
    • Return to the packed neck position, then relax
    • Perform 1-2 sets of 15 reps, 2-3 times a week.
    • Can perform 1 sets of 10-15 as needed for pain relief

    An alternate position is in quadruped (see below).

    alternative position to perform neck exercises
    Alternate to laying on stomach

    If this neck exercise is painful, you can:

    • Try 5-10 reps and see if the pain reduces (often does)
    • Look up and go TO the pain, not THROUGH
    • Do only the Neck Pack position and hold that for 5 seconds, perform 10-15 reps

    Over time you’ll likely be able to look up

    #3 Back to Wall Alternating Shoulder Flexion

    Good For: The “deeper” neck muscles that control the spine

    • Ensure your head is against the wall; use a towel roll if “your hat bill isn’t parallel to the floor”
    • Pack the neck – match the effort to the task
    • Raise and lower one arm, then the other
    • Inhale to raise the arm, exhale to lower
    • Do 15 each arm

    Alternating arms makes this an “anti-rotation” neck exercise so those deep muscles are thought to work harder to “stabilize.”

    The ultimate progression of this neck exercise would be a single arm press with the neck packed, so as the weight gets heavier ALL the muscles work.

    arm movements are the most challenging neck exercises
    Stabilizers have NO CHOICE but to work

    #4 Shoulder shrugs

    • Pack the neck
    • Lift the shoulders STRAIGHT up slow and controlled
    • Pull the shoulders STRAIGHT down
    • 2-3 sets of 15 reps

    Everyone complains of tight traps, but a lot of people rarely train them. These don’t need to be heavy, but make sure they are controlled.

    This is a great variation if you have one side that always feels tighter, and it always good to spend time just doing neck exercises (or any exercise) one side at a time to feel the difference.

    Final thoughts on neck exercises for strength

    There’s no way to strengthen the neck other than direct neck work. These neck exercise target the “layers” of the spine, then teach you to use those layers with normal, everyday movements.

    You maybe noticed I did not add in neck flexion or rotation/bending to the side. I’m not against them, it’s just something my population doesn’t tolerate, but I’m slowly starting to come around on it.

    Here’s some quality info from AJAC on those other directions, just try to pack your neck when you do them

    For a complete neck rehab program with full progressions?