Calisthenics Neck Training

by Robby Taylor on February 2, 2016

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Calisthenics Neck Training Danny Kavadlo

There are a few body parts that often seem limited in training options when working with nothing but your own bodyweight. Neck strength is one of those areas. Sure, you can get a reasonably strong neck from doing wrestler’s bridges and headstands, but these quickly become exercises of endurance, requiring sets of a minute or longer to continue seeing improvement.

Though some coaches would have you believe there are limitations to what can be accomplished with bodyweight training alone, the truth is you can get an extreme workout for every muscle in your body without anything more than a pull-up bar. You just need to be creative!

As practitioners of Progressive Calisthenics know, when you’re able to hold a basic plank for an extended time, you can start to train more advanced skills like the L-sit and the back lever in order to increase the intensity and decrease the time needed to build strength. Wrestler’s bridges and headstands are to neck strength what the plank is to core strength: just the beginning.

Calisthenics Neck Training Headstands2

Headstands are just the beginning!

Advanced Neck Strength
Essentially, you can break down advanced neck exercises into two categories: planking and hanging. The easier of the two is planking, which consists of 3 main variations. (I say easier, but keep in mind that all of these exercises are very difficult, so be careful and ease in slowly.)

It’s also worth noting that while these are first and foremost neck exercises, you will likely be surprised by how much work you experience with the rest of your body. The good news is that you can scale any of these exercises by placing a hand (or two) on the ground (or bar) for an assist.

Neck Planks
When practicing any of these variants, make sure to use a soft surface and/or wear a hat with some cushioning. The first variation is the front neck plank. Start by performing the negative portion of a push up. At the bottom, touch your forehead to the ground, brace your entire body, especially your neck, and push into the floor through your forehead. Then if you feel you are ready to, remove your hands so the only contact points you have with the ground will be your forehead and your toes. Try to maintain contact with your forehead as much as possible, minimizing any “rolling” that would result in more of the top of your head making contact with the ground.

Calisthenics Neck Training 3

The second planking exercise is a modification of the standard wrestler’s bridge; you could call it a back neck plank. From a wrestler’s bridge, move your head such that the back of your skull is in contact with the ground and your eyes are pointed upward. Forcefully push the back of your head into the floor. The only contact points will be your feet and the back of your head. Once you are comfortable with this, you can work on holding the position with your legs fully extended, such that the only contact points are the backs of your feet and the back of your head.

Calisthenics Neck Training 4

The final planking exercise is a modification of the side plank. Find a low surface upon which to rest your head at about the same level as when doing a side plank. Set your body up in a side plank position with the side of your head resting on the object. Brace your entire body, especially your neck, pushing the side of your head down into the object. When you’re ready, remove your arm, so that the only contact points are the side of your head on the object and the side of your foot on the floor.

Calisthenics Neck Training 5

Neck Hangs
Now on to the hanging exercises! The easier of the two is the back neck hang. Get yourself in the top position of a behind-the-neck pull up. From there, curl the back of your neck around the bar as much as you reasonably can, leaning your head back so that you are looking up. Find a good spot on the back of your head and use it like a hook to suspend your weight from the bar. I find it helpful for counterbalancing to arch your body, so your feet wind up reaching back behind you. With time and patience, you may eventually be able to remove one or both hands.

Calisthenics Neck Training 6

The harder of the two hanging neck exercises is the front neck hang. This one’s a real doozy! From the top of a pull up, with your jaw on top of the bar, curl your head down, driving your chin towards your chest, curling your body around the bar with your neck strength. If you can, remove your hands and hold for time. It will be helpful to hold your legs/arms out in front of you to counterbalance.

Calisthenics Neck Training 7

Although this is likely the hardest variation in the article, it may be the easiest to scale. With your jaw on top of the bar and one or both hands on the bar, you can perform curls essentially by nodding – cycle between the neck position of the front neck hang and an extended position, where you let the angle between your jaw and your neck open, bringing your chin up.

Get Neck-ed
Any or all of these exercises can be used to increase your neck strength far beyond what you would attain through basic neck bridges and headstands, without the need for silly head harnesses or other such gadgetry. Start working these progressions and get ready to say goodbye to that pencil neck. One day you might even find yourself doing a human flag on the top of your head like my friend Danny Kavadlo.

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Robby Taylo rDanny Kavadlo 8Robby Taylor, PCC, is a calisthenics enthusiast and personal trainer located in Denton, Texas. Connect with him on Facebook to find out more.

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  • A lot of people seem to think that neck training is dangerous, but I think it’s saved my life at least twice: Working on a demolition site I had a steel girder fall & crack my hard hat, then bounce onto my foot. It made me see stars, I went to get my foot checked out & the examining doctor suggested an xray of both foot & neck. Luckily there were no fractures. Afterwards she said that my neck muscles were the strongest she’d seen & asked about how I’d developed them. I told her about my wrestlers bridges. The doctor reckoned that is why I didn’t have a broken neck. That was only 12 years into bridging. 22 years into bridging I had a car accident where a truck hit my car from behind (twisting the bodyshell & damaging the car beyond repair.) I got thrown forward, the belt restrained me & slumped back – classic whiplash scenario, but I had no symptoms or difficulties.

    Around the same time as the car accident I did a wrestlers bridge & got handed a scaffold tube with 2 car wheels either side which I “bench pressed” for 10 reps whilst holding the position.

    I’ve never thought of doing anything other than the wrestlers bridges for the neck. I used to do reps, but mostly now do holds for ten breaths for three sets between legraises & other static holds. They’re my favourite exercise & sometimes I hold the position for much longer.

    I liked this article Rob, some good ideas there to be thinking about. Thanks.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Holy smokes Dan, You’re unbreakable!

      • Hardly, but thank you. A lot of what I do now could be called rehab – high reps, simple movements. I watch the guys on the wrestling taking bumps & I’m always amazed by their work load & abilities.

    • RobbyTaylor

      I’m glad you may have learned something from it, Dan, and thanks for sharing your story, that’s remarkable! Surely there’s some degree of natural resilience involved, but clearly your neck was quite strong from your wrestlers bridges, and man that’s some impressive weight!

  • Dan Söderberg

    excellent

  • Great stuff!!!

  • Aleks Salkin

    This is one of my favorite articles that has ever appeared on this blog, and that’s saying something! I’ve neglected my neck training for a long time, but no more! Thank you for contributing this!

    • John Du Cane

      Aleks, so when are we going to see you at one of the PCCs?:)

      • Aleks Salkin

        Hopefully soon, my man 😀

        • John Du Cane

          It will be good to catch up, it’s been quite a while… there will be one in Holland this Fall that might perhaps wok for you…

    • RobbyTaylor

      Thank you Aleks, it was my pleasure to write this!

  • That side-neck plank looks CRAAAZY, but I can definitely see that it would be useful… I never paid too much attention to neck training until wrestler’s bridges and no-hands-headstands (against the wall), but wow is this stuff important! Even if you don’t play contact sports having a strong neck can protect your health! 🙂

  • John Du Cane

    Fantastic piece Robby, many thanks!

    • RobbyTaylor

      My pleasure John, I’m glad it’s being received so well

      • John Du Cane

        Yes, agreed…

  • Logan Christopher

    Nice! The neck just doesn’t get enough attention. That front neck plank is one of my favorites by far.

  • FattyWhale

    Something else you can do if you’re not yet able to hang from your neck (and let’s face it, not many are), is hang inverted from a bar (while you COULD hang from your shins, I’d recommend Gravity Boots for safety), and take a dumbbell and hook it with your neck — either in the front, or back. This way you can pick a resistance that’s right for you, and can increase it the exact amount you want. Also, you can keep your hands practically on the dumbbell while you hang, so you can catch it immediately if it slips. 🙂

    • RobbyTaylor

      That’s a great suggestion! As a matter of fact I believe I’ve read of that same approach for ancillary iron cross work – hang upside down from hr bar with a dumbbell in each hand and do ‘cross pulls’ or whatever you wanna call it, where you raise hem to your sides with straight arms to mimic the cross.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Damn these moves are crazy! I’ve been doing some neck work for a yer now but I can tell I’ve got a lot of room to grow.

    I’m surprised how much benefit I’m gaining from neck work though even though I don’t really need it for sport. Building up the neck really helps the physique look complete and strong over all.

  • Paramesvara Dasa

    Awesome to see an article about neck training. After flags (clutch version for me at the moment), the front and wrestler’s bridges are my favorites in the main CC series. I am up to one set of 28 for both on the preliminary versions, and I can related to the ‘endurance’ sentiment expressed. Thinking of the two sets of 40 that El Entrenador marks as the progression standard makes me wonder sometimes. Anyway, Robby, thanks for posting this. It will make for a great re-read. Cheers.

  • Esteban Delgado Urrego

    since i train my neck, the quality of my rest is improving too

  • Patrick O’Donnell

    I’ve found neck nods and rotations extremely helpful after long days in front of a computer. I always feel it in my neck first when I spend too long sitting. Planning to add some of this strength work in with the mobility I’ve been doing. Hope that helps even more.

    If I’m not mistaken, haven’t you (Robby) also done stand-to-stand wrestler’s bridges? Any tips for working up to those?

  • Wade Race

    Reading Convict Conditioning 2, I learned just how important neck training is. Plus I’ve always admired the necks of wrestlers like Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar. A pencil neck does not look good on a big body!

  • Paul Bruce

    This is a fantastic article, Robby. You’re always so insightful.

    Does anyone have ideas as to volume and its breakdown? Are shorter holds or longer holds more appropriate?
    The
    neck is a postural muscle – always holding up the head – but it’s
    strength is most noticeably beneficial in reactive stability, not
    endurance stability.
    How long do you suggest holding neck bridges for? How many sets? How often should the neck be trained?

    • I hope you don’t mind me answering too Paul.

      I only do the wrestlers bridge, no other neck exercises. I’m 42 & have done them since I was 7.

      I spent a while 20 years ago building reps & sets having done only 1 set of 10 for the previous 15 years randomly/occasionally. I did a year or so of 2 x 25 reps most nights before bed & found this to be the best time for me to do it. It got tedious though. I’ve done a single set of 50 or so occasionally, but found these past few years that the holds are better. I can knock out reps reasonably easily but feel it’s not as effective as the holds.

      I do a daily hold before bed of 10 breaths every day of the year. Breaths is good because the days that you are in better conditions the time is longer, when you’re fatigued from other stuff it’s faster. Most of the time I do 3 sets in this format – 10 breath bridge hold – 10 breath leg raise a few inches off the mattress (arms extended above). Then 4 alternating pull/push static holds of 10 breaths each. Then leg raise & bridge again. Repeat the statics, finish with leg raise & bridge. This is my staple – I call it 338 (shorthand in my training diary) & it seems to be ideal for me – challenging every time I do it, not so hard that I don’t want to do it. I’ve upped the numbers few times, but it became tedious or I got more aches & less benefit so have settled into the 338 as part of my “daily minimum.” I do it almost everyday. If other training & fatigue make me want to leave it off I just do one bridge hold set last thing at night – this is ache prevention more than anything else.

      I’ve spent a while finding my own ideal daily minimum – this is a base which you do everyday upon which you build when you feel good & circumstances allow. Once you get the numbers right training is a delight & the progress flows along with the happiness. Might be a bit of Al’s Zen Mind & body there.

      • Paul Bruce

        Earthquake, thank you for the lengthy reply. I’m starting to get a good idea now about programming, and the role of neck training.
        Semi-long duration endurance holds seem to be a good route (maybe around a minute), but intensity and duration are not as important as frequency. Training the neck muscles to work regularly is probably a more important consideration.

        This is why I’m leaning towards the long holds, and training daily (or close to it). Ensuring proper alignment is so important, and training it to maintain that alignment for longer periods of time is probably very important. Once your neck is out of alignment, problems ensue. Getting punched in the face and experiencing whiplash is a lot easier when the neck is sticking out.

        Thanks so much for your response, Dan. You’ve given me some really good insight. Truly loving the DragonDoor community.

  • kiksa

    Thanks for inspiration,
    so far I am through the neck training of CC 2.
    This is another challenge for a man over 40 who just does not want to die with flappy muscles on a lazy body ?

  • Mrkemo Naseeb

    is that me in last pic……..

    • Hey hey hey! Who else would it be! 🙂

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