In this article we’ll discuss whether squats work your neck muscles, what muscles do get worked, some common causes of neck pain in the squat, and some targeted neck exercises.
Why do you get neck pain from squats?
The bar is trapping a nerve somewhere
The body is a complex system and there’s all sorts of nerves running along the lines where the bar is placed.
If you experience nervy neck pain during or after squatting, try playing around with the bar placement. A vertebrae or two either way can make a difference.
Your midsection is not tight
Here’s an experiment that I am not recommending you try:
- Lay down on the floor
- Perform a sit-up with a relaxed stomach. Pay attention to the contraction in your neck.
- Now perform a sit-up while contracting your stomach very hard. Notice how you are able to keep your neck relaxed when you do this.
If your mid-section, trunk, torso, core (ugh) is not tense throughout, expect your neck to work overtime. Keep tight when squatting bro!
The bar is sitting on a vertebra, as opposed to sitting between vertebrae
There’s real life common sense, and there’s gym common sense.
Gym common sense is when you learn something about training which is pretty “duh”. It instantly makes sense, but you still need to be told it anyway.
Bar placement on the back is one of those things. Here’s what you do:
Put the bar on a meaty part of your back. The bar sits between the vertebrae, not directly on the bony knobbly parts.
The bar is literally on your neck
Don’t put the bar on your neck!
You want the bar to sit on the meaty part of the traps, or a little further down close to the ridge of the scapulae (shoulder blades).
Do Squats Work Your Neck Muscles?
While squats work around 85% of the muscles in the body, they don’t really work the neck muscles. For tangible changes, you may need to seek out some direct neck training exercises.
What muscles do squats build?
The hamstrings, the big muscles on the back of your upper legs, do a ton of work when squatting. This is because the hips and knees are travelling through a long range of motion.
If you want to emphasise the hamstrings’ involvement in the squat, you can adopt a more “sitting back” squat style, and/or place the bar lower down on your traps.
The quads do a ton of work in the squat. Along with the glutes, they are key players in whether you stand up out of the hole or not.
If you want to emphasise the quads’ involvement in the squat, you can:
- Adopt a more upright squatting style
- Use a specialty bar like a safety squat bar to displace the bar away from your back
- Front squat
The glutes work synergistically with the quads in standing up in the squat.
If you want to emphasise the glutes’ involvement in the squat, all of the above recommendations for the quads apply. Also, you can squat to a box in the following fashion:
- Squat under control, to the box. Do not lean back and become vertical, maintain the back angle.
- Stay on the box for a 2 count, staying very tight in your torso and everywhere else
- Flex your glutes hard and stand up forcefully off the box.
This uses the box as a launchpad for the glutes, in a similar way to a plyometric push-up. It’s a unique stimulus!
Your entire trunk
Think about what’s going on with your torso when you plank. Everything between your shoulders and your hips is rigid, like a rectangle.
The same is true in a squat. Your entire trunk is essentially conducting a moving plank while your hips, knees and ankles articulate.
Best exercises for building neck muscles
For most people, direct neck training isn’t usually necessary. For collision sports, some direct neck training may be beneficial.
Wrestlers, martial artists and American Football players could all potentially benefit from a little more mass building around this delicate area.
There’s a lot going on around this area of your body, so the main theme of all these movements is to progress slowly and with caution. Never move into pain.
There’s not much to these. You put the harness on your head, you attach a weight to the rope, and slowly move your head up and down, and in different directions.
Some companies like eliteFTS stock innovative neck harnesses that can attach to cable pulleys and allow for controlled rotation.
An old school wrestling exercise practice throughout the ages.
These days on the internet you’ll find an equal amount of content vilifying the movement as dangerous as you will how-to instructions.
It’s as simple as laying down on your back, then propping yourself up with only your feet and crown of your head in contact with the floor.
You can also use elevation, like a bench, to progress the movement from easier to harder (less elevation is harder).
Partner neck drills
One of the more unique exercises I’ve encountered in my martial arts days was a series of partner neck drills.
You and a partner lock heads at the temples, and then both push each other evenly, carefully resisting and changing direction with your neck.
If you’ve not done any direct neck training before, this can give you some novel DOMS!
Nowadays you’ll probably want to see a negative PCR test before using this drill.
Disclaimer: Always, consult a physician before beginning any new exercise program. Please do not conflate listing these exercises as a recommendation for your personal situation.
(That’s my ass covered.)
That’s all for this article, but perhaps you want to learn more about zercher vs back squat? Or are squats in water effective?
Hope this helped!
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.