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Training for Visual Mass, Part 3: Neck and Shoulders

One day in my gym I saw a woman wearing a shirt that said, “Don’t ask me if I’m on steroids and I won’t call you a pencil neck.” The pencil neck is our cultural shorthand for a man of less than imposing stature. Conversely, many bodies considered stereotypically masculine in our culture sport heads perched atop what appears to be a giant inflated sausage. Leaving aside the aesthetic question of whether or not a man’s neck should be wider than his head, as appears to be the case with some football players, it seems pretty clear that having some decent neck size is important in being read as male.

I have found the subject of the visual character of the neck interesting ever since I attended a symposium for weight trainers and strength athletes some years ago. I was wandering around the hotel, looking for the right place to go, when I turned a corner and was suddenly surrounded by all these people with fantastically muscular necks. In baggy workout clothing it was hard to see their bodies, but each one had a well-shaped neck springing from their collar. I didn’t have to see anything below their clavicle to know that these people were fit and muscular. It was weird to see hundreds of them all in one place.

One reason for this correlation between muscularity and neck shape/size is that certain places of the body have a higher percentage of androgen receptors than others (for more on androgens, see Raverdyke’s article in the previous issue. The neck muscles are one such muscle group with a larger number of receptors. This becomes particularly in cases of androgen supplementation. I used to be able to tell when one friend of mine was on a steroid cycle, simply by the appearance of their neck and jaw.

Anyway, on to the neck and shoulder training!

Shoulder anatomy

muscles of the shoulder

Last column covered the upper back, which adds mass to the shoulders at the top. This time I’ll talk about the muscles usually seen as the shoulder muscles, i.e. the deltoids. The deltoids, or delts, form a “cap” of muscle stretching from the base of the neck at the side, to just above the midpoint of the upper arm. They are significantly involved in just about any large arm movement: up, out, across the body, or back, as well as rotating the upper arm. When mass is gained in this area, it visually widens the upper body, and adds visual size to the upper arm. There are three heads to the deltoids: anterior (front), medial (side, sometimes called the lateral deltoid), and posterior (also called rear deltoid).

Shoulder training

Yer basic all-purpose shoulder move is the press. This is a good place to start. There are a few types of shoulder presses. The military press is a tried-and-true. In general, I prefer folks to do these standing, and to bring the bar to the front of the body. However, when standing, one must resist the temptation to cheat and use the body to assist. Torso musculature (abs, obliques, and lower back) should be tight, knees unlocked, spine should be in neutral, and pelvis ever-so-slightly tucked under. Avoid the temptation to sway or hyperextend the lumbar spine. Use a full range of motion. Bringing the bar to the front of the body makes it easier on the shoulder joint; many folks find that bringing the bar behind the neck causes and/or exacerbates shoulder pain.

If you choose to do this press seated, make sure that you sit up straight, again with as much neutral spine as possible. You may also do the standing or seated press with dumbbells.

the one-hand press

A variation on the two-hand press is one of my favourites, the one-hand press. Again, I prefer to do these standing. When done standing, one’s weight shifts gently to accommodate the change in centre of gravity, but should not shift too much. These can be done with either dumbbells or a bar. Hold the dumbbell or bar in one hand, with the other arm hanging straight down. As with the standing military press, torso musculature is tight, knees are unlocked. Press the weight up, and allow the hips to shift very slightly out to the side you are pressing on. You’ll find that you need to use a slightly lower weight than you think for this exercise, and when you fail, it’ll be quick. This lift demands much more control and stability than a two-hand press, so start light and always keep this lift at a lower intensity. It doesn’t work well with a weight that’s any heavier than you can do for for about six to eight reps. Control of the weight through the lift is important. To do the lift with a barbell, begin with the barbell over your shoulder, the ends of the barbell pointing front and back. Grasp the centre of the barbell, and keep palm facing the midline of your body as you press upwards. If you have a rack or power cage, set the bar up inside so that you can take it off the pins at shoulder height. A barbell is more challenging than a dumbbell for this exercise, but it looks hella cool when you do it. If your gym has lighter preloaded barbells, give them a try.

the lying shoulder press

A second variation on the shoulder press is a very rotator-cuff friendly little thing called the lying side press. Lie on right side with a dumbbell or barbell in the left hand. Drop left elbow behind the body, palm facing forward. This is the starting position. Then press straight up towards the ceiling. Again, err on the side of lighter weight with this one, and aim to control the weight through the entire movement.

As you know, I love low-tech moves. There are some fun pushup variations which give a nice challenge to the shoulder. The first type is simple: a pushup done with elevated feet. You can begin with feet elevated on a low step or stool, and gradually increase the height. The higher your feet, the more the load is shifted to your shoulders. The second type of pushup is what I call the dog pushup, because the starting position is similar to the downward facing dog in yoga. Bend at hips so body is bent in the middle about 90 degrees, palms on floor. Heels are off floor and lower body weight is on toes. The pushup is performed by allowing the elbows to bend to about 90 degrees, while the rest of the body remains in the dog position.

By the way, all pressing motions will give you some triceps work as well, so that’s a nice bonus.

A common isolation movement for the shoulders is known generically as the flye. This movement involves holding a dumbbell or weight plate, and lifting it with straight arms out to the front, side, or rear (for the last one, folks usually try to lean over or face the ground, sometimes sitting backwards on an incline bench). If you do these, remember that the torque (rotational force) about the joint will be significant because of the length of your arm, so err on the side of lighter weight and control the movement throughout the range of motion. Resist the temptation to fling the weight up and allow centrifugal force to help you. Keep this one nice and slow and your shoulder joint will thank you. Also bear in mind that front delts get a lot of work from front pressing exercises such as bench presses, rear delts get work from pulling exercises (especially those where upper arm is held out from the body), and all delts get some work from pressing exercises (such as military press). So don’t get too overzealous here. The shoulder is a delicate joint and it’s better to slightly underwork it than to overwork it.

Neck anatomy

The neck is often considered a very delicate body part. In general terms this is true when you compare it to something like the hip, which is a well-protected joint lying deep beneath large muscles and fat.

muscles of the neck

However, despite the apparent vulnerable protrusion of the spine at the back (which is merely a long bony bump on the vertebral column; the spinal cord is nestled inside), the neck has a complex system of layers of muscle which wrap it in a protective sheath. Roughly two-thirds of the neck is composed of muscle that surrounds the wiring and ductwork of the throat and spine. With careful attention, the neck can be safely trained. Neck training is common in sports such as football and wrestling, where having a strong neck can make a significant difference between safe play and injury, and assist the athlete in developing optimal technique. The easiest way to train the neck is indirectly, with pulling and shrugging movements, which involve some reflexive isometric contraction of the neck musculature, as well as the direct action of the muscles, such as the trapezius, which attach near or on the neck.

Second, the neck can be trained using gentle manual resistance. Begin with chin tucked into chest. Have a partner place their hand on the back of your head and gently provide resistance as you move your head into an erect position (you can try doing this yourself but it’s easier with a partner). Then, look to one side over your shoulder, and have the partner provide light manual resistance as you move the head back to looking forward. It is crucial here to use gentle resistance and a slow tempo.

Third, these basic movements can be made more difficult by using a neck harness with added weight (again be very conservative here and aim for higher reps and lower weight). Ironmind makes a headstrap neck harness to which you can add plates.

Finally, for those folks who have achieved a good level of fitness and are looking for something of a challenge, check out Matt Furey’s Combat Conditioning. He swears by the controversial neck bridge exercise, and provides step-by-step instructions on how to work up to this move.

Incorporating shoulder and neck training into your workout

There are many ways to make these movements part of your workout. Ideally, shoulders should be incorporated into workouts that emphasize pressing. Isolated front delt work, if performed, can also go with chest training, while isolated rear delt work can also go with back training. Neck training can be placed anywhere in a schedule, but frequency should be relatively low (around 1-2 times weekly) and it should be placed at the end of the workout (otherwise you’ll be doing deadlifts wondering why you can’t keep your head from rolling around like a bowling ball stuck to a wet noodle).

1 thought on “Training for Visual Mass, Part 3: Neck and Shoulders”

  1. Good article if my objective were to gain a lot of mass. I’ve never tried the one-handed overhead press, but I believe it would be a superior exercise to the seated dumbbell, barbell, and standing barbell presses as it will engage the core much more effectively.

    Not sure what your age group is here, but there is a slight problem with the advice, in my opinion. As you age, your shoulders’ willingness to cooperate with overhead presses significantly diminishes. For older people trying to gain shoulder mass, I would tell them for forgo those altogether in favor of push/pull exercises. For those who wish to have a slighter appearance, I would not do them at all. At the end of the day, unless you’re trying to put on a whole bunch of mass, pull-downs (leaning back so the main contraction is in the rear delts) and variations on flat to inclined pushups will do more than enough to fill out your shoulders.


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