Over the years, I have visited and trained at many commercial gyms. Yet, despite my many appearances to public weight rooms, I never once saw anybody do a wrestler bridge, or even use a neck strap. What I did see were ill-informed bodybuilders doing endless sets of bench presses, curls, and triceps push-downs. I say “ill-informed” because most these enthusiasts did not realize that true strength and power comes from the hips, legs, back, and neck, especially when these four muscle groups work together in perfect harmony.
You can almost always spot a man who lacks true strength and power. The dead giveaway is his neck. If it is scrawny and underdeveloped, you can bet that his overall strength is lacking, regardless of how big his arms are.
A person's neck development is a true measure of their overall strength and ability to generate physical power. Show me a man who has a large and muscular neck, and I will also see a man who is brutally strong from head to toes. In contrast, bring me to a man with a weak and skinny neck, and I will see somebody who lacks functional strength, the kind needed to move a heavy piano or toss a heavy tire. If you are not convinced of this, try to name any world-record holder in any strength event who does not have a well-developed neck. I can't.
One of the strongest bodybuilders who ever lived was Reg Park. His stats tell his story: 500-pound bench; 600-pound squat; 700-pound deadlift; 315-pound behind neck press; and, three-time winner of Mr. Universe (1951, 1958, and 1965). One of Park's strength weapons was his thickly developed neck. He trained his neck regularly because he understood this part of the anatomy is a critical link in the strength chain. In Park's own words, “A good thick and well-muscled neck is always a sign of a strong man.”
Park also stressed the importance of having strong and well developed trapezius muscles. He stated,
“To the weightlifter, a pair of powerful trapezii are necessary. These help give him a powerful pull and aid too in pressing, jerking, and snatching when the weight is passing to arms length.”
For the physique specialist, Park added,
“The bodybuilder finds he must pay attention to the neck and shoulder girdle if he hopes to attain as near perfect proportions as his type of structure will allow. You'll grant that a man with a massive development of every group, but those of the neck and traps, would look out of proportion on a posing platform.”
The Big Six
There were many exercises Reg Park practiced during his competitive years which contributed to his neck development. However, the bodybuilding legend once credited the build of his neck and traps to six primary movements. There were: (1) Bent-Forward Rows, (2) The High Dead Lift off boxes, (3) Stiff-Legged Hang Cleans, (4) Upright Rows, (5) the Wrestler Bridge, and (6) a “Mono Resistance Movement.” Let's look at what Reg had to say about each of these six exercises in some detail.
Exercise 1: Bent-Forward Rows
Done regularly, the Bent-Forward Row can greatly strengthen all muscles of the back from top to bottom. Park stressed, however, that extra emphasis can be placed on the trapezius muscles by pulling the bar to the top of the waist or lower chest, not to the bend of the hips.
Pulling the bar as described above, Park did four to five sets of this row movement, 7 to 10 reps each set. As for proper form, the strongman said that this exercise provides good results whether done loosely or in strict style, and he suggested alternating both methods.
Exercise 2: High Dead Lift Off Boxes
For this movement, Park placed a barbell on top of two boxes so that it was about knee high at the start position. The bodybuilder would then deadlift the weight from the boxes until he stood fully erect.
Just before Park reached the upright position, he would give his shoulders a heave and a shrug. The big fellow would try to hold the shrug portion of the exercise as long as he could. He would then slowly lower the barbell back to the top of the boxes and repeat the movement after a brief pause.
Park explained that he preferred doing a partial deadlift rather than a regular deadlift for two primary reasons. Firstly, the partial deadlift caused less strain on his long back. Secondly, the partial deadlift allowed him to use a heavier weight and place a greater stress on his trapezius muscles. Referring to this partial style, Park advised, “With the heavier weight you can use, the traps are really pulled and the lower back is worked thoroughly too without any danger of strain.”
Park did four to five sets of five repetitions of this exercise.
Exercise 3: Stiff-Legged Hang Clean
Park started doing this exercise after he learned that it was a favorite muscle-building movement of Khadr El Touni, a former Egyptian weightlifting champion. Much due to his regular practice of this movement, Touni had built tremendous trapezius and forearm muscles. Park must have been very impressed by Touni's development.
To perform the Stiff-Legged Hang Clean, Park would rest a barbell on top of two boxes, much like he did for the High Dead Lift. He favored starting this exercise with the barbell about midway between his knees and the top of his upper thighs. From this starting position, the big man would then pull as hard and fast as possible in a cleaning motion, aiming to clean the barbell up to eye level, or at least as high as he could. The barbell was then lowered from the shoulders to the starting position and immediately cleaned again without a pause. Like Touni, the former Mr. Universe performed this lift while keeping his feet still and bending his knees as little as he could.
Park did five sets of five reps of this exercise.
Exercise 4: Upright Rowing
The upright row was a favorite exercise of Clancy Ross, the 1945 A.A.U. Mr. America winner. Park was good friends with Ross, and encouraged by his buddy's amazing development, Park also incorporated this muscle builder into his workout. For maximum benefit, he emphasized, “...the body should be kept as upright as possible and the weight pulled slowly and evenly up to chin level. As the bar is pulled up the front of the body, the elbows should be allowed to point out to the sides and the shoulders should be pulled back.”
Park performed this exercise with a narrow grip (hands held approximately eight inches apart) for four sets of eight repetitions.
Exercise 5: Wrestler Bridge
This was one of Reg Park's favorite neck builders. He would bridge by rolling his head from front to back while he held a weighted barbell above his chest at arm's length. As Park performed the bridge he would push with his thighs to assist his neck and gain a greater range of motion.
Park emphasized that beginners should start this exercise with just their body weight. When a lifter's strength improves on this lift, Park suggested that the trainee can progress by using a light weight held across his knees. After the trainee becomes considerably skilled at bridging, and only after this stage of strength is reached, Park recommended that the lifter perform this exercise while holding a weight above his chest.
Park did four sets of eight repetitions of this exercise with a pad underneath his head to aid comfort.
Exercise 6: Mono Resistance Movement
This exercise is performed by placing your hands behind your head and then pressing your head back while resisting the movement with a steady push. Park utilized a duo form of this movement by applying resistance to both the front and the back of his head as he moved it to-and-fro. He did this by placing one hand on the back of his head and his other hand on his chin, always countering the direction of his head movement.
The former Mr. Universe would do this exercise as described above until he was “tired and unable to continue.”
As a final note, the great Reg Park emphasized that the neck and trapezius muscles must work together to demonstrate great strength and foster new development. He elaborated further by stressing,
“They [the neck and trapezius muscles] are links in the chain that make up a really strong back and shoulders, and one group should never be neglected for the other.”
So don't be a knucklehead. Make sure you work your neck and trapezius muscles hard and regularly. If you do, you will quickly stand apart from the crowd and dramatically strengthen the foundation of your physique.