I practice lion dance as part of the tradition and culture of my martial arts system. It is a dance in which two performers mimic a lion's movements inside a costume. As part of some lion dance routines (in general), various tricks can be performed with two people.

There is one particular trick where I lift a person (the one holding the lion head) up by the waist and onto my head. Lifting the person up with the lion head is not particularly difficult for me. Maintaining the weight after setting the person down on my head tends to put stress on my neck and shoulders, and more so when I walk around, as I try to keep my posture and not collapse.

Here is a picture that resembles what I'm talking about.

lion dance - full stack
lion dance - full stack
Photo by Scott Swigart

I am mentally comfortable with bearing the weight on my head (from practicing over and over), but physically I feel like I still there is a limit to how long I can hold the weight. Doing it too many times also leads to much soreness. I am curious to know whether there are exercises and stretches that would allow me to build up strength in my neck and shoulders so that I could perform this move longer.

Here's one example of me and my partner doing a dance (we are in the gold lion). If you want see some really cool and impressive stuff though, check out lion dance competition videos on YouTube.

I added the "cheerleading" tag since it is probably the most analogous type of physical workout. Hopefully it will attract people from that area who understand what I'm describing and could provide some insight.

  • What kind of weight-bearing exercises do you do otherwise? Do you have any empirical metrics for how strong your back is? Aug 24, 2011 at 16:05
  • I don't do any other weight-bearing exercises except for push-ups. If anything, any weight I bear would just be own body and not free weights. I also don't know how to measure how strong my back is either.
    – user241
    Aug 24, 2011 at 16:30
  • I can't tell from the picture: are they actually standing on the top of your head, or just on your shoulders? Aug 24, 2011 at 16:57
  • The person sits on top my head, which seems to be the case in the picture. I can put the person on my shoulders, but I don't an issue with that since the weight is a little more distributed.
    – user241
    Aug 24, 2011 at 17:03
  • The simplest way to measure back strength is to test 1RM deadlift. Use straps if grip is a limiting factor. Feb 5, 2013 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


I would be concerned with the strength and load-bearing abilities of your neck, back, and to a lesser extent your legs.

First I'd make sure you can deadlift at least 1.5x your bodyweight for reps without form breakdown. That would provide you with the base from which to safely focus on neck-specific work. Heavy lifting will also improve bone density in a way that few other activities can.

Alongside your deadlift progress I would recommend neck-specific work. You want to make sure you're ready to sustain pressure along your spine. Two come to mind:

  • Neck bridges (like in wrestling) (see this thread from the Crossfit boards -- there are some great Feats of Neck Strength as well as excellent progressions in the links)
  • Headstand work (like in yoga)

It couldn't hurt to do some squats for general strength purposes. Essentially they would buttress the deadlift.

  • 1
    +1 for headstands. Wearing a helmet makes it more comfortable to do for longer periods of time. Kinda like what BBoys use while practicing headspins. While on your head you can also do cor strengthening exercises using your legs. Sep 1, 2011 at 20:39
  • I'm holding out for the +1 for heavy barbell work. Oct 29, 2014 at 21:24

If you want to stick with body weight exercises, then I would suggest the following:

The reverse pushups will help strengthen your back. If you set your feet on a raised platform (like a chair), it will provide more work for your back to do. The goal is to use your back muscles and not your arms to do the work.

The extra back work and the pullups/chinups will also help your neck muscles get stronger as you naturally tense it when lifting heavy things. More importantly; however, you will be able to use both your abs and your back a bit better. The idea is to spread the load amongst most of the muscles in your core. When the load is vertical like the position you showed in your picture, when the core is unable to make the minor adjustments to maintain balance, your neck and shoulders come in to play to help out--but they are smaller muscles and get tired much more easily.


The first thing that comes to my mind is working with a head harness:

enter image description here Here's a link explaining it along with some other related neck exercises: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/neck.htm

In Addition to that I would think adding Shrugs would be beneficial:

enter image description here


Neither of these should be done exclusive to all other exercises, but part of an overall program - with the focus on your core and next areas. The problem with focusing on a specific 'body part' is that the supporting muscles (to that part) also need to be developed otherwise they could become overloaded. Post use soreness (you mentioned that you were sore afterwards) is a sign that you are straining parts of your body, normal, but also a sign that you need to gain strength to reduce risk of injury - especially to the next/back areas.

Sounds like what you're doing is a lot of fun - if you get a chance, please post a video!


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