By Matt Schmit
Neck training certainly isn’t a new idea: It’s been in practice for hundreds of years among medical professionals and athletes alike. Applications and methods have varied though, as we’ve gained access to better tools and more information about the human body. Training the neck is instrumental to reducing the rate and severity of sports concussions, but it’s about improving performance as well. In this article, we will share a brief history of neck training and how it relates to athlete health and well-being.Training the neck is instrumental to reducing the rate and severity of sports concussions. Click To Tweet
The very first neck-strengthening device, “The Head Lifting Machine,” was invented in 1890 by the director of physical training at Harvard University’s Hemenway Gymnasium, Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent. He developed a variety of complex machines to fill gaps left by conventional exercise equipment of the late 1800s.
The next major evolution in neck strengthening came in the 1970s, spurred by Arthur Allen Jones, founder of Nautilus and MedX. Over the course of two decades, Jones released a long line of fitness equipment, including the Nautilus Rotary Neck Machine. Regarded as the godfather of high-intensity training, Jones made resistance training more appealing to the general public and helped fuel the fitness boom of the ’70s and ’80s. Soon afterward, Hammer Strength (founded by Gary Jones, Arthur’s son) and Rogers Athletic Company released their own line of neck training equipment, the most popular of which were their four-way neck machines. Head harnesses also started to become more popular during this time.
The latest innovation in neck training—Iron Neck—was released in 2012, as research studies began to link increased neck strength to decreased risk for concussions. Iron Neck was invented by Mike Jolly, a former football player and wrestler at UCLA. It combines linear and rotational resistance for a more functional way to train the neck and core.
More than half a billion people in the world suffer from chronic neck or back pain, accounting for $90B in annual spending in the U.S. alone. These major health issues aren’t going away any time soon. Some common types of injuries that lead to neck pain include: whiplash (motor vehicle accidents, contact sports), repetitive strain (poor posture, tech neck, text neck), nerve pinch injury (neck stinger), disk injury (bulge, herniation), vertebral fracture, and spinal cord damage.
The Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapy recently released neck pain guidelines with four classification categories:
- Neck Pain with Mobility Deficits
- Neck Pain with Radiating Pain (Radicular)
- Neck Pain with Movement Coordination Impairments (WAD)
- Neck Pain with Headache (Cervicogenic)
The purpose of this classification system is to direct intervention toward optimal treatment, based on the individual’s presentation of symptoms. Types of treatment could include stretching, mobilization, manipulation, range of motion (ROM) exercises, stabilization exercises, isometric strengthening, vestibular rehabilitation, eye-head-neck coordination, traction, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). More information about the differences in diagnosis and proposed treatments for each classification can be found here.
Football players, wrestlers, and boxers have been the most active neck-strengthening participants (among athletes) over the past several decades, though each is motivated by a different reason. The primary concern in football (and hockey and rugby, as well) has been to reduce neck stingers and other cervical spine injuries. For wrestlers, it can often be the difference between winning and losing. A player can leverage a strong neck as an extra joint to gain position against an opponent, facilitate take-downs, and reduce risk of choke. The focus for boxers has been to reduce whiplash, concussion risk, and traumatic brain injury (TBI), such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Originally termed “punch drunk syndrome” due to its association with boxers, then later dementia pugilistica, CTE is a form of neurodegeneration believed to result from repeated head injuries. The movie Concussion highlighted the resurgence of CTE after Dr. Bennet Omalu identified the disease in Mike Webster, a former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, during his autopsy. Since 2005, more than 300 cases of CTE have been discovered; most are reported to have come from tackle football.
Nearly 4 million sports-related concussions occur in the U.S. every year. Click To Tweet
The number of reported concussions has doubled since 2002, with nearly four million sports-related concussions occurring in the U.S. every year. This, coupled with the long-term risk of CTE, has garnered increased attention in the media and scientific community. Research around concussion diagnosis, treatment, and prevention is increasingly popular. Several studies over the past decade have shown an inverse relationship between neck strength and concussion incidents.
In 2014, the Journal of Primary Prevention published a study that tracked 6,700 high school athletes in boys’ and girls’ soccer, basketball, and lacrosse over a 2.5-year period. Researchers captured anthropometric measurements, athletic exposure data, and concussion incidents. After adjusting for gender and sport, neck strength remained a significant predictor of concussion (p = 0.004). For every 1-pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decreased by 5%. (Collins et al., 2014)
Note: This study did not incorporate neck strengthening to see how increased neck strength impacts concussion risk. Rather, it looked at the neck size and strength of a large group of high school athletes and retrospectively analyzed that data based on the occurrence of concussions.
Digging deeper, rotational forces have been revealed as an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of concussions. One of the lead researchers in the 2014 study, Dawn Comstock, clearly explains the neck’s involvement in reducing concussive forces that reach the brain:
“As the head rocks back and forth, it’s also twisting a little on the brain stem, and it’s those accelerative and rotational forces as the brain is impacting inside the skull that are really what’s causing these concussions. A stronger neck means you’re reducing those accelerative and rotational forces.”
Consequently, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is implementing a new helmet standard that goes into effect in November 2018. The new test will incorporate a “neck” that allows the head in the test to twist and move in all directions, whereas the old helmet test only measured the linear force experienced by the head. Dr. Robert Cantu, renowned neuroscientist and NOCSAE Vice President notes, “If you take a blow to the side of the head, you are going to spin the head on the neck. It’s the type of injuries that lead to concussions.”
Mike Jolly invented Iron Neck as a response to the impact CTE had on former teammates and the rise of concussions in young athletes. Jolly began investigating ways to prevent concussions and focused on two growing areas of research:
- Neck training as a proactive measure to reduce concussion risk.
- The increased threat of rotational forces on the brain.
He reasoned that if an athlete could train the neck to slow head acceleration upon impact (i.e., reduce whiplash), that would reduce the risk of a concussion. As a certified trainer, strength coach, and former fitness gym owner, Jolly also knew the importance of making the training functional and dynamic.
Many neck training modalities are effective at creating strength through concentric training, but only in four linear directions. Iron Neck’s unique design allows coaches and athletes to increase neck strength dynamically in every position so they’re better prepared for the unpredictability of contact sports.Iron Neck’s design allows athletes to increase their neck strength dynamically in every position. Click To Tweet
The Iron Neck is worn on the head and has a proprietary fitting system that includes an inflation system and adjustable head strap to hold it in place. It works through two forms of resistance, linear and rotational. Linear resistance can be applied via a resistance band (increasing in difficulty as the band is stretched out), cable pulley machine, performance trainer, or flywheel training device. Rotational resistance is applied through a disc-braking system (fully adjustable on the Iron Neck Pro model), which creates a very dynamic and functional way to strengthen the neck.
There are three models to choose from: Pro (adjustable rotational resistance), Varsity (low, fixed rotational resistance), and Home (no rotational resistance). Each is available in Standard (fits up to 80th percentile) or Large size options. It’s completely portable and attaches to existing equipment or infrastructure, so there’s no additional footprint in the gym.
An added benefit of Iron Neck is the ability to engage the core throughout the training. Since the lever point is at the top of the head, the entire kinetic chain is constantly engaged, increasing balance, stability, and coordination. For advanced training, you can add a medicine ball, kettlebells, or band pull-aparts to target additional muscle groups.An added benefit of Iron Neck is the ability to engage the core throughout the training. Click To Tweet
While Iron Neck originally started at $1,000 and 13 pounds, it is now half that price, weighs just 3 pounds, and is comfortable enough for 60-somethings to use at home or in physical therapy clinics. “The technology is the same but the product has been completely redesigned. What we have been really good at these past six years is listening to our customers and improving the product based on their needs and their ideas. Improving the fitting system to be more comfortable on the head has also made female athletes more interested and open to introducing it into their training programs,” says Jolly.
Being Responsible Means Taking Action
There are still many unknowns about CTE, including its exact relationship with concussions and its prevalence across different sports. However, one thing is certain: Reducing whiplash and head acceleration (both linear and rotational) reduces damage to the brain. The best way to diminish whiplash and head acceleration is to develop a stronger neck, the body’s built-in shock absorber for the brain.
Most athletes aren’t doing anything to strengthen their necks—an intervention is desperately needed. Click To Tweet
The first time someone is introduced to neck strengthening is often for rehabilitation after an injury, whether that’s from repetitive strain or whiplash/concussion. The majority of athletes aren’t doing anything to strengthen their necks. An intervention is desperately needed, particularly for female and youth athletes. Studies have identified thinner, weaker necks as a reason these athletes sustain higher concussion rates. On average, females have half the neck strength as males and suffer almost double the number of concussions in comparable sports.
SimpliFaster: Iron Neck is currently being used by hundreds of professional teams, schools, MMA gyms, first responders, military pilots, race car drivers, and physical therapy facilities, across 25 countries. Take advantage of Iron Neck’s “Back to School” sale for up to 25% off your order. The promotion ends September 15, 2018.
(Athlete photos credited to Robert Sherman)