By Sean Smith
I am excited that neck training is gaining a lot attention because of concussions in sport, but we still have a lot of work to do. This is not an article on how to reduce traumatic brain injuries (TBI) using neck exercises or neck training. That’s too much of a promise that no coach could keep; however, if a stronger neck gives you a better chance, than I am all for it.
This blog piece is about building a complete neck that enhances what the neck is designed to do. The typical article on neck training usually shows progressions of exercises from easy or light strength training to more intensive or difficult training. I will not do that. Instead, this article is about preparing the neck for sports performance, and if that can reduce concussions and help athletes recover from TBI, then I feel I have made a difference. This past summer, the Exceed facility started taking neck training to the next level, and my goal now is to share a few concepts we support.
My Neck Injury Story
Neck strength is not just a catchy, trendy topic for me. It is a tale that hits home personally because it played a huge role in my life and athletic career. During my sophomore year in high school football, I was thrown into the starting role of middle linebacker while weighing a whopping 170 pounds. Despite my lack in size, I had a knack for the ball, and ended up playing a key role and made some noise across the league. About seven games into the season, I experienced what might have been a career-ending injury.
I was on special teams in a game we had already wrapped up when I stepped up to make a block and, the next thing I knew, I was getting up off the ground. Although I felt a little dazed and unsure of what had happened, it wasn’t out of the norm for me to have this “stinger” sensation a couple of times a game. After a few days of this sensation, however, something just didn’t seem right.
At the time, I had been working with a reputable strength coach for a couple years and when I mentioned the feeling to him and the staff, they quickly referred me to “the top guy.” After a negative X-ray, I almost walked out of the hospital with a clean bill of health; however, at the last minute the doctor asked me to simply turn my head. Tingling, numbness, and concern would best describe what I felt.
He referred me to the best neurologist he knew and after countless tests (MRI, CAT scan, bone scan, EEG), the neurologist determined that I had almost completely broken through my C6 vertebra. He estimated that I was one good collision away from some form of paralysis. His recommendation was to quit contact sports and spend a few months in a neck brace.Direct neck training should play a greater role in contact and collision sport training programs. Click To Tweet
I chose a different path. I worked tirelessly with my strength coaches and PTs for months on end until I was fully cleared to return to play. Neck strength and direct neck training were invaluable to my success, and therefore I believe that they should play a greater role in contact or collision sport training programs.
General Training and Neck Development
The same lessons we learn from core training apply to neck training. Technically, where the core ends and begins isn’t clear, so spinal training may be a better description for training the trunk and neck. I want to make sure that anyone reading this understands I do believe in training the neck specifically, but at Exceed, we found that our athletes now test better than we expected because they are well-rounded in their training. Before jumping into any neck training, we recommend looking at the entire training program to see if any of the workouts you do help train the neck indirectly.
Without reviewing what the neck already does from day to day, it’s easy to overdose the area with added exercises. This is not a debate on what the minimum effective dose is compared to the maximum safe dose; it’s knowing what an athlete is already doing. I can say with confidence that our training has a lot of neck training without doing any isolation drills. You should inventory your training and see where you can add areas to challenge athletes above the chest.
The human head weighs about 4.2-5 kilograms, according to online journals, and this fun fact means the neck always has work to do every day. Be aware though, not training the neck directly isn’t enough to have a neck that performs. What I am saying is a healthy neck will come from general training, while a high-performance neck requires extra credit or direct training.A healthy neck comes from general training while a high-performance neck requires direct training. Click To Tweet
Leg training and neck training should have similar philosophies, but you don’t need a “neck day” to make gains—just include neck training earlier as part of athlete training. Periodically placing the neck work early in training, even if it’s warm-up drills for coordination activities, reminds everyone involved that the neck matters. Depending on the needs of the day, the order of where you place neck training will change. We tend to include it later in the session, but don’t place it at the very end of the workout all the time.
Practice is another source of neck training we need to account for. An athlete playing and practicing their sport will spend a lot of time being active with turning, tilting, and twisting in order to track the action. I will get into neuromuscular control in more detail later, but just going to a game and watching an athlete play can teach you a lot about the job the neck has to do.
The gist of what I am saying is that, like any area of the body, you need to see how much total and specific work an athlete receives each day. If they are wearing a helmet and are tired, listen to them and think about resting or going lighter than planned. Even if they are not doing a lot of neck-specific training and are just tired overall, listening and monitoring their training load is a better road to take.Neuromuscular Coordination and Vision
Precision motion of the neck is great to ensure an athlete is challenged without just resorting to loading only, and strength without mobility and motor control is incomplete. The neck has many roles, and one of them is the ability to use its mobility to look for danger or to be the danger. During times of chaos, the speed and precision of neck action is essential to vision, especially in sport.In times of chaos, the speed and precision of neck action is crucial to vision, especially in sport. Click To Tweet
A neck needs to stabilize the head, but that’s not the end game. Necks are “pivotal” to life and do so much in sport beyond just tracking balls and looking for opponents. If you want to prepare the neck properly, think about its three big needs and exploit them with your exercise selection. The videos below show the three needs of neck coordination: fine motor skills, freedom or mobility, and brute force. We don’t use a pen light or laser with the exercises at Exceed, like some coaches are experimenting with, but we think it is more for bored athletes or rehabilitation.
Video 1. Fine Motor: Coordination of the neck isn’t complicated—it’s the ability to do what you want in any way you need it to be. We like doing figure eights with athletes now as it improves how they control and steer their neck.
Video 2. Freedom: Large ranges of motion are great, and that starts with diagonal chops of the neck and plotting every safe degree of motion possible. Neck mobility is not about how much range of motion you have, it’s how much coordinated range you can access.
Video 3. Force: This isometric exercise develops neck strength, improving the accessibility of neck coordination and even endurance of the neck. Getting stronger is not oversimplifying the problem or reductionist—it works.
Improving sports vision or eye performance is popular and the trend comes and goes quickly. Balance or vestibular development is also a trend that still seems to linger from the days of unstable training. Not getting caught up in the hype cycle is important, but we still keep an open mind to the science by asking questions of other coaches. Our philosophy is simple: Train the body and let the skill coaches and games take care of most of the skills.
We are not purists and do step into the development process if a gap exists, but hero coaching needs to stop. Without getting into a rant, we see a lot of coaches who want to be the star of the show, meddling with athletic gifts that are not very trainable and spending way too much time on things that might work instead of focusing on what must work. Strength and conditioning is a limiting title, but doing neither job leaves athletes weak and out of shape. Direct and basic strength training of the neck is enough to make a difference, so if you have time to do more that’s great, but “don’t lose sight” of the priorities.When you train for performance, it also covers injury resilience most of the time. Click To Tweet
One point to consider, though, is that the small details of how the head receives a blow make a huge difference as to whether an athlete becomes concussed or not. I am not making an argument for teaching how to receive a blow, but I do think something needs more exploration if a possibility exists. Stepping away from injury, it makes sense to address performance and ensure that a neck is functioning for winning, not just trained in the hope that concussions are reduced. What is great when you train for performance is that most of the time injury resilience is covered.
Testing Standards and Expectations
I don’t blame coaches for not testing the neck directly, as we have just scratched the surface in that regard. Some of the best testing data is the load and exercises you do, but when working with someone unfamiliar, isometric testing is a safer way to go. Without getting into endless details and the science, research supports testing the neck by isometrically challenging flexion and extension with simple equipment in a seated position. We do realize that, for a lot of accuracy and precision, testing the neck should be done with a strap in a chair, but we aim to screen out really poor performers who have likely slipped through the cracks rather than try to get an exact number like those who do performance tests. We want ballpark estimates to ensure we are on the right track, and acceptable standards can be found with studies from rugby.
The rate of force development, RFD for short, is a measurement we know needs more attention and promotion. Working with force plates and being exposed to this measurement with jumping was eye-opening for us. If you read the social media comments, the average coach can rattle off more measurements about jump output then they can on neck performance. Neck training and RFD are in the research, so we took time reading the studies and concluded that RFD was worth measuring. Athletes don’t have the luxury of bracing for impact with long time periods; they need to be just as reactive to their neck impacts as their legs when playing.Athletes need to be just as reactive to their neck impacts as their legs when playing. Click To Tweet
In the next year, we plan to add better testing, monitoring, and rehabilitation standards with our athletes. Based on some recent conversations with a colleague, we will most likely utilize some more advanced metrics with our neck training, including load cells. We don’t expect everything to change overnight, but we don’t want to drag our feet either.
Currently, we don’t test “strangers” at Exceed, as an unknown athlete maximally doing any strength test is a recipe for disaster. Even isometric testing of the neck is something I am not a fan of, as it’s not the same as the IMTP or vertical jump testing. If an athlete has been training their neck, we are more comfortable submaximal testing based on their training history. If they are new to training and we add any maximal test, it could spell trouble. Thus, we like to ramp up training and testing, and don’t like doing a formal maximal effort test on “Day 1” with athletes. Testing early, however, can provide a quick snapshot or send up a flare on any athletes who need a more medically monitored intervention.
Static and Dynamic Isometric Training
Isometric training works. If an athlete is new to strength training, it’s common to do bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and maybe lunges. The neck is a little different with training, as bodyweight exercises are not easy with the neck without really knowing what you are doing. Wrestlers are known for having great neck strength, and so are football players, but getting a bunch of basketball players to do bridges isn’t realistic. The solution to starting with isometrics is to do solo routines of basic movements, then progress to more demanding exercises.
Video 4. The spin, or 360 exercise, is unique to the Iron Neck device due to the technology. I am sure someone can find a similar exercise, but this option is great for all levels of neck strength.
Isometrics don’t need to be perfectly static and sometimes consist of a combination of contraction types. I demonstrated an eccentric contraction with the kPulley, as the use of elastic resistance with neck training is mainly concentric. Overall, using bungee or elastic bands is versatile, but the average athlete can benefit from simple cable resistance.
The days of head harnesses and using a weight plate are not gone, but they are certainly shrinking. Based on what we do now and in the past, isometric training and simple movements are the needs, and other combination exercises are mainly for advanced athletes. We don’t do neck rehabilitation at our gym, but we like to learn from experts in sports medicine. In general, I’d say about half the training we do is isometric.
Video 5. The KB Hip Halo with static neck is not easy to do and we’re just starting to experiment with it.
Our “Neck Program” includes a handful of exercises and our progressions mainly add load or just coach the exercise right. Sequencing exercises and writing workouts so that each piece perfectly connects to the next is unrealistic, but we get the idea of what is attempted. The KB Hip Halo works mainly on pelvis stability (staying neutral and level) while introducing a force that wants to disrupt that position. The intrinsic muscles of the foot and lower limb are already heavily challenged, but by adding a neck component to the mix, we can challenge the eyes/neck, pelvis, and foot simultaneously.
Video 6. Maintaining a good neck position is always difficult for people when doing push-ups. With good coaching and form, the athlete can kill two birds with one stone.
Since my business partner and I basically do most of the coaching, we just try to keep the challenges slightly linear—meaning we don’t get too fancy or cycle loading to the neck. Incrementally adding resistance or making an exercise slightly harder is the objective. At times, just letting experience take over and selecting exercises that are progressively more demanding works perfectly. By progressing a push-up by adding the Iron Neck, you can reinforce posture while adding a slight variation to a “simple movement.”
Video 7. This exercise challenges the neck in a multi-planar environment. It encourages maintaining a posture through level change as well as a forward and backward step. As with all the exercises displayed, we are not endorsing it or prescribing it—the point of showing it is to make sure coaches know what is possible with just a little creativity.
By combining a simple strength movement with a static or isometric neck position, you can really add some value to the basics. Finishing a day with some coordinated neck work in combination with a squat or lunge can ensure better strength patterns in the future, as well as train the neck for sport.
Yoked – Muscular Development of the Neck
Getting bigger and getting stronger from neck training is easy to see with some athletes, but other sports may not have a culture of wanting to get “yoked.” American football loves thick necks, but not everyone wants to look like a bull, so neck training is tricky. Certain body parts have a greater propensity for size and most often the individual athlete’s genetics will be more to blame for size gains than the reps and sets, but it is always good to ask an athlete what they believe is important when training the neck. If an athlete doesn’t want to get an increase in neck thickness, they won’t put the effort into the training if you don’t explain to them how to avoid the issue. Most will conclude that concussion prevention and injury reduction is important enough to invest some time in.Educate athletes on neck training early so they know its purpose and comply with instructions. Click To Tweet
If you don’t talk to the athlete about neck training early, you may see poor compliance later. You can get stronger without getting bigger, and you can get bigger without much improvements in maximal performance. As a side note, it’s rare to see an athlete with a bullfrog neck who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the weight room. It’s somewhat of a badge of honor.
The research on neck thickness can easily be misinterpreted if you make conclusions based on a simple number. In addition to their body composition, where an athlete adds muscle determines if the gains really provide a benefit. The muscles that provide flexion, rotation, lateral motion, extension, and other motion do not develop the same. A cross-sectional analysis of the area looks like a tree trunk if you look at the anatomy images online.
For our tracking purposes, we believe that the research has merit, but we are cautious about getting excited if an athlete increases their neck thickness. You have to eventually test in order to be sure that the size helps the neck perform. As of today, neck size matters, but we don’t think about what that really means with athletes.
Video 8. Simple neck retraction and protraction motions are part of a neck development plan. A few reps and sets are all that is needed to get progress in neck strength.
Many of our more advanced athletes do Olympic lifts. Many college programs still incorporate them, so we feel that it is our job to at least educate and instruct the athletes to use them as effectively and safely as possible. In some programs, we train them heavily and rely on them for much of our power development in the weight room. Even after years of coaches talking about how jump squats or, ironically enough, the trap bar jump is great for leg power, we keep true to the lifts because they build a lot of muscle in the neck region.
The trapezius muscle is the posterior chain of the neck, and if it’s big and strong, it’s highly likely the neck is prepared. Direct training and general training together make a difference, and we know from both our own eyes and the science, getting stronger in traps with big lifts matters. We are not activating, we are loading.
Creating Your Own Training Plan
I wish I could go into more of the exercises and concepts that we are learning about now. It’s easy to get excited about any new facet of training, but what we learned over the years is to be patient—but proactive. Don’t wait for the field to pass you, but don’t overreact and try to be a leader by taking things too far in neck training. Being adequately prepared means you take the need seriously, not make it so important you add too much strain on the area.Take the need for neck training seriously, but don’t overreact and add too much strain on the area. Click To Tweet
We expect to fine-tune our neck development program every year, but tweaking what we are doing right is so much better than overhauling like a mad scientist. I personally know the value of neck training, and I hope this article gets you started in making progress in this important area.