The Importance of Neck Training For Athletes

Training your neck might get you some funny looks in the gym, and quite frankly, I agree that it looks quite hilarious even on the best of days. But after doing some research and hearing former NFL Strength Coaches Joe Kenn and Mark Asanovich passionately present on the subject, I can’t think of a single reason why you wouldn’t train your neck, even if it looks ridiculous (best of all, the science agrees with me).

You Train Everything Else, Why Stop At The Neck

Other than the performance benefits that come with it, the number one goal while training should be injury prevention. You are no good as an athlete if you’re watching from the sidelines. The neck should be no different, and because of the severity of injury, should almost have more importance placed on it.

As a Strength Coach, it is my responsibility to protect my athletes to the best of my ability. If that means they get laughed at for a couple of minutes while performing neck exercises at the gym, then so be it. I’ll take that over a head, neck or spine injury any day.

Your brain is one of the only organs that you can’t live without. Protect it.

Benefits of Neck Training

As a Sled Dog Development supporter I would be disappointed if you just took my word for this stuff without seeing some scientific evidence. I was also hesitant at first, but after seeing the numerous studies behind it, neck training is a no brainer.

Concussion Prevention

The Centre For Disease Control and Prevention defines a concussion as “a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth”(2). With that being said, it becomes intuitive that to decrease the risk of suffering a concussion, one should try and decrease the amount of blows they sustain, but perhaps more in their control, the speed that the head and brain move after getting struck.

Using Physics To Prevent Concussions

One particular study involving linemen in football came up with the conclusion that “By increasing neck strength, the excess translation to the brain will be prevented because the excess muscles will decrease the moment (torque) that the head experiences during a concussive impact.” (1) This means that the concussive mechanism of the brain moving rapidly is less likely to occur with a strong neck.

Supporting this evidence, one research team compared neck strength and weight, as well as how these stacked up next to concussion risk. They came up with the conclusion that for every one pound increase in muscle strength, the odds of concussion decreased by 5% (6).

Increased ‘Slosh’ in Surrounding Areas to Soften Force Mechanism

Muscles are almost 80% water. Water serves as an agent to dampen forces directed at it. My math might be off, but it should make sense that increasing muscle mass will increase the overall amount of water present, therefore absorbing forces otherwise heading to the brain.

Decreasing Rate of Spinal Cord Injury

Not only does neck training dramatically help prevent traumatic brain injuries, but rates of spinal cord injury also drop substantially (3)(5). This happens because, just like training any other muscle group, the surrounding bones, ligaments, fascia and tendons all get stronger and more durable which combine to increase the structural integrity of the spinal column (4).

The science is overwhelming and I encourage you to look through the research for yourself so you too can see how important training the neck is.

Neck Training is Not Just For Athletes

Neck Training To Decrease Injury Rate In Falling and Car Accidents

CEO of the Concussion Legacy Fund, Chris Nowinski says that neck strengthening should be at the focal point of any strength training program. In fact, the CDC reported that the most number of concussions in the United States are from accidents involving falling and motor vehicles. So if you walk or drive, neck training should be at the forefront of your program, regardless of if you play sports or not.

Neck Training To Treat Chronic Neck Pain

Chronic neck pain is becoming more and more prevalent in our world with an increasing amount of people working behind computer screens all day. Neck training has been proven as an effective method to decrease chronic neck pain (2)(6)(7). This is due mainly to improvements in posture caused by training the neck.

How to Train Your Neck

Everyone knows how to get bigger arms and summer abs, but how do you go about training one of the most neglected muscle groups in the whole body? I learned a very specific method from Joe Kenn in his presentation that I would encourage you to go watch yourself so you can see the movements in action, but I will still describe them here. Of course, this isn’t the only viable method of training your head and neck, but I can only speak for what I know and believe in.

There are plenty of machines, bands and cable clip ons meant for neck training. The sequence I am about to show you can work with any of these pieces of equipment.

Each exercise is to be performed for only 1 set and around 10-12 reps (the weight should be heavy enough to be very fatigued by the end of the set. The sequence of exercises need to be maintained for reasons you will soon see.

Neck Flexion

Start in a neutral position. Steadily rotate your head down, pushing your chin towards your sternum. Return to neutral.

Photo of a Neck Flexion Training Photo of a Neck Flexion Training Full Flex

The Nod

This is where the sequencing becomes important. The dominant neck muscles must be pre-fatigued from neck flexion so that the much smaller head muscles can go to work. To optimize the strength and musculature of our neck, we must hit all of the muscles, even the small ones.

Photo of a Neck Flexion Training Nod

This is a very similar motion to neck flexion, but you are only going to flex about 10 degrees. You should feel quite the burn right around your Adam’s apple.

Neck Extension

This is a similar movement to neck flexion but instead you are extending back and pointing your chin to the roof.

Photo of a Neck Extension Training Photo of a Neck Extension Training Full Flex

Head Tilt

Again, this has to be performed right after neck extension in order to pre-fatigue the larger neck muscles, allowing the smaller suboccipital muscles to be the star of the show. Only rotate 20 degrees back and feel the muscles working right where the head meets the neck.

Photo of a Neck Extension Training Head Tilt

Right/Left Lateral Flexion

Just as it sounds. Make sure to keep your shoulders down and back and ensure that you tract in a straight line, pulling your ear in the direction of your shoulder. We want to strengthen through the whole range of motion so go as far as your neck will allow you.

Photo of a Neck Lateral Flexion Training Photo of a Neck Lateral Flexion Training Full

Is There Any Downside To Training Your Neck?

No. If neck training is done in a safe manner, there isn’t any way that having a stronger neck will decrease your performance in sport or life. Train your neck.

Should You Train Your Neck?

Science, concussion rates and other research tells us emphatically that neck training should be a key piece of every exercise program. You only get one brain in your lifetime. It’s a very important piece in living a healthy, fulfilling life. Protect it.

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24928761/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24149163/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14962806/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17762744/
  6. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/196580
  7. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jari-Ylinen/publication/8175091.pdf