Your neck hoists aloft a 12 pound head all day.
It has vertebrae that protect your spinal chord, relaying nerve signals to and from your body.
It is awash with blood vessels nourishing your brain.
Not that most Men give this a second thought. They completely neglect to specifically exercise their necks.
They are naïve to the array of benefits neck strength brings to the table.
Let us distil these benefits into three major themes and uncover the advantages of strengthening your neck.
Posture, Protection and Power.
The world of technology may enhance our lives, but it certainly doesn’t enhance our posture.
Without due care and attention, a regular technology junkie will end up sporting the neck posture of a depressed vulture. Repetitive, low level, mechanical loads, caused by hunching over a screen lead to dysfunction and pain in the neck and shoulders.
Imagine hanging a 12lb weight from your chin, sticking your neck out, and holding it all day long. Well this is similar to what happens when you sit hunched at a desk, or craned over an iPhone. The vertebral bodies of your spine cannot absorb the forces properly when you are not correctly aligned, and the load is transferred to the small facet joints in your spine. These joints were designed to move, not statically load bear. The muscles in your neck then have to hold that weight, for hours at a time.
Think about what would happen if you tensed your bicep, then tried to keep it tensed for most of the day. It would start to hurt. The muscles in your neck are no different.
Specific resistance training is so efficient at increasing muscle size, strength and endurance, that it is an ideal way to prevent neck and shoulder disorders. (2, 23)
Training the neck not only makes the muscles more resistant to fatigue, but training in the correct posture aligns biomechanics to minimise cumulative fatigue.
Strong musculature plus correct biomechanics equals improved performance all round.
Strengthening the neck to protect against acute injury is intuitive.
The literature on how neck strength can help serve to prevent against neck injury and concussion is rapidly moving towards a similar conclusion.
The most common form of acute neck injury in people who do not participate in contact sports is ‘whiplash’ from vehicle accidents. In the US, over 2 million people a year are injured or disabled in road traffic accidents. A large proportion of these suffer from ‘whiplash’, or Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD). WAD is the acceleration-deceleration mechanism of injury that transfers to the neck when your vehicle is hit by another.
Anyone who has been in a car accident will attest to the shockwave of energy that pulses through the cabin, causing your head to get pin-balled one way and then the other.
A strong neck helps to minimise the damage of these forces on the neck and head. (24)
A concussion can occur from a direct blow to the head, or indeed a body blow that is hard enough to cause a whiplash type injury. Whilst anyone can sustain a concussion, the people most at risk are those participating in contact sports. (8)
Interestingly, when a head is immobilised, it takes significantly more force to produce a concussion than when it is free to move. In experimental animal models, concussion was reproducible when the head was free to rotate, but no concussion was observed when head rotation was prevented. It was also demonstrated that wearing a neck collar protected the brain during impact, due to a reduction in the angulation of the head on the neck. (19)
Dynamic loads, especially angular acceleration, have been shown to be the common cause of head injury. Rotation, particularly in the coronal plane, appears to most often precipitate loss of consciousness. (19)
These observations fit perfectly with the mechanism of concussive injuries.
Concussion at a physiological level is caused by rotational and angular forces to the brain, and direct impact to the head is not required. Shear forces disrupt neural membranes, causing fluctuations in the flow of ions and reducing cerebral blood flow. Disruptions of autonomic regulation can persist for several weeks, and the brain may be vulnerable to additional injury. (18, 19)
In short, a fast rotation to your head is likely to cause your lights to go out.
Once this happens, you are vulnerable to another head injury until you have fully recovered. Protective head gear won’t help either;
“While sport helmet design has improved considerably over time, helmets have become more effective at reducing direct focal external transfers of force but are ineffective at preventing rotational accelerations, the primary under-lying mechanism of concussions. (11)”
Anyone involved in the pugilistic arts knows that landing one ‘right on the button’, or the point of the jaw, is the ideal strike to render an opponent unconscious. This is because, as above, it is likely to cause a sudden rotation to the head.
A recent study looking at KO data from MMA supports this.
Over 50% of all KO’s studied were shown to be due to direct blows to the mandible (the jaw). Furthermore, and rather intuitively, there was a correlation between the heavyweight class and an increased risk of sustaining a KO (16). More force generating ability, when applied correctly, equals more opponents stretched out on the canvas.
To protect against this, you need to be able to absorb and redirect these forces. The neck musculature is ideally placed to do this. The working hypothesis of many athletes, sports teams and professionals who are exposed to potential knock out blows is that increasing neck strength will decrease the risk of serious injury. I say hypothesis, because the literature has not yet emerged to fully support this.
Some promising trends are emerging though.
Neck strength has been shown to ameliorate the head impact sustained during heading in soccer. A significant negative correlation between isometric neck strength and resultant head impact was shown by Guitierrez et al (2014). Other studies corroborate these findings. Dezman et al. (9) found that neck strength imbalance was related to increased impact during soccer heading. It has also been suggested that, not only does there need to be increased neck strength, but the muscles in the neck need to be contracted at the moment of impact to help decrease the effective magnitude of the impact. This assertion is corroborated by Mansell et al. (21), who found that isotonic neck strengthening alone was not sufficient to enhance the head-neck dynamic restraint mechanism.
The inverse relationship, between neck strength and concussion, is backed up further by Collins (2014)
“Smaller mean neck circumference, smaller mean neck to head circumference ratio, and weaker mean overall neck strength were significantly associated with concussion.”
“For every one pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decreased by 5 %. (11)
Indeed, stronger muscles are not only capable of generating greater absolute force values, but have a greater cross-sectional area, greater tensile stiffness at a given activation level, and generate torque more rapidly than weaker muscles. (8)
The rapid generation of torque may be just what matters in these split second encounters. Eckner (2014) notes that anticipatory cervical muscle activation (“bracing for impact”) can reduce the magnitude of the head's kinematic response. (8)
In investigating the high-speed movement of the head upon impact during a football tackle, Lisman (2012), suggested that doing high-speed iso-inertial or plyometric training, which feature greater emphasis on contractile velocity, may be more beneficial than slow iso-inertial training in improving dynamic stabilization of the head and neck. (4)
This ‘contractile velocity’ or Rate of Force Development (RFD) is, according to Gilchrist (2015), of utmost importance in the risk management of concussion, and should be the primary outcome of any neck training program, based on current evidence. (13)
Effectively, what is emerging from current understanding is that the ability to quickly recruit the neck musculature to ‘brace for impact’ by contracting hard on anticipation of a collision, is a large factor in reducing injury potential.
Power is obvious in the context of neck training. A Man with a well developed neck exudes an aura of athleticism. Masculine facial characteristics signal high testosterone, neck musculature highlights upper body strength. As is the previous post about beard growth, the subconscious effect of this is an inference of social dominance. It doesn’t matter if that dominance is in a stand off at the bar, or in the board room. The effect is the same. It helps in exerting ones will, and the ability to exert ones will, quickly, is a reasonable definition of power.
But what about actual physical power, as in, improving whole body power through training the neck. Well, whilst the literature appears devoid of anyone investigating this topic, consider this statement from Charles Poliquin;
“It (neck strength) potentiates all strength gains in the upper body. When the neck extensors get strengthened, the upper extremities get stronger. The exact physiological mechanism is not yet clearly identified, but the results cannot be denied. From experience, the stronger the neck, the faster the strength gains in the upper extremities.” (25)
It has been shown that specific neck exercises increase activity in the areas of the brain that generate movement, and leave the muscles involved 'primed' from a neural perspective, in a state of readiness, for 7 days post training. (4) Perhaps neck training increases neural drive to other muscle groups. Either way, if Poliquin has realised that anecdotally, neck training improves the upper body strength of his athletes, then it is another good reason to incorporate it into your program.
So how is best to collate the research into a program?
The literature is by no means conclusive on this topic, but let us collate what we know:
- Training programs that emphasize high-velocity muscle contractions (i.e., explosive contractions for plyometric movements) have been shown to be effective in enhancing RFD. (13)
- Key Point. Train for ‘fast’ and high intensity contractions to help protect against injury
- Recovery from a single bout of specific neck strengthening exercises (3 sets of 8 reps in both flexion and extension) took between 3 to 5 days, with between 5 to 7 days for super compensation to be noted. (1)
- Key Point. Leave 5 days between high intensity sessions.
- A 35% increase in isometric strength was reported training lateral flexion in an isometric manner for 8 weeks) (2)
- A five week isometric training protocol (3 sets of isometric, ten second holds Lateral Flexion, Extension, Flexion) resulted in significant increases in neck isometric strength. (7)
- Key Point. Isometric training will successfully increase isometric strength
- High volume and intensity is required to induce favourable hypertrophy and strength changes. (3 sets of 10 reps twice per week at 60% 10RM were investigated and authors conceded higher intensity was required) (4)
- Key point. High intensity (e.g.80% + of 10RM) is required
- An axial rotation mechanism of injury, causing sudden head movement and neuronal injury, is often noted. Impact doesn’t have to be the head but may be transferred through the body. (16,18,19)
- Key Point. Rotation and combined rotation movements (e.g flexion plus rotation) must be trained to protect against the most common mechanism of concussion.
With the above in mind, the goals of a neck training program should be 1. Encourage full range of movement and establish a good baseline of strength. 2. Increase hypertrophy and strength in all ranges of movement 3. Develop Rate of Force Development.
Measuring your improved Rate of Force Development would require a sports science lab. However, simple objective markers could include measuring neck circumference and testing 10 RM in selected movements. The kit required for this program is minimal. I like to use an old fashioned neck sling to train extension, but you could easily lie prone off the edge of a bench, hold a plate behind your head and extend into it. A gym ball can be used for resistance isometrically and also to lie over supine whilst doing work into flexion.
Phase 1. Conditioning. Sessions 4-5 days apart, for 6 total sessions, intensity 80%, tempo 1-0-3-0
Extension into neck sling 3x10 80% 10RM
Flexion (supine over a gym ball) 3x10 80% 10RM
Rotation (supine over a gym ball and rotate) 3x10 80% 10RM
Side flexion left and right (standing side flexing into gyn ball) 3x10 80% 10RM
Shrugs 3x10 80% 10RM
Phase 2. Eccentric Strength/hypertrophy. Sessions 5-7 days apart, for total 6 sessions, maximum intensity. Tempo 2-0-5-0
Extension (manual resistance into eccentric component) 4x5
Flexion (manual resistance into eccentric component) 4x5
Side Flexion (side lying on bench,, manual resistance into eccentric) 4x5
Rotation (manual resistance into eccentric component) 4x5
Combined Movements. Suggestions. Rotation and flexion. Extension and flexion
Phase 3 Increase Isometric strength and RFD. Contract as quickly and as hard as possible.
Isometric extension, neck bridge on gym ball, 5x5 second holds
Isometric flex, crunch on gym ball 5x5 second holds
Isometric Side Flexion versus gym ball 5x5 second holds
Isometric combined movements 5x5 second holds
Loaded carries 30 seconds maximum intensity
As we have seen, there is a high potential, even for people not involved in contact sports, to suffer with neck injury. Hours of sitting and keyboard work are lethal for correct posture, and pain and dysfunction are the consequence of a loss of posture. Training the neck can help prevent this.
In the event of an accident, a sporting collision, or a direct blow to the head, neck strength has the potential to protect the recipient from more serious injury, especially brain injury.
A well trained neck will be noticed by other men, consciously or otherwise, and can be used along with other methods like beard growth, to influence your social interactions. The physiological consequences of improving your neck strength may include better upper body strength.
This program added an inch around my own neck after a complete cycle. It was squeezed in by doing the neck exercises ‘supersetted’ between whatever other exercises I was programmed to do that day. As such, it took no extra time out of an already crammed schedule.
I would implore you to try adding a cycle of neck conditioning into your program and give us some feedback on the results.
We will get some videos of the exercises up soon.
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- Portero P et al (2001) Effects of resistance training in humans on neck muscle and EMG power spectrum changes, Eur J App Physiol, 84: 540-546
- Rittig-Rasmussen B et al (2013) Specific Neck Training Induces Sustained Corticomotor Hyperexcitability as Assessed by Motor Evoked Potentials, SPINE, Vol 38, 16 E979-984
- Lisman P et a (2012) Investigation of the Effects of Cervical Strength Training on Neck Strength, EMG and Head Kinematics during a Football Tackle, Int J of Sp Sc and Engin, 6 (33), 131-140
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