I’ve been programming neck training for many years in professional rugby. Like martial arts, rugby has the potential for head knocks, and a strong neck is needed to reduce the risk of concussion. I’ve also been training my own neck for BJJ for many years so I’ve figured out what feels good, what works, and what doesn’t.
The neck may be one of the most neglected areas when it comes to strength training in martial arts with the focus on improving overall strength, power, and endurance instead.
Proper neck training must include isometric strength exercise in all directions as well as flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation in order to strengthen the neck to reduce the risk of injury and concussion. These can all be trained with a band and a weight plate.
Conditioning the neck through training for the rigorous training you do is important so you don't wake up the next day with that deep, nagging neck pain.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of neck training, we must understand the anatomy of the neck and how it functions.
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Neck Anatomy And Function
The neck consists of two main areas of musculature. Superficial and deep muscles. Both sets of musculature perform similar functions. The main superficial muscle is the Sternocleidomastoid which is the prominent muscle that runs along the sides of the neck.
This muscle performs lateral flexion of the head, rotation of the head, and extends the neck backward (head looking up). It also acts as an accessory for the respiratory muscles. The Platysma is a neck muscle responsible for moving the jaw.
The deep neck muscles consist of three main groups. The Scalene, Prevertebral, and Suboccipital. The Scalene muscles are purely accessory respiratory muscles that lift the upper ribs.
The Prevertebral muscles laterally flex the head, rotate the head, and act as a stabilizer. The Suboccipital muscles laterally flex and rotate the head, as well as extend the neck backward (head looking up).
There is more to neck training than the simple neck harness. As you can see by the functions of the neck muscles, they are responsible for movements in various directions. It can be broken down into these simple movement patterns:
While these are the main functions of the neck muscles, these are not the only movements or contractions that occur during martial arts. The neck is required to perform heavy isometric contractions to resist movement. It also must move in many different directions at once, not just in one plane of motion. We can break it down even further:
Training the neck in all of these capacities will help to develop overall neck strength and conditioning for martial arts.
Is Neck Training All About Strength?
A 2014 study of high school athletes found athletes that had concussions had a smaller neck circumference, a small neck compared with a large head, and less overall neck strength compared with those that did not have concussions .
Further, they found overall neck strength was the greatest predictor of concussion and that head and neck size ratio were not predictive of concussion.
This may have been because the injured cohort who had smaller necks were also weaker than their uninjured counterparts.
They concluded that the odds of concussion incidence decreased by 5% for every one pound increase in neck strength.
This can be done with just twice weekly neck training sessions of 15 minutes each with a mixture of isometric and dynamic neck exercise .
In fact, that exact protocol has been shown to reduce the peak linear acceleration of the head during a soccer header. They found maximal isometric strength was the main predictor. Further, new research has correlated athletes with stronger necks with participating in more hours of training per week and played more years of their sport compared to those with weaker necks .
Which means they spent less time out with injury. This is in agreement with previous research showing strength training can reduce sports injuries by 33% and overuse injuries by 50% .
Also, rugby athletes that display a lower neck flexor/extensor strength ratio (i.e. the extensors are much stronger than the flexors) had the highest rate of self-reported concussions .
However, there is more to preventing neck injury and concussions than purely neck strength. Having the ability to develop peak force AND do so quickly are the key factors for decreasing the risk of concussion .
That means that performing basic neck strengthening exercises isn’t enough to fully protect your head and brain. Rather, an addition of reactive strength neck work will help increase the odds of not sustaining or reducing the severity of a concussion.
A Case Against Neck Training?
While I've presented a few research papers outlining how improving neck strength can reduce the risk of concussion, there is a group of researchers who dispute these claims. It's difficult to draw real conclusions from self-reported observational data. However, that is not their main gripe.
I interviewed Gary "The Smiler" Turner on the Sweet Science of Fighting podcast who is leading the charge on traumatic brain injury research. He states that having a stronger neck may increase your risk of traumatic brain injury or concussion.
When the neck isn't as strong, the head moves with the impact dispersing impact force around the head. While the brain is still rattled against the skull, it's not to the same extent as if you were to brace and the head decelerate the head quickly. Gary states in this case, all of the impact force flows through the brain potentially causing greater brain injury.
Can Compound Lifts Make Your Neck Big And Strong?
You may have heard or even read that getting a strong deadlift and traps will be all you need to develop a big strong neck. However, research tends to state otherwise.
A 1997 study studied two different groups of college students . Both groups performed weight training but only one group trained neck extension with the neck harness three times a week.
Guess what happened?
Only the group that trained neck developed a bigger and stronger neck! The moral of the story is you need to train your neck if you want to see neck gains.
Neck Exercises For Martial Arts
We can list each neck exercise into their respective categories. This can make it easier to create a neck training routine as to not overload one type of movement.
Concentric Neck Exercises
Supine Plate Neck Flexion
This is a very basic but very effective way of training neck flexion. Simply lie on your back on a bench with your head hanging off the edge.
Hold a plate on your forehead and nod your head in long, slow motion to train your neck through a full range of motion.
Start with a 5 lb (2.5 kg) plate as this will be your weakest of all the neck exercises you perform. 2-4 sets of 10-20 reps will build the size and strength of the front of the neck.
To avoid bruising your forehead with a black ring from your plate, place a folded up towel on your forehead to rest the plate.
The neck harness is your best bet for loading the posterior of the neck. It allows you to load neck extension heavier than you would holding a plate.
I would recommend starting with 10 lbs (5 kg). You will be much stronger in this movement compared to neck flexion. You can perform the same 2-4 x 10-20 reps.
You can perform this sitting or standing but I prefer to do this sitting.
Supine Plate Neck Extension
If you don't have access to a neck harness, then this is a poor man's version.
It works just as effectively. The only issue is when you start to reach heavier loads, getting them onto the back of your head is a pain.
You can perform anywhere from 2-3 sets of 5-20 reps. Simply lie face down on a bench with your head off the edge. Place the plate behind your head and slowly nod your head up and down for a full range of motion.
Neck Lateral Flexion
Supine Plate Lateral Flexion
The final neck exercise using a bench is the lateral flexion. This is often neglected in favor of flexion and extension.
This is a big mistake especially within combat sports where the lateral movement of the neck is used to resist and finish submissions or takedowns.
When performing the lateral flexion off the bench, place your other hand on the floor for balance while one hand holds the plate on your head.
Use loads similar to your neck flexion as you won't be as strong as your neck extension in this exercise. Perform 2-4 x 10-20 reps.
Band or Iron Neck Left & Rights
Rotations are difficult to perform without the right piece of equipment. But this movement is vitally important for developing resistance against head strikes and neck cranks.
Left & Rights can be performed looking towards or away from the resistance band. One will target the back of the neck and the other the front.
I like to perform 3 sets of 10-20 total left and rights.
Iron Neck Diagonals
It's just like a Left & Right but instead you'll be rotating your head from your shoulder to the opposite side looking up.
3 sets of 10 diagonals each side is a good place to start.
Band or Iron Neck Neck Protraction/Retraction
This is my favorite exercise for improving overall posture especially within combat sports.
I like performing approximately 2-3 sets of 10 reps each direction.
4-Way Band or Iron Neck Isometric
I would call this a level 1 neck exercise. It is the easiest neck exercise to perform and is suitable even if you have no neck training background.
Aim for 2-4 sets of 10-30 seconds in each of the 4 directions. Front, back, and each side. You can perform up to 5 sets of this exercise.
Iron Neck 360° Spin
I like to perform around 1-3 sets of 5 spins each way. Keep your chin tucked and your neck as still as possible. The goal is to not have any movement of the neck.
Partner 4-Way Neck Isometric
You will need a partner for this exercise. Have your partner start light and you can build to heavy pressure slowly. You don't have to stick with the 4-way neck isometric. You can use any angle you wish as you have the ability for your partner to place their hand anywhere on your head.
I usually shoot for 10 seconds each direction for 3-4 sets. Perform these seated to better isolate the neck.
Partner “Blind” Reactive Neck Isometric
We know you must be able to produce force quickly when it comes to reducing the risk of concussion. That is why the reactive neck isometric should be a staple in your program. Again, you will need a partner.
Your partner will push your head in various directions without you knowing where, and for how long.
Approximately 2-4 sets of 10-20 seconds for each set is a good time to aim for.
This is a great exercise for training the neck to be stiff while the body moves in various directions which is directly applicable to martial arts.
1-3 sets of 10-20 reps works well here.
Multi-Planar Neck Exercises
Iron Neck Figure 8s
Want to build some insane neck mobility that you won't get from stretching? Then you need to perform this exercise.
This is a more advanced variation as you have to have the neck mobility to move in the Figure 8 motion.
You can perform a total of 1-3 sets of 10-20 Figure 8s.
Putting Together A Neck Training Program For Martial Arts
Here is an example of a two-phase neck training program. The idea is to use the first phase to condition the neck so that in the second phase, more advanced movements and loading can be used.
A1) Supine Plate Neck Flexion 2-4 x 15-20
A1) Supine Plate Lateral Flexion 2-4 x 15-20
A2) Supine Plate Neck Extension 2-4 x 15-20
B1) Band or Iron Neck Neck Protraction/Retraction 2-4 x 10
B1) 4-Way Band or Iron Neck Isometric 2-4 x 10-15sec
C1) Iron Neck 360° Spin 2-4 x 5 spins/side
C1) Band or Iron Neck Left & Rights 2-4 x 20
Each day includes a basic concentric, isometric, and rotational neck exercise. It is only two days a week in the beginning to get used to training the neck with foreign exercises.
A set and rep range is given so you can work your way from the lower volume to higher volume. For example, you may start with only two sets in the first week. The following week you may progress to three sets.
You can also do the same with the reps. You may perform 15 reps in the first week and 20 in the second week and then increase the number of sets for week three.
A1 and A2 means you perform the exercises in a superset (one after the other before taking a rest). Complete all sets and reps for the A series before moving onto B. Rest as long as you need to complete the exercise with good quality again. This won’t be too long when training the neck. Likely up to a minute.
A1) Iron Neck 360° Spin 2-4 x 5-10 spins/side
A1) Band or Iron Neck Neck Protraction/Retraction 2-4 x 10
A1) Neck Harness 2-4 x 10-15
B1) Partner Iron Neck Reactive Isometric In Fight Stance 2-4 x 10-15 sec
B1) Iron Neck Diagonals 2-4 x 10-15
A2) Supine Plate Neck Flexion 2-4 x 10-15
C1) Iron Neck Figure 8s 2-4 x 8-12
C1) Iron Neck Lock Body Turn
B1) Partner “Blind” Reactive Neck Isometric 2-4 x 10-15sec
C1) Iron Neck Figure 8s 2-4 x 8-12
Phase 2 introduces some more advanced neck training exercises. Neck training has a focus on the reactive strength and multi-planar movement. There is also an extra day so you can keep progressing by increasing the frequency and volume.
Each phase can be run for 4-8 weeks or even longer depending on how slow you decide to progress.
Neck Training Considerations For Different Martial Arts
Neck training is going to be very similar between the different martial arts. They all require strong necks and the ability to resist force quickly. However, there are some subtle changes you can make depending on if you participate in striking or grappling arts.
In striking arts, you may spend more time on isometric and rotational neck strength due to the nature of head strikes. In grappling, you may spend the majority of time performing heavy isometrics to resist against opponents’ grips on your neck and head.
How To Stay Safe When Training Your Neck
If you haven’t done much neck training before, it’s important that you take care when starting. The neck can be susceptible to injury if you decide to train it as hard as you to the rest of your body from the onset.
Start Too Light
Always start lighter than you think you should. With plate concentric based exercises, I recommend starting with 5 lbs at the most. If you don’t have a strength training background at all, you can start with no weight while performing the exercises.
As you get more comfortable and the muscle soreness isn’t so prominent the following day, you can start to add more load.
Isometrics can be done with a very light band or with light pressure from your hand. These can be longer in duration in the beginning and become shorter and harder as you adapt. Rotations can also be performed with a band or with the best neck training device, the Iron Neck.
If you’re not sure which Iron Neck model is right for you, check out my very detailed Iron Neck model comparison guide that will guide you through each model to find which is right for you.
You will also find a 15% discount code in that article for any Iron Neck order.
Avoid Compression With Movement
Loading the spine from the top and moving the head around is a sure-fire way to leave you with chronic neck pain in later life. One exercise that does this is the neck or wrestler’s bridge. You can see in detail why this exercise isn’t good for the neck in my article “Stop Doing Neck Bridges.”
Start With Simple Exercises Before Complex Ones
Performing basic concentric, isometric, and rotation neck exercises are your base for basic hypertrophy and strength. Once you’ve developed some strength with these exercises you can add multi-planar movements such as the Iron Neck Figure 8s which would be considered an advanced neck movement.
Only Go Through A Range You Are Comfortable With
If your neck is stiff and tight, don’t start loading your neck and move your neck in a range of motion outside of what is comfortable. If a neck is stiff and tight within a certain range, that means it will be very weak outside of that range. If you go that far, you are much more likely to get injured.
Progressively increase the range of motion starting with no load as you feel comfortable.
It’s Not Always About The Size
It seems that neck strength is a far greater predictor of concussion than size. And neck strength is what is going to help you finish takedowns and resist submissions.
Further, your neck can potentially get too big. The general consensus is that 43 cm (17 inches) is the average circumference of the neck before it starts to increase your risk of sleep apnea .
However, this seems to be related to fat mass in the neck, not muscle mass. A lean 17 inch neck may not increase your risk of sleep apnea to the same degree.
What If You Have No Neck Training Equipment?
If you have no equipment at home to train your neck, there are tools around your home that you can use. My recommendation is the trusty hand towel. Yep, you read that right.
In fact, I wrote a whole post covering exercises you can perform by yourself with a towel called "Neck Workout At Home With No Equipment."
The towel is your best tool when you have no equipment because it is strong enough to let you resist maximal isometrics in different positions.
Your only limiting factor is your grip.
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