Watch some vintage boxing and wrestling videos and you’ll see the classic neck bridge being performed by high-level fighters. The reasoning is good… develop the neck musculature and strength in order to prevent concussions and withstand heavy impact from strikes and resist breaking of posture in grappling. But the trade-off for overall neck health may not be great.
Neck bridging puts the neck into the exact position that has been shown to be responsible for a higher frequency of neck injuries. Axial compression combined with shear force that occurs during neck bridging may make it easier for neck injury to occur.
Combat sports require a high degree of neck strength. On top of that, a large amount of neck muscle can help protect the neck and head from damage.
If performing neck bridges isn’t the best neck exercise option, then what alternatives are there? Other neck exercises may not provide the same loading that the neck bridge does so the adaptations may be weaker. Luckily, there is an alternative option and it’s called the Iron Neck.
What Is The Neck Bridge Exercise?
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The neck bridge is performed with your back facing the floor while balancing the top of your head on the floor and pushing your feet on the ground. The entire body weight is supported by the feet and the head.
Beginners will find this difficult and often put their hands on the ground next to their heads to provide extra support by distributing the weight onto the hands.
The video of Mike Tyson shows the most advanced variation that is used when performing the neck bridge. That is rolling the head in multiple directions to develop neck strength in as many planes of movement as possible.
Beginners generally start with the static neck bridge and try to hold the same position of the top of the head on the floor for an extended period of time.
The neck bridge is especially popular in wrestling circles. And rightly so as wrestlers may have to bridge onto their necks during a match to avoid being pinned on their backs. Bridging up and over onto their stomachs using their neck strength would save them losing.
Why Is The Neck Bridge Dangerous?
Neck bridging combines axial loading (compression force of the spine) and shear forces (side to side force). The problem with axial compression on the neck is that it causes the loosening of cervical spine ligaments. When adding shear forces alongside this, the risk of soft tissue injury increases .
Additionally, many people run into neck problems from their posture caused by their desk jobs. The forward movement of the head causes a rounded cervical spine in the flexed position. This often leads to neck pain, headaches, and eventually can lead to spine and disc problems.
The neck bridge compounds this position with the load of your body weight. With the beating the neck already takes in martial arts from strikes and grappling, adding to the stress and trauma with the neck bridge may not be a great choice. Strengthening the neck should have a therapeutic effect along with the desired strength and muscle adaptations.
As in, your neck should feel amazing after training it. I know for me that any stiffness or pain is gone performing a proper neck session.
Is There A Time To Use The Neck Bridge?
Bridging on the head is a staple movement for Olympic wrestlers. In order to avoid being pinned on their back, wrestlers will bridge onto their head using their neck strength in order to escape.
In this instance, using the neck bridge in training likely makes logical sense. If you are going to be put a position to have to use a neck bridge, then it pays to train the movement in a more controlled environment when training.
Small doses during a training week to make sure your neck is consistently being put through the stress of neck bridging is important to build the load tolerance and resiliency as to not have any problems when competing.
What Is A Neck Bridge Alternative?
The best neck exercise you can do is with the Iron Neck (read more about it here). Yes, you may see that I rave about this tool a lot. But for good reason. It is the only training device that lets you train the neck heavily in all 360°. You can even perform dynamic body movements while wearing it such as shadow boxing.
While the Iron Neck can be an expensive tool, there are some low-cost options you can use while you save up for it. Isometric band exercises and plate neck exercises are cheap alternatives.
These exercises allow you to strengthen the neck isometrically and during a movement like you would with the neck bridge without the compression force loaded on the spine.
If you look into other sports and professions that require outrageously strong necks such as Formula One or fighter pilots, they don’t use the neck bridge.
They use devices similar to the Iron Neck which they’ve made themselves. For example, McLaren drivers use a helmet attached to pulleys that pull the neck at different angles.
Here is another example of a lateral neck isometric with a partner from Formula One driver George Russell.
In the Viper Pilot Neck Health & Conditioning Guide, they don’t mention using the neck bridge once and actually recommend using a device similar to the Iron Neck. And these pilots have to withstand G-forces up to nine times of gravity!
While neck bridging is popular in martial arts mainly due to wrestling, consider using exercises other than the neck bridge for training your neck as there are plenty of variations that can be performed using simple equipment.
A Neck Workout Routine For Martial Arts
If strengthening your neck is a priority to you, then performing Iron Neck work before your training sessions will allow you to build the volume of work for the neck without creating too much pain or fatigue. It will also warm your neck up for striking or grappling training.
If you're not sure which Iron Neck is right for you, you can check out my article detailing the differences between the Iron Neck models.
You can perform something like this every day before your training to make easy neck gains:
A1) Iron Neck 360° Spin 2 x 5/side
A2) Iron Neck Left & Rights 2 x 5/side
B1) Iron Neck Lateral Look Over Shoulder 2 x 10/side
B2) Iron Neck Figure 8s 2 x 5
A non-Iron Neck variation can be performed like this:
A1) 4-Way Band Isometric Hold 3 x 10 sec/side
A2) Banded Left & Rights 3 x 5/side
B1) Band Protraction/Retraction 2 x 8/each
B2) Plate Lateral Neck Flexion 2 x 10-15/side
If you keep the load light enough during these exercises as part of your warm-up, you won’t run into any fatigue-related problems come training. If you want to perform your neck training after your martial arts session or as a standalone training session, then you can look at add more volume through the number of reps or set or by increasing the number of sets.
You can also load the exercises heavier as you don’t have to worry so much about fatigue. It’s important that you don’t ramp up the load too quickly as the neck is easy to injure. Start lighter than you think you can handle and progress from there.