A big strong neck for jiu-jitsu is going to help you finish submissions, reduce your risk of injury, and resist nasty neck cranks and white belts squeezing your neck while they are in your closed guard. So, what is the best what to strengthen your neck for jiu-jitsu?
Strengthening your neck for BJJ should focus on heavy isometric holds to develop the strength to resist movement of your head from your opponent pulling and pushing on it.
Neck training for jiu-jitsu can be more versatile than just heavy isometrics and it can be. I’m going to show you exactly how! But first, why does BJJ make your neck so sore?
Is BJJ Bad For Your Neck?
BJJ isn’t inherently bad for your neck but it can cause neck problems if you take too much abuse. Your neck is heavily involved in many movements both offensive and defensive. For example, shooting takedowns requires your head and neck to be tight to your opponent and applying pressure to "turn the corner."
Defensively, you'll be resisting opponents trying to break your posture with their hand behind your head in the tie-up or the guard position. And we can’t forget every choke technique that will force you to tense your neck to hide and protect it.
All of these situations will use your neck and require neck strength. But that doesn’t make them all bad for your neck. The ones that are very bad for your neck are the ones that make you very sore.
Does Jiu-Jitsu Make Your Neck Sore?
Jiu-jitsu can definitely make your neck sore. As you may already know, having someone squeeze or crank your neck when there is no submission (damn white belts) is not a nice situation and you know you are going to struggle to move your neck the following morning.
Anyone who has practiced jiu-jitsu has experienced this so be prepared. But how do you prepare for this? I've got some great neck strengthening exercises for you later in this article.
Should You Train BJJ With A Stiff Neck?
If your neck is only stiff, then you can train BJJ. If your neck is injured, for example having a pinched nerve, then you should not train BJJ and seek professional help! How do you know the difference? If the pain is localized in your neck and you can still move your neck but it’s just sore, it is probably just stiffness.
If the pain is unbearable, or the pain radiates into your head, shoulder, arm, or spine, then DO NOT train BJJ and see a doctor.
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Does BJJ Make Your Neck Bigger?
Even though your neck is involved in so many movements, BJJ will not make your neck bigger. Firstly, the duration of the neck contractions when rolling isn’t long enough to expose yourself to enough volume for muscle growth.
Secondly, many of the contractions are isometric (meaning without a change in muscle length) at short muscle lengths. Think about when pinning the side of your head to your opponent’s hip when shooting a takedown or being choked and pulling your chin down.
These place one part of the neck muscles at short muscle lengths which is not great for muscle growth and therefore, not great for making your neck bigger.
A Note On The Neck Bridge
I am not a huge fan of the neck bridge. You can read my full explanation of why in my neck bridges article. But to explain it briefly, neck bridges skew to the side of more risk than reward. You have axial loading (compression) while moving side to side.
While anecdotal, you have the likes of Mike Tyson stating how bad his neck is after years of neck bridging. If you are a wrestler, I understand the need to neck bridge in training. It is part of the sport. But for BJJ practitioners and especially hobbyists, your neck is already cranked on most days.
There are better movements that I will list below that will not only strengthen your neck but provide relief from BJJ neck pain.
Strengthening Your Neck For Jiu-Jitsu
I've ordered these neck strengthening exercises for jiu-jitsu by importance with the most important neck exercises first with the less important neck exercises at the bottom. That doesn't mean they are useless. It just means if you have limited training time, stick with the exercises near the top as they have better pain-relieving and strength developing traits.
Some of these exercises require neck workout equipment such as the Iron Neck or resistance bands. If the Iron Neck is something that interests you (easily the best investment for my neck that I have made), you can get a 10% discount using code “JDLACEY10” below!
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If you’re not sure which Iron Neck model is right for you, check out my detailed Iron Neck guide.
4-Way Neck Isometric
Isometric strength of your neck is key in jiu-jitsu. Almost every action with your neck on the mats is with a near maximal or maximal isometric. Therefore, we must prepare our necks for this intensity by performing isometrics during our BJJ strength training.
All you need for this exercise is a resistance band. A moderate-sized band is a good place to start and you can move further away to increase the resistance as you get stronger. To perform the 4-way isometric, you will place the band around your head and resist from each 90° angle.
Front, left side, back, and right side. This will give you your 4-way. Hold these positions anywhere between 10-30 seconds depending on how heavy the band is. Start small and build your way up.
Once you’ve done a few weeks and months of this, you can try maximal isometrics where you will also pull on the band to resist maximally. These you only want to do for 6 seconds. If you want to level up your neck training game, then try the Iron Neck Alpha Neck Harness for your isometrics.
It’s much more comfortable and you can use HEAVY bands for your maximal isometrics.
Iron Neck 360° Spin
The 360° spin is like the 4-way neck isometric on steroids. You won’t miss a single angle to strengthen your neck with this one. It is easily my favorite neck exercise as it not only strengthens your neck isometrically, but it is the only exercise (along with the next one) that relieves my neck pain after BJJ.
I like to do the 360° spin without the friction dial resistance so it is purely based on band resistance. Simply place the Iron Neck on your head, pack your neck, and rotate your body in circles keeping your chin in the same place. I usually do 5 rotations in each direction within one set.
Iron Neck Left & Right
This is my other favorite neck exercise which will simultaneously increase isometric neck strength AND improve your neck mobility. As you progress through reps and sets, you’ll be able to move your neck further and further in each direction.
When you have a sore neck from BJJ, this will loosen it up instantly and relieve pain. I’ve experienced this first hand. I prefer doing left & rights facing the band and facing away from the band. Every so often I’ll do left & rights facing each side as well.
I like to do 10 reps (5 on each side) looking left and right facing the band and then the same facing away from the band.
Lateral Neck Flexion
Neck lateral flexion is often neglected in favor of exercises like using the neck harness. But lateral neck flexion is vitally important for BJJ as many of your interactions when using the neck will be pushing your neck to the side.
Think of finishing a head and arm choke. Your neck strength can dictate whether you can finish the choke or not. The equipment you need to do this is a weight plate. Start very light. I’m talking 2.5 kg or 5 lbs. This is more than enough to start.
I like to do 10-20 reps when doing dynamic neck exercises like these.
The neck flexion/extension will strengthen your ability to tuck your chin and also resist against opponents pulling on the back of your head to break your posture. You will only need a weight plate. For the neck flexion, use the same load as the lateral flexion exercise (2.5 kgs or 5 lbs).
For the neck extension, you will be able to handle heavier loads. Start with 5 kgs or 10 lbs and again, shoot for 10-20 reps.
Strengthen Your Neck For Jiu-Jitsu
Don’t neglect the muscles of your neck. They are often left behind and never trained just like calves. But the importance of strengthening your neck for jiu-jitsu is paramount not only to protect your neck but to improve your chances of finishing submissions.