Preparing the neck for contact

The neck takes a tremendous strain in combat and collision sports. There’s nothing worse than anticipating the impending neck pain after your first session back following a short training layoff. Backing the car out of the driveway, turning to face someone next to you, and general daily tasks become painful. We often neglect neck training, but as with any muscle, you can strengthen the neck to help increase performance and potentially reduce injury risk as well.

» Related content: James de Lacey shares his approach to preparing athletes for impact and contact conditioning.

Why train the neck?

Neck training is often prescribed to reduce the risk of concussions. There is interesting research around the topic suggesting this is possible as a stronger neck can slow down the acceleration of the head in contact. However, some experts are disputing these claims stating neck strength or size does not affect the severity or rates of concussion. Their primary support for this is the idea that reducing the acceleration of the head doesn’t stop impact forces moving through the brain.

Whether a stronger neck reduces the risk of concussion doesn’t impact whether you should train the neck. It is an important and often neglected set of muscles, especially when it comes to contact sports. Neck muscles are used to resist motion (e.g., when scrummaging in rugby or snapped down in grappling), securing strong clamps when tackling or grappling, and finishing submissions in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Basic band isometrics and flexion/extension are great to start, but full neck development can go further than this.

Below I share my 3-phase progression for neck training. Videos of each exercise can be found by clicking on the name. I will split this progression into three phases. Each phase builds into the next increasing intensity. Progressing through phases does not mean you should forget about the previous exercises. For example, basic band isometrics can be used as a warm-up for overcoming isometrics or other more advanced exercises.

Phase 1: sub-maximal volume

Phase one is focused on building sub-maximal volume. We accumulate time with low-level isometrics and reps with concentric flexion and extension-based movements. Some example exercises:

  • 4-Way Neck Isometric – There are many ways to implement this exercise. The easiest is using a band. Otherwise, you can use manual resistance with your hand. Hold the isometric 4-ways: front, each side, and the back. 10-30 seconds per set seems to be suitable parameters to use.
  • 4-Way Neck Flexion/Extension – The same 4-ways can be done by moving the neck in flexion and extension. I prefer this exercise to be done lying on a bench with a small plate on the head. 2.5 kg, in my experience, is a good place to start for flexion and 5 kg for extension. 10-20 reps is a good rep range to use. It can also be done laterally.
  • Iron Neck 360° Spin – I love my Iron Neck. It allows you to train the neck at every angle with its halo design. My go-to with this exercise is performing 5 circles in each direction for 10 spins per set. You can get much more creative with the Iron Neck, but this is the one exercise I will always do.

Phase 2: increase intensity

Phase two looks to intensify the neck work by increasing the force generated by the neck. Some example exercises:

  • Overcoming Partner Isometric – These can be done without a partner, but I prefer using a partner since you resist the force from someone else, making maximal outputs easier to hit. It turns almost into an eccentric quasi-isometric. Have a partner stand behind you and apply resistance in each direction. 6-10 seconds is what I like to use for overcoming isometrics. You can get creative with this and use different angles instead of the typical front, side, and back.
  • Full Body Integrated Neck Isometric – Maintaining a straight line from the feet to the head using the neck increases the loading substantially. It becomes a full-body tension exercise to stabilize the neck. Depending on your preparation, you can be relatively aggressive by increasing the distance traveled or by pushing and catching.

Phase 3: putting on the brakes

Phase three focuses on the ability to put the brakes on quickly. While we must take this with a grain of salt, preliminary research suggests how quickly you can develop peak force with the neck is a key factor in reducing the risk of concussions.

  • Partner Reactive Isometric – This reactive neck isometric with a partner blinds the athlete to where the force will be applied. Essentially, they will try to minimize the movement of the head as the partner pushes in different directions for 6-10 seconds.
  • Partner Reactive Isometric (Relaxed) – I came up with this idea as the traditional partner reactive isometric forces you to tense your neck the entire time. You are always tense and ready even though you don’t know where the force will be applied. This version has you relax your neck, and the partner applies the force at any time. You then need to quickly “switch on” to stop the movement.
  • Flywheel Neck Lateral Flexion – Using the flywheel for neck training is a unique method. There are ways you can overload the eccentric by only resisting in the last half of the eccentric phase to apply force quickly and redirect it concentrically. Or you can perform multiple submaximal reps where the flywheel quickly pulls you back at the end of the concentric phase.
  • Accentuated Eccentric Neck Protraction/Lateral Flexion – I’m still not sure if this is a good idea to apply eccentric overload to such a delicate area of the body. However, from my experience doing this, I did not have soreness the following day. However, I trained my neck extensively with BJJ multiple times per week, so perhaps it was used to the thrashing. My idea behind this was to induce eccentric specific adaptations to improve muscle shortening velocity due to added sarcomeres in series and shift the length-tension relationship to the right. If the neck can now produce peak torque at longer muscle lengths and faster speeds, potentially this could reduce the risk of injury when placed in awkward positions and reduce the “whiplash” speed when struck. This is highly theoretical and needs special equipment like the 1080 Quantum used in the video.

Final Thoughts

These neck exercises are the basic variations I like to use when preparing for contact. You can get much more creative, like performing isometrics in crawling positions or position-specific isometrics. However, it’s essential to keep the goal in mind, which is high forces and producing them quickly!