Dr. Jeffrey Rosenblum, M.D.

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Publications: Black Belt Magazine

Strengthening Your Neck Can Prevent Injury
& Help You Avoid a Knockout!

Black Belt Magazine
October 2006, Vol 44. No 10

By Jeffrey Lee Rosenblum, MD
Photography by Rick Hustead

The neck is one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body.  Itís susceptible to a  plethora of sports-related injuriesóespecially injuries that stem from training in the martial arts and other contact sports.  Ironically, the neck is among the most ignored body parts in most workouts and training routines.  Yet itís the undeniable that a strong, well-developed neck can safeguard against injury-as any boxer or wrestler will attest.

In addition to injury prevention, a stronger neck can make you less susceptible to knock-outs because it provides stability to your skull and brain.  Furthermore, a check-out submission can sometimes be avoided if you have powerful neck muscles that you can tense, thus preventing compression of the carotid arteries.  (At the very least, such an action can buy you time to counter the choke.)  The final fringe benefit to having a strong neck is a reduced likelihood of cervical spine injury.

As a ringside physician for the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, Iím particularly aware of the importance of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of neck injuries.  Thatís what prompted me to write this article.

Anatomy Lesson

Before you can train your neck effectively, you must understand its anatomy, for that will enable you to work the correct muscle groups.

The main muscles of the neck are:

  • The sternocleidomastoid. Originating at the back of the skull behind each ear and inserting onto the sternum and clavicle, it accounts for the thickness of the neck.
  • The trapezius. It originates at the back of the skull and the seventh cervical vertebrae through the 12th thoracic vertebrae, and inserts onto the clavicle, shoulder and scapula. It creates a sculpted transition zone from the upper back to the shoulders and neck.
  • The platysma. Itís a superficial muscle that spreads like a sheet from the mandible to the upper chest and shoulder.

With the anatomy lesson out of the way, itís time to get down to business. Neck training consists of two phases: the pre-workout stretching and warm-up, and the exercises. Along the way, range of motion and poundage play a vital role.


The Warm Up

As with any training routine, itís important to warm up your muscles and stretch before starting any form of exercise. Begin by rotating your head in its full range of motion, both clockwise and counterclockwise. Do 10 repetitions in each direction.

Next, laterally move your head so your ear approaches your shoulder. Do 10 repetitions to the right and 10 to the left.   Remember that thereís no rule regarding the number of sets and repetitions. Most athletes find that doing one to three sets of eight to 20 reps for each exercise is efficient and effective.

Self-Resistance Exercises

Self-resistance exercises are perhaps the safest way to train the neck because you control the exact amount of stress, or load, that you put on your body. No external weights or machines are involved. Five recommended exercises are as follows:

  • Downward Neck Flexion While looking forward, place your hands on your forehead. Apply pressure as you slowly move your head in a direction that would put your chin on your chest. Return to the starting position.
  • Upward Neck Extension Clasp your hands behind your head while looking forward. Apply pressure against the back of your head as you slowly angle it backward (so youíre looking up). Return to the starting position.
  • Neck Lateral Place one hand just above your ear on the same side of your body. While applying pressure, slowly move your head so that your ear comes close to touching your shoulder. Return to the starting position. Do several repetitions to one Bide, then switch to the other.  This exercise targets each sternocleidomastoid muscle individually.

(Note that the three aforementioned exercises can be performed by substituting a towel for your hands. Wrap it around your head and hold the ends with one hand, then begin. Alternatively, you can have a partner supply the tension.)

Wrestlerís Bridge.  Lie on the floor with your head on a pad or pillow. Arch your back and bridge upward until youíre supporting your body weight on your head and feet. Try to keep your hands off the floor. Your goal is to increase the time you can remain in this position every time you assume it.

Athletes often perform two variations of the wrestlerís bridge: The first involves raising and lowering your hips while you ďwalkĒ a few inches toward your head and back again. This works your neck muscles from different angles and positions.

The second entails starting the wrestlerís bridge from the prone positionó that is, on your stomach. Raising your abdomen off the ground and balancing on your head and feet creates a tripod- like shape.

Headstand.  While kneeling, place your hands on the floor in front of you, then put your head a comfortable distance in front of them to form a triangle. Rest your knees on your elbows, then extend your legs upward. The exercise builds balance while strengthening your neck.

Weight-Loaded Exercises

To develop your muscles, the following exercises use equipment rather than your own body. Done properly, they can add variety and resistance to your workouts.

Dumbbell Shrug.  This exercise can be performed standing or sitting. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing inward. Raise your shoulders toward your ears, then lower them in a controlled manner. To work your muscles at a slightly different angle, lean forward.  Both versions target the trapezius.

Barbell Shrug. Grasp a barbell in front of your body or behind it. Both palms can be facing your body, or one can face forward while the other points backward. Raise your shoulders toward your ears, then lower them slowly. Like the dumbbell shrug, this exercise targets the trapezius.

Upright Barbell Row.  Once youíve lifted the barbell, stand with your back straight and your knees slightly bent. Your palms should be facing your body.  Lift the barbell until itís just below your chin, then lower it slowly.

Upright Dumbbell Row. Perform the same movement as described for the upright barbell row, but use two dumbbells. Slow, controlled movements are the key to muscle development and injury prevention.

Weight Harness.  For this exercise, you need a piece of equipment thatís basically a head strap with a chain attached. Load a light weight onto the chain, then slowly move your head in a nodding motion.

Plate Lift. Get access to a weight bench. Lie on your back with your head hanging over the edge.  Place a towel across your forehead, then rest a weight plate on it while steadying it with your hands. (Do not let go of the weight.) Lift your head until your chin is close to your chest, then lower it to the starting position.

Neck Machine. You can also employ a specialized exercise machine designed to provide resistance while you execute forward, backward and side-to-side movements. Most health clubs have several models.

Customize Your Routine

Which of the above-mentioned exercises you do on any given day is up to you. Thereís no need to perform them all.   You may want to combine some of the self-resistance exercises with the weight- loaded ones. Vary your choices to avoid stagnation in your gains.

Perform each exercise in a slow, steady fashion. Avoid jerking, which can strain your neck and injure your muscles. Experiment to determine the number of sets and reps, as well as the poundage, that fit your body and give you maximum results.

You can do your neck workout on days when youíre training other body parts or on your off days. As your fitness level rises, you can work the exercises as supersets, which entails doing one set immediately after a previous set of a different exercise without resting.

Before beginning this or any exercise program, consult a doctor or other health- care professional. Injuries can and do occur, even if you follow the exact form of the exercise.

About the author: Jeffrey Lee Rosenblum, M.D., is a board-certified urologic surgeon. He is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and ringside physician for the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. A student of the martial arts and boxing, heís also an avid weightlifter. For more information, visit http://www.blackbeltmag.com and click on Community. 


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Copyright © 2006. Dr. Jeffrey L. Rosenblum, M.D.
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