For far too long, the neck was ignored in workouts. And this habit seems to be gaining prominence again, as evidenced by the number of athletes who are suffering concussions.
Unfortunately, we simply didn't know any better. There was little research supporting the importance of neck strength training, and it was a complete afterthought. Heck, it seems like we are just now learning how to properly train the core, and we've known of its importance for quite some time.
So perhaps it's not shocking that neck strength has been largely ignored.
"I don't remember neck strengthening being a big point of emphasis when I played football," says Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. And he's not alone. As a hockey player in high school, I didn't train my neck once, nor did I ever hear about anyone else doing neck training.
Even as news about concussions appears in the media constantly, neck strength still doesn't seem to be a priority. Rarely do we ever receive questions from athletes about neck strength, and many, many programs still don't include it.
Why Neck Strength Helps Prevent Concussions
The idea that neck strength can potentially reduce concussions is not new. The logic is based on simple physics.
"A concussion is caused by head movement. If there's no tension in your neck, all the energy of the impact goes directly into your 15-pound head," explains Nowinski. "If you have a strong neck and tense it, you essentially make the effective mass of the struck object impact your entire body mass rather than just your head. So it distributes the energy throughout your body, and your head will not move as fast."
If your head doesn't move as fast, then theoretically less force is transferred to your brain, reducing the severity of a concussion or preventing it entirely.
We have the research to prove it.
A 2014 study discovered that "for every one pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decreased by 5 percent." A stronger neck does in fact reduce your likelihood of sustaining a concussion, and assessing neck strength can actually identify athletes who are at a greater risk for a concussion.
No fancy padding. No crazy technology. Just good old-fashioned strength training could potentially be one of the most promising ways to reduce concussions.
Five percent might not sound like much, but it relates to only a small increase in strength. And even if it's only 5 percent, anything you can do to reduce the risk of a concussion is worth your time.
How to Strengthen Your Neck
OK, neck strength training helps prevent concussions, but how do you effectively train your neck? Since it hasn't been a part of most training programs, this is foreign territory for most athletes and even some strength coaches.
And, we don't necessarily know everything yet about the most effective ways to train it.
"We finally have some good data on neck strength, but we still have a lot of exploration to do," Nowinski says. "We still need to investigate the most effective way to strengthen the neck. But it should be a focal point of any training program."
With that said, we know for certain that we need to treat the neck carefully. The cervical spine is designed for mobility, not for stability like the lumbar spine in the low back. Nowinski advises against any load-bearing neck exercises, and he says you should never put pressure on your spine from the top down. That means bridging exercises are out of the question.
Also, neck strength training involves more than extending and flexing the neck. The neck needs to be trained through a full range of motion with exercises that work flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation.
"You have to remember that there are multiple sets of muscles in your neck and head," Nowinski says. "There's linear strength and also rotational strength. A big culprit in concussions is often rotational movement when your head twists."
The most common exercises involve a partner. You move through the various ranges with a partner's hand on your head providing slight resistance. It's hard to know exactly how much resistance your partner should apply.
A more elegant solution is the CerviFit Neck Strengthening System. The device—it looks like a Spartan warrior helmet—essentially makes your head heavier, which challenges the muscles in your neck when it moves through various ranges of motion. This allows you to strengthen your neck in a more controlled manner without the need of a partner.
Nowinski sees neck strength training as a revolution, and he expects more teams to make neck strengthening a requirement. Hopefully, athletes will take it upon themselves to strengthen their necks in their own time.
Originally Appeared in Stack Magazine; January 28, 2016