Every strength coach or trainer feels they have the best and most well-balanced program when it comes to preparing their athletes for the demands of their sport. Whether that entails ACL Prevention, Arm Care, etc. And if you ask a strength coach, "What is the most important part of the body?", the answers will widely vary. Coaches will yell out lungs, knees, back, hips, heart, core, etc. But they almost always fail to mention the one that truly matters most—the brain/head!
Our brain's sole purpose is to keep us alive and to command all parts of our body. As professionals of human performance, how can we not make keeping the brain safe and healthy a top priority? This line of thinking was first brought to my attention by Rob Taylor Jr., owner of Smarter Team Training, and it's made an everlasting impression on how I look at training. Most people view neck training as something that only matters for football players, but in reality, the need for it extends well beyond that.
Don't Ignore the Data
Over the last decade, we have seen an exponential increase in concussions in youth and high school sports. According to research from Northwestern University, the number of diagnosed concussions among high school athletes more than doubled from 2005 to 2015. The exact cause of this increase is unknown, but it's largely believed increased awareness of what constitutes a concussion and improved diagnostic tests are part of the equation. Either way, one thing's for certain—concussions in amateur sports aren't going away anytime soon.
While it's long been believed football has far-and-away the highest rate of concussion among high school sports, the aforementioned Northwestern University study found girls soccer now has nearly an equal rate of concussions. Concussions actually account for a higher proportion of injuries in girls soccer than they do in boys football. In sports with similar rules, the risk of concussion is significantly higher for girls than it is boys. While hockey and lacrosse are also often associated with concussions along with football, the rate of concussion in sports like basketball and volleyball is higher than you might think. Cheerleading is another sport where people underestimate the concussion risk. And we can't forget that many children and teens suffer concussions doing active things outside of organized sports—bicycle accidents, for example, account for a huge number of concussions and head injuries.
A recent study from Rutgers University found that the neck's size, strength and posture plays a significant role in risk of concussion, and the researchers recommend neck-strengthening exercises to reduce concussion risk and severity. "We have identified neck strength, size and posture as potential factors that reduce risk by lessening the magnitude of force upon impact. Thus, increasing neck strength and possibly size could substantially reduce risk or severity of injury or outcomes," lead author Allison Brown told ScienceDaily.
Concussions are a significant injury that can cause an athlete to miss out on long stretches of training or competition. Why are we as coaches, with all these statistics showing that football is far from the only way to sustain a concussion, along with the fact concussion rates are rising in every major sport, not implementing preventative methods for training the neck and head in more athletes' programs?
To be successful at implementing this into our programs, we must understand the function of the neck and create a systematic approach to form a complete program.
Let's break down the location and function of several key neck and neck-adjacent muscles:
- Anterior (Flexion): Scalenes, Sternocleidomastoid, Longus Capitis, Longus Colli
- Posterior (Extension): Semispinalis Capitis, Splenius Capitis, Splenius Cervicis
- Protrusion (Terminal Extension): Suboccipital muscles, Multifidus
- Upper Back (Stabilizes/Absorbs Forces): Trapezius, Scapularis, infraspinatus, Teres Minor, Teres Major
The Basics of a Quality Neck Training Program
- Program 2-3 per week
- Incorporate all functions (Flexion, Extension, Protrusion, Stabilization)
- Progressively overload
- Utilize proper tempo as demonstrated in videos below
- Gradually increase time under tension
- Program exercises in the warm-up or in correctives/active rest portion between compound lifts
- Focus on hypertrophy of neck and upper-back muscles
Best Moves for a Stronger Neck
Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock
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