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Only the Strong: No Pencilnecks

A Strong Neck Isn?t a Luxury; It?s Your Barometer of Health and Strength

I first became aware of the value of having a strong neck when I tried out for my high-school soccer team. All was going well until I headed a ball. My head jerked backward, and a jolt of pain raced down my back all the way to my toes. For the rest of the day I had a splitting headache. After that painful experience I pulled out my Charles Atlas course and started doing some exercises to strengthen my neck. Soon, heading the ball was no problem.

It was when I joined the wrestling team at the Wichita Falls YMCA while I was in the service that I came to fully appreciate the importance of a strong neck, not only for success in a sport but also for the prevention of injuries. The coach had us do countless bridges. Since I’d already started competing in Olympic lifting, I had a head start’thanks to all the pulling’over those who’d never trained with weights. The wrestler’s bridges paid huge dividends later on when I did some boxing and played football at SMU. Having a weak neck in those two sports is downright dangerous.

Anyone who takes part in any contact sport should have a strong neck. Injuries to the neck are never minor. In some cases they affect the athlete’s future. That’s common knowledge. On the other hand, those who participate in sports like tennis, running or swimming rarely do any specific exercises for their necks. They don’t see any connection between a fit neck and performance, yet the neck is responsible for stabilizing the head while you’re in motion, and that can spell the difference between winning and losing.

Even physical activities not related to any sport can be risky if you have a weak neck. Activities such as chopping wood, spading the garden or building a fence can pose a threat to anyone who has a puny neck. I’m not talking about having a neck like a pro lineman, just one fit enough to be able to handle some unexpected stress. Mishaps can occur quickly for a multitude of reasons, and when the neck is injured, even slightly, the rehab process can be agonizingly long.

Modern bodybuilders typically neglect their necks. Many say a large neck detracts from the upper-body muscles, so they avoid any direct neck work. Besides, they add, since they aren’t in a contact sport, why do they need a strong neck? My answer is that a muscular neck sets off the upper body and enhances overall presentation. It’s not a minus but rather a plus.

For me, the epitome of excellence in bodybuilding was John C. Grimek. His physique was aesthetically pleasing’much like viewing a piece of sculpture created by Rodin or Michelangelo. There’s a reason for that. John did a great deal of modeling for artists and understood the principle of symmetry in the human form. He adapted that concept for his bodybuilding, and that’s why his physique is perfectly balanced from top to bottom. Like nearly every other bodybuilder of that time, John adhered to the guideline that the neck, upper arms and calves should be the same size. Rarely these days do you see a physique that’s symmetrical. The emphasis is on size and size alone. Balance is no longer a factor. What matter are humongous arms, chests, legs and sometimes waistlines’beneath a ridiculously small neck. The name for someone who meets that description’pencilneck’isn’t the least bit flattering. It usually refers to someone who’s weak, and there’s some truth in that assumption. A person who has a small neck isn’t as strong as somebody who has a muscular one.

The neck plays a role in all strength movements. Skeptical? Try doing even tame exercises such as curls or dumbbell presses with a hurt neck. You won’t be able to do them, or if you can, you’ll have to use a greatly reduced weight. More demanding lifts such as squats or high pulls are out of the question.

The neck was once referred to as the barometer of health and strength. You judged a man’s level of fitness by the condition of his neck. I still do, and I’m usually right. Just check out the strongest Olympic lifters, powerlifters and strength athletes: Their necks are trunks of muscle, and there’s no doubt that the rest of their bodies are equally as powerful.

Whatever your age, you need to pay attention to your neck. I’m long past the days of trying to lift heavy weights overhead or off the floor, and I’m the only person who cares about or even sees my physique, but I still exercise my neck. From sad experience I know that if I let it become weak, I’m asking for trouble. In older people back ailments are a major health concern. A recent study showed that 70 percent of the men over 55 have some kind of back malady. The lumbars are the most troublesome, but the cervical region is frequently the source of the distress. While lower-back afflictions are certainly miserable, they don’t compare to the agony of having a pain in the neck, which is where the expression came from. Any movement’sitting, standing up, walking, bending or even just lying down’makes your eyes cross in anguish.

Young athletes, especially those participating in contact sports, should exercise their necks. Developing bodies are being tackled and blocked in football and charged into at high speed, relatively speaking, in soccer. Such impacts can cause long-term damage to an unprotected upper spine. Indeed, the main purpose behind strengthening the muscles of the neck is to protect the upper spine. An ounce of prevention is worth a great deal more than a pound of cure in that regard because the consequences are often severe.

The most important muscles of the neck are in the back of the head and secure the seven cervical vertebrae. The principal ones are the trapezius, splenius capitis, splenius cervicis, semispinalis capitis, levator scapulae and serratus posterior superior. Four muscles under the first cervical nerve assist in lateral flexion and rotation of the head to the same side.

A pair of prominent muscles, the sternocleidomastoids, form a V and run down the front and sides of the neck. They’re the prime movers for flexion, lateral flexion and rotation of the head to the opposite side. They start behind the ears and tie into the clavicle. When well developed, they stand out like thick ropes. There are smaller muscles in both the front and back, and when the traps and sternocleidomastoids are worked, they all get into the act. Since the traps are the largest and potentially the strongest of those muscles, you should give them the most attention. Not only do they play a key role in holding the cervical vertebrae in place, but they also extend downward and help stabilize the thoracic region of the back.

As a strength coach I’ve always felt the responsibility of making certain my athletes developed the muscles that secured their necks so they could handle any collision on the playing field. My main goal is to make sure that they never damage their cervical spines. I realize that knee and shoulder mishaps can be bad, but upper-spine injuries are in a league of their own.

Getting the traps stronger is the best way to build a firm base for specialized neck exercises. That’s why I include power cleans in every beginner’s program. It’s a dynamic lift that hits all of the groups of the back in a proportionate manner and is particularly useful in strengthening the traps. Because the traps seldom get used in everyday activities, they’re the weakest part of nearly all beginners’ backs. That’s why the top pull at the finish of the lift gives athletes the most trouble early on. The plus side is that the traps react to the stimulation very readily, and in a short time they become the strongest of all back muscles. ALL While you can do neck exercises before your traps get stronger, I’ve found that it’s better to wait until you establish a solid foundation in your upper back before adding specific neck work. The neck muscles respond faster when you have that base. Strength programs for various sports start during the off-season, which means there isn’t any reason to rush the neck exercises. With that in mind, I have athletes perfect their form on the power clean and run the numbers up and then increase the workload on the traps by bringing in high pulls and shrugs. Then they’re ready for some direct work on their neck muscles.

If you’re an older athlete, you may not be able to do power cleans because you lack shoulder flexibility or have some other physical handicap. So try power snatches or high pulls. If you do high pulls, start out with light weights. High pulls involve a considerable amount of form. All of these dynamic pulling movements help strengthen the traps and lock the spine in place. The traps, however, are only part of the story’a fourth of it, to be exact. To make sure your neck is strong enough to withstand the impact of a tackle, being thrown from a bull or jammed into a mat, you must also pay attention to the muscles in the front and on the sides. If your head gets snapped to the side or to the front, the damage can be just as grievous as when it gets jerked backward.

It’s only logical that any program for the neck should include exercises for all four of its parts, but it’s best to proceed conservatively. You may have built a solid base in the back of your neck, but the pulling movements have done little for the sides or the front. It is very easy to ding neck muscles if you try doing too much too fast. The rear portion can usually handle the stress, but you need to deal cautiously with the sides in particular.

The good news is that the neck muscles respond rapidly to being exercised. I think that’s because they haven’t been worked directly before. I discovered that when I began wrestling. After my initial encounter with wrestler’s bridges, my neck was sore to the touch for two days. A week later, though, I was able to do three times as many and didn’t experience any lingering soreness.

While I’m on the subject of wrestler’s bridges, unless you are a competitive wrestler or have been doing serious neck work for a long time, don’t do them. Sportsmedicine doctors and athletic trainers have been preaching against them for years; bridges to the rear especially place the cervical vertebrae in an unnatural, dangerous position. The vertebrae weren’t created to move backward with strenuous pressure being exerted on them.

Fortunately, the neck, like the calves, can be worked frequently. Wrestlers do neck exercises at every session and sometimes train twice or even three times a day. Short bouts six days a week are more productive than piling up the workload in a couple of workouts. That’s even more true when you first embark on a neck program.

If you have a neck machine at your disposal, give it a try. I’ve used them, including the Nautilus, but have yet to find one that fits me correctly. You may encounter that problem as well. Most are poorly designed and fit only certain body types. Few allow the full range of motion necessary for complete development. Still, if your weight room has one, use it. If it feels right and you get sore from the workout, stay with it. On the other hand, if it causes pain and doesn’t allow a full range of motion, do something else.

One option is dynamic tension. I believe it’s smart for everyone who’s just getting started on neck training to use dynamic-tension movements. Those of you near my age will remember the inventor of this form of resistance training, Charles Atlas. Like just about every male teenager in America, I sent away for his course and did his program. Not everyone stayed with it too long because his underlying purpose was to sell customers a set of weights and a more advanced routine. Lacking funds to buy the weights, I stuck with the dynamic tension and got results. Some exercises made me quite sore, and others didn’t affect me at all. I figured that was because those muscles, such as my quads, were already stronger. The exercises improved my neck strength and helped my soccer game.

Dynamic tension is simple and quite convenient when you train alone, and it’s recommended for older and very young athletes or anyone else starting out with a weak neck. All you do is apply pressure to a muscle when you contract it, resisting that contraction. You can regulate how much pressure you apply, and when you feel you’ve done enough, you can stop. The risk of injury is minimal.

You can do all four parts of your neck while sitting. Begin with the muscles that pull your chin down to your chest. With your head erect, place your palms on your forehead and apply pressure to it while pulling your chin downward. Apply enough pressure so that you have to work hard to succeed, yet not so much that you can’t get your chin to your chest. Relax, return your head to the starting position, and do another rep. Each rep should take about five seconds, and in the beginning do only one set for each part for no more than a dozen reps.

Follow the same procedure for each side of your neck, trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. Some prefer to place their palms on each side of their head and rotate back and forth. That works, although I like to do them independently. Lastly, do the rear. Start with your head back and resist as you pull it forward. By far that will be the strongest of the four positions.

The following day, determine if that amount of work was sufficient and proceed from there. You may have to do less or may be able to add more reps. When you reach 20, add a set and go back to 12 reps. Since you don’t need any equipment to do dynamic tension, you can work your neck anywhere’at your office, while watching TV or while in your car stuck in traffic. You can do the exercises every day, though I’d skip working the rear if you pounded your traps hard earlier in your workout.

A more advanced version of dynamic tension will require some assistance. That usually isn’t a problem, even if you train at home. A child can do what’s necessary, which is to apply the pressure to your head while you work the four parts. Instead of sitting you lie on a bench with your head extended over the end far enough to give your head and neck freedom of movement.

Your assistant places a towel on your head to apply the pressure, which keeps his hands from slipping or digging into your skin. Follow the same procedure as when doing the dynamic tension, but with an added twist. At the conclusion of each set the assistant locks your head in an isometric contraction for six to eight seconds. Some of my athletes were so strong in their traps that I was unable to force their necks down when they locked them tight. That’s where you want to get.

You can also wrap weights in a towel and use them for resistance. Ankle weights are even better because they can be locked in place. Don’t forget the apparatus that Grimek and many others used to build their impressive necks’the neck harness. It’s still effective. Trouble is finding one. I once trained with an inventive soul, Bill Barnholtz, who rigged a bar on top of a football helmet, stacked weights on it, and exercised his neck in relative comfort.

Regardless of whether your goal is to stay on a bull for eight seconds, flatten your opponent in lacrosse or hockey or simply feel more secure riding your trail bike, a strong neck is an asset. In certain circumstances it could even save your life.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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