Strong Neck, Safer Head

January 29, 2015
By Mike Phelps

According to some experts, a simple way to help prevent concussions involves focusing on what some believe to be a lost art in strength training: the neck.


Neck strengthening will be one of many topics discussed at "The Legends" football strength clinic in Cincinnati in June, directed by former NFL strength coach Kim Wood. It is currently believed that a stronger neck and trapezius muscle will help cut down on the head and neck trauma that often leads to concussions.

"The neck is under the microscope more because of the tie-in with concussions," Cincinnati Bengals strength coach Chip Morton told the Bengals official Web site. "With the way the brain sits in the skull cavity and it bounces on the inside of the skull, one of the ways to hopefully reduce that is to strengthen the thickness or strength of the column that supports the head so the absorption of the force is that much better."

Ray Oliver, Director of Strength & Conditioning for the University of Kentucky, believes neck training has fallen by the wayside in favor of "glamour" exercises such as bench presses, power cleans, and squat thrusts.

"Remember looking at athletes 30, 40 years ago?" Oliver told the Bengals Web site. "You could tell they were athletes because they had the big necks. Now the legs are bigger, arms are bigger, chests, but not necks. I remember one of the first things Kim Wood teaching me was that the neck is the number-one priority.

"Now we spend all this time developing faster guys with bigger bodies and train them for these huge collisions," he continued. "Then we stand there and gulp and can't breathe when one of them can't get up for five minutes."

Morton, however, believes neck strength could soon become a priority.

"Think about it," he says. "If you're missing games or practices because of a concussion, what's best for a team? A guy that can bench press 400 pounds, or he's out because of a concussion? What impacts the thinking more? It's fascinating."

Neck training is also in the news at the college level. Ralph Cornwell, a PhD candidate in health promotion/human performance at Virginia Tech, is conducting a study aimed at preventing concussions and also creating a neck strengthening protocol that he hopes strength and conditioning coaches will have to adhere to in the future.

To research his study--dubbed "Project Neck"--Cornwell has measuring and exercising the necks of students at Elon University. He hopes to learn about the effects of consistent neck conditioning on concussion prevention, with the idea that the muscles in a stronger neck will better disperse energy from a hard blow to the head.

"The stronger your neck is, the more likely it is to dissipate the energy from a blow," Matt Kavalek, Cornwell's lead research assistant and a sophomore at Elon, told The Times-News.

Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.
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