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Bill Starr, Ironman 11.01.2004
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.
powerlifters and strength athletes: Their necks are trunks of muscle. they don’t compare to the agony of having a pain in the neck. Four muscles under the first cervical nerve assist in lateral flexion and rotation of the head to the same side. More demanding lifts such as squats or high pulls are out of the question. you’ll have to use a greatly reduced weight. The lumbars are the most troublesome. There are smaller muscles in both the front and back. That’s why I include power cleans in every beginner’s program. The most important muscles of the neck are in the back of the head and secure the seven cervical vertebrae. When well developed. and there’s no doubt that the rest of their bodies are equally as powerful. They start behind the ears and tie into the clavicle. A pair of prominent muscles. They’re the prime movers for flexion. should exercise their necks. I realize that knee and shoulder mishaps can be bad. semispinalis capitis. standing up. but upper-spine injuries are in a league of their own. Since the traps are the largest and potentially the strongest of those muscles. they stand out like thick ropes. Skeptical? Try doing even tame exercises such as curls or dumbbell presses with a hurt neck. I still do. Such impacts can cause long-term damage to an unprotected upper spine. but the cervical region is frequently the source of the distress. but they also extend downward and help stabilize the thoracic region of the back. A recent study showed that 70 percent of the men over 55 have some kind of back malady. and I’m the only person who cares about or even sees my physique. relatively speaking. In older people back ailments are a major health concern. The neck was once referred to as the barometer of health and strength. Young athletes. splenius cervicis. You judged a man’s level of fitness by the condition of his neck. lateral flexion and rotation of the head to the opposite side. My main goal is to make sure that they never damage their cervical spines. You won’t be able to do them. which is where the expression came from. 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. While lower-back afflictions are certainly miserable. Indeed. I’m long past the days of trying to lift heavy weights overhead or off the floor. walking. the main purpose behind strengthening the muscles of the neck is to protect the upper spine. and when the traps and sternocleidomastoids are worked. you should give them the most attention. you need to pay attention to your neck. Any movement’sitting. levator scapulae and serratus posterior superior. bending or even just lying down’makes your eyes cross in anguish. they all get into the act. It’s a dynamic lift that hits all . An ounce of prevention is worth a great deal more than a pound of cure in that regard because the consequences are often severe. especially those participating in contact sports. in soccer. form a V and run down the front and sides of the neck.The neck plays a role in all strength movements. but I still exercise my neck. From sad experience I know that if I let it become weak. the sternocleidomastoids. Getting the traps stronger is the best way to build a firm base for specialized neck exercises. Developing bodies are being tackled and blocked in football and charged into at high speed. and I’m usually right. The principal ones are the trapezius. Just check out the strongest Olympic lifters. or if you can. Not only do they play a key role in holding the cervical vertebrae in place. splenius capitis. Whatever your age. I’m asking for trouble.
however. the neck. You may encounter that problem as well. If it . Few allow the full range of motion necessary for complete development. I was able to do three times as many and didn’t experience any lingering soreness. including the Nautilus. With that in mind. After my initial encounter with wrestler’s bridges. The good news is that the neck muscles respond rapidly to being exercised. being thrown from a bull or jammed into a mat. That’s even more true when you first embark on a neck program. I’ve found that it’s better to wait until you establish a solid foundation in your upper back before adding specific neck work. like the calves. The vertebrae weren’t created to move backward with strenuous pressure being exerted on them. Then they’re ready for some direct work on their neck muscles. but it’s best to proceed conservatively. The neck muscles respond faster when you have that base. Still. give it a try. 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. High pulls involve a considerable amount of form. If you’re an older athlete. I’ve used them. Strength programs for various sports start during the off-season. If you have a neck machine at your disposal. Short bouts six days a week are more productive than piling up the workload in a couple of workouts. dangerous position. Because the traps seldom get used in everyday activities. Most are poorly designed and fit only certain body types. The traps. start out with light weights. I discovered that when I began wrestling. The plus side is that the traps react to the stimulation very readily. While I’m on the subject of wrestler’s bridges. my neck was sore to the touch for two days. That’s why the top pull at the finish of the lift gives athletes the most trouble early on. are only part of the story’a fourth of it. to be exact. So try power snatches or high pulls. All of these dynamic pulling movements help strengthen the traps and lock the spine in place. unless you are a competitive wrestler or have been doing serious neck work for a long time. A week later. which means there isn’t any reason to rush the neck exercises. but have yet to find one that fits me correctly. If you do high pulls. You may have built a solid base in the back of your neck. ALL While you can do neck exercises before your traps get stronger. the damage can be just as grievous as when it gets jerked backward. you may not be able to do power cleans because you lack shoulder flexibility or have some other physical handicap. but you need to deal cautiously with the sides in particular. bridges to the rear especially place the cervical vertebrae in an unnatural. you must also pay attention to the muscles in the front and on the sides. they’re the weakest part of nearly all beginners’ backs. To make sure your neck is strong enough to withstand the impact of a tackle. though. don’t do them. The rear portion can usually handle the stress. but the pulling movements have done little for the sides or the front. Fortunately. and in a short time they become the strongest of all back muscles. use it. can be worked frequently. if your weight room has one. It’s only logical that any program for the neck should include exercises for all four of its parts. If your head gets snapped to the side or to the front. Sportsmedicine doctors and athletic trainers have been preaching against them for years. Wrestlers do neck exercises at every session and sometimes train twice or even three times a day. I think that’s because they haven’t been worked directly before. It is very easy to ding neck muscles if you try doing too much too fast.of the groups of the back in a proportionate manner and is particularly useful in strengthening the traps.
Start with your head back and resist as you pull it forward. and it’s recommended for older and very young athletes or anyone else starting out with a weak neck. The following day. On the other hand. Each rep should take about five seconds. and when you feel you’ve done enough. stay with it. I believe it’s smart for everyone who’s just getting started on neck training to use dynamic-tension movements. All you do is apply pressure to a muscle when you contract it. though I’d skip working the rear if you pounded your traps hard earlier in your workout. trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. You can do the exercises every day. A child can do what’s necessary. Not everyone stayed with it too long because his underlying purpose was to sell customers a set of weights and a more advanced routine. A more advanced version of dynamic tension will require some assistance. resisting that contraction. Some exercises made me quite sore. Charles Atlas. yet not so much that you can’t get your chin to your chest. Since you don’t need any equipment to do dynamic tension. but with an added twist. Dynamic tension is simple and quite convenient when you train alone. do the rear. I sent away for his course and did his program. return your head to the starting position. Like just about every male teenager in America. With your head erect. which keeps his hands from slipping or digging into your skin. Apply enough pressure so that you have to work hard to succeed. such as my quads. you can stop. do something else. place your palms on your forehead and apply pressure to it while pulling your chin downward. Begin with the muscles that pull your chin down to your chest. When you reach 20. The exercises improved my neck strength and helped my soccer game. even if you train at home. Those of you near my age will remember the inventor of this form of resistance training. You may have to do less or may be able to add more reps. Your assistant places a towel on your head to apply the pressure. Relax. You can do all four parts of your neck while sitting. although I like to do them independently. Lastly. determine if that amount of work was sufficient and proceed from there. add a set and go back to 12 reps. and in the beginning do only one set for each part for no more than a dozen reps. 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. and do another rep. you can work your neck anywhere’at your office. were already stronger. The risk of injury is minimal. Follow the same procedure as when doing the dynamic tension. One option is dynamic tension. and others didn’t affect me at all. By far that will be the strongest of the four positions. At the conclusion of each set the assistant locks your head in an isometric contraction for six to eight seconds. Some prefer to place their palms on each side of their head and rotate back and forth. That usually isn’t a problem. I stuck with the dynamic tension and got results. Follow the same procedure for each side of your neck. which is to apply the pressure to your head while you work the four parts. That works. I figured that was because those muscles. Lacking funds to buy the weights. if it causes pain and doesn’t allow a full range of motion. You can regulate how much pressure you apply. while watching TV or while in your car stuck in traffic. Some of my athletes were so strong in their .feels right and you get sore from the workout.
traps that I was unable to force their necks down when they locked them tight. That’s where you want to get. Ankle weights are even better because they can be locked in place. who rigged a bar on top of a football helmet. a strong neck is an asset. Bill Barnholtz. Regardless of whether your goal is to stay on a bull for eight seconds. Trouble is finding one. IM . stacked weights on it. Don’t forget the apparatus that Grimek and many others used to build their impressive necks’the neck harness. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. and exercised his neck in relative comfort. flatten your opponent in lacrosse or hockey or simply feel more secure riding your trail bike. I once trained with an inventive soul. It’s still effective. Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. You can also wrap weights in a towel and use them for resistance. In certain circumstances it could even save your life.
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