Neck Training For Wrestling

Dustin Myers, CSCS


“A nation of thick necked men is not easily conquered, a pencil neck tribe cannot withstand the pressure of the hammer or the blade of the sword”

-Ghengis Khan

Ok…you got me.  Ghengis Khan probably never said that, but the analogy still holds.  I don’t care how strong the rest of your body is, if you have a weak neck you are going to have a hard time holding up under pressure on the mat and in the practice room.  Now, having a strong neck to be able to maintain position in the hand fight is important, but the most vital reason to train your neck is to prevent injury.  The best way to prevent concussions is to strengthen your neck in all 3 planes, so that if/when your head encounters some impact your neck is strong enough to resist rotation or whiplash like movements that could send your brain crashing into your skull.

With that in mind, what if I told you that many of the traditional neck strengthening exercises used in the wrestling community are actually dangerous and can lead to more harm than good?  Take the old school Neck Bridge for example.  With your bodyweight (and possibly your opponent) resting on the top of your head as you arch up, its possible that you are putting your mid cervical spine in a dangerous position due to hyper extension.  This can cause the vertebrae to “bind up” and possibly pull a muscle, slip a disc, or worse.  Although a bridge is a position that any wrestler may find themselves in on the mat (hopefully you are not on your back often enough to need to bridge), using neck bridges as a training modality is not a good idea.  The idea is to get your neck strong enough to protect your spine during a bridge by using safer movements and holds with less shearing force on the vertebrae.

The easiest and SAFEST way to train your neck is by utilizing different types of isometric holds.  Your body will always want to keep your neck straight and spine neutral, so by training isometric holds  it will be come easier to maintain that position when someone is pulling on your head.  Now that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use extension, flexion and rotational exercises, but you do need to make sure a base of strength is built using isometrics first - especially when working with youth athletes.  You also want to avoid doing fast, jerky movements.  An old fashioned neck harness has some usefulness but can be dangerous if utilized in a “headbanger” style.  Another thing to avoid is a deep range of motion.  Your upper traps and the other muscles along the back of your neck can still be strengthened with out doing full extension.  By using “half reps” or just a slightly shorter range of motion you are lowering the risk of compromising your spine.

Here are some tips for staying injury free and building a strong neck:

1. Crucial strength builders:

Manual Resistance - this is the simplest, safest, and easiest way for a wrestler to develop their neck, and it can be done anywhere and at anytime.  Simply press your palm against your forehead and provide resistance as you press forward with your head.  The resistance should be equal on both ends as this is an isometric contraction (no movement).  Repeat on each side of the head, holding for anywhere for 5-30 seconds per position.

Swiss Ball static holds - Stand up with a swiss ball between the back of your head and the wall.  Without leaning, press your head back against the ball and hold the static position for 10 seconds.  Repeat on each side.

Partner Resistance - lay face down on a bench with your head hanging off the end.  Have a partner provide resistance as you move your head thru different ranges of motion - straight up or side to side.  Make sure to ease in to the movement and not push to hard against the athletes head.  Each rep should be a slow 3-5 seconds in both directions, not an abrupt movement.

Hyperextension holds

Neck Plank - start by sitting on a swiss ball or bench and walk out until only your head is touching as you lay back.  Bridge your hips up so your spine is flat and your knees are bent at 90 degrees.  Start with 10 second holds and work up to 30 seconds.  Once you can easily hold the position for 30 seconds, start adding weight by holding a plate or med ball on your hips.

2. Recovery strategy:

Massage - unlike the majority of your body, the neck is one of the areas you can effectively self massage to relieve soreness.  Start at the base of your skull and press down and away from the spine as you “smooth” out the upper trap.  Continue to work down towards the shoulder.  Another technique is to press into one side of the neck and hold your hand stationary as you slowly rotate your head down and away from your hand.  Using Max Effort CBD Relief topical pain cream will not only make the massage process easier, it will also help eliminate any inflammation.

3. Mobility and Activation:

Before any training session (especially grappling), make sure the muscles of your neck and upper traps are warmed up, online and ready to do work.  Start by doing slow head rotations in each direction then do a gentle ear to shoulder stretch on each side.  Complete activation by utilizing the Manual Resistance techniques outlined under the strength section.