WSBB Blog: Protect Your Neck

WSBB Blog: Protect Your Neck

In the modern era of sports, there has been a lot of talk about head injuries and player safety. As science and sport merge, we begin to understand that the human body, although durable, has its limitations. The human skull and brain are particularly vulnerable to injury while participating in high-speed contact sports. To enhance player safety, equipment manufacturers have created new helmet and mouthguard technology to reduce head injury risk further. Most contact sports leagues now have rules to prevent specific targeting of another player’s skull.

Strength and conditioning coaches must work to prepare their athletes better to reduce further the risk of head injury presented to an athlete. While no strength training exercise in the world can 100% prevent a head injury or any traumatic athletic injury, there are a few ways coaches can train their athletes to reduce the likelihood of injury. One way to reduce the risk of head injuries, in particular, is by training and building the muscle groups responsible for supporting the cervical spine.

A simple way of looking at neck training is like you’re building a shock absorber for your skull. When contact to the head is made, the size and strength of the muscle groups supporting the neck will dictate how much whiplash is experienced. Understanding that athletes must train these muscles, the question then becomes how should they be trained? Using the Conjugate Method, you will passively train your upper back and neck muscles every time you press or deadlift for max and dynamic effort. However, we also utilize a few neck-specific accessory exercises to build the muscles groups responsible for cervical spine stability:

Barbell Rows

The barbell row is the king of all back training exercises. However, when it comes to building upper back mass and strength, there are no neck-specific exercises that compare. Not only will you build tremendous upper back size and strength with barbell rows, but you’ll build your mid and lower back as well. Ultimately, if you want to bulletproof your spine, athletes should perform barbell rows regularly.

At Westside, we perform barbell rows a few different ways. This includes conventional rows, Pendlay style rows, and deficit rows using a deficit to increase the overall ROM. The recommended set and rep scheme is three to five sets of five to fifteen reps, depending on the barbell weight used.


Barbell and dumbbell shrugs are effective exercises that significantly influence upper back size and strength development. This exercise seems easy to execute, however many do not perform shrugs optimally. To get the most out of your shrugs, actively engage the trapezius muscles by standing with as perfect posture as possible. Once you have the weight placed onto the correct muscle group, begin the exercise.

While shrugging the barbell, you will begin pulling the weight upward, finishing the upward pull by engaging the traps and retracting the shoulders to move the weight into the locked-out position. This form ensures that the upper back and posterior shoulders are targeted as much as possible. Recommended sets and reps are three to five sets of ten to twenty reps.

Neck Curls

If you have ever trained at an old-school gym, you are probably familiar with a neck harness or neck training-specific machines. These devices have become less and less common in general fitness gyms due to the risk of misuse and injury. However, when used correctly, these devices are the best neck-specific devices you can use. As with most exercises that are written off as dangerous, the danger lies in the athlete’s ability to execute the exercise, not the exercise itself. It all boils down to a coach’s ability to properly prepare their athletes for the movement.

The neck harness is the best way to train the neck and upper back. Athletes should focus on a slowed down, methodical rep pace to experience as much time under tension as possible. Considering it is not recommended you load heavy weights onto a neck harness, the idea is light to moderate weight with extended time under tension. The idea doesn’t change if a neck machine is used; the only change is the directions trained.

Whether using a neck harness or a 360-degree neck training machine, the approach, set, and rep schemes remain the same. Focus on slow and methodical reps, performing fifteen to twenty reps per set for four to six sets total.

Weak Things Break

It’s simple; any muscle group left untrained leaves the physical structure vulnerable. We know that muscles support and move the human skeleton; muscles also help absorb damage. As we mentioned above, as long as you are pressing and deadlifting, you are getting some upper back, and neck training accomplished. However, if you want to protect your cervical spine best, you must utilize specific exercises to grow and strengthen the upper back and neck muscles.

As a coach, it is your responsibility to prepare your athletes to perform at their highest level. It is also your responsibility to prepare your athletes to endure the physical stress and damage experienced while playing their sport. Leave no stone unturned, train all muscle groups in the body, and reinforce all spine segments and vulnerable joints with strong muscle. The athletic performance and health of your athletes depend on it.

Works Sourced:

Supertraining; by Dr. Mel Siff

Science and Practice of Strength Training; by Dr. Vladimir Zatsiorsky and Dr. William Kraemer

Westside Barbell Book of Methods; by Louie Simmons

Special Strengths Development for All Sports; by Louie Simmons

Tags: Spine, Injury Prevention, Recovery

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