The One Exercise Football Players Can't Afford to Skip This Summer

Plenty of injury-prevention research points to the potential benefits of having a stronger neck.

With the start of football season fast approaching, you've likely already been hitting the weight room. Your Squat's gone up, your Bench Press has gotten heavier, and thoughts of Friday night lights push you to go for that extra rep. Although some of you may think your offseason workout goals should be limited to putting more weight on the bar, there is one exercise that you have to add to your routine this year—neck strengthening.

Why neck strengthening? Well for starters, there's plenty of research out there that discuss the potential benefits from an injury prevention standpoint.

A 2019 study out of the Rutgers School of Health Professions found that improving neck strength may reduce the magnitude of force upon impact, thus decreasing the risk of head and neck injuries. Collins et al's research found that for every 1-pound increase in neck strength, there was a 5 percent decrease in the risk of concussion, while Eckner et al. found that individuals with stronger necks and better activation had greater control over unanticipated impacts. The more you look into the research, the more clear it becomes that neglecting the neck is a dangerous decision for football players:

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With the start of football season fast approaching, you've likely already been hitting the weight room. Your Squat's gone up, your Bench Press has gotten heavier, and thoughts of Friday night lights push you to go for that extra rep. Although some of you may think your offseason workout goals should be limited to putting more weight on the bar, there is one exercise that you have to add to your routine this year—neck strengthening.

Why neck strengthening? Well for starters, there's plenty of research out there that discuss the potential benefits from an injury prevention standpoint.

A 2019 study out of the Rutgers School of Health Professions found that improving neck strength may reduce the magnitude of force upon impact, thus decreasing the risk of head and neck injuries. Collins et al's research found that for every 1-pound increase in neck strength, there was a 5 percent decrease in the risk of concussion, while Eckner et al. found that individuals with stronger necks and better activation had greater control over unanticipated impacts. The more you look into the research, the more clear it becomes that neglecting the neck is a dangerous decision for football players:

  • Schmidt et al. found that football players who controlled their head better and had more neck stiffness were less likely to have significant head impacts.
  • Naish et al. found a significant reduction in the number of neck injuries after performing a specific neck-strengthening program.
  • Dezman et al. stated that having more symmetrical neck strength may decrease head acceleration during impact.
  • Jin et al. found that increased neck strength can reduce the time to compress the neck, which may play a role in decreasing the risk of brain injury.

When thinking about the anatomy of the neck, it is important to consider what truly is providing the mechanical stability. It has been stated that roughly 80 percent of the rigidity of the cervical spine comes through the musculature system, highlighting the necessity for players to engage in neck-strengthening programs regularly.

Not all neck muscles function the same way, however. The global, superficial muscles (trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, scalenes) are predominately Type II muscle fibers, and function as larger force generators. The deeper layer of muscles (longus capitis and colli, rectus capitis anterior and lateralis, hyoid muscles, semispinalis cervicis, multifidus, rectus capitis posterior major and minor) function more like active ligaments, controlling small movements and providing proprioceptive input as to where the head is in space. All of these muscles allow for the neck to go through a variety of motions, which is why having an extensive, multi-directional training program is necessary.

When thinking about the nature of the game of football, the neck needs to be able to decelerate the head following impact. Not only with just helmet-to-helmet blows, but with controlling the head prior to contacting the turf (which is made more difficult with a 4- to 6-pound helmet).

As part of the NFL's Play Smart. Play Safe. Campaign, 459 concussions were analyzed from the 2015 and 2016 seasons. What did they find?

One staggering fact was that nearly 40% of all quarterback concussions were from helmet-to-ground contacts, not direct helmet-to-helmet blows. This is where traditional isometric holds (e.g., pushing on a partner's helmet) may not be enough. Eccentric training in which the athlete must demonstrate their ability to control the head and neck against resistance may provide more functional carryover toward the sport. You wouldn't only do a Wall Sit to improve your Squat. Time to start treating your neck the same way.

So how can this be done? Instead of shelling out huge sums of money on a neck-centric strength machine, I invented a simple device known as the Neck Strengthening Strap to help address this issue. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, I believe this device can have a major positive impact for athletes who are at a high risk of head trauma.

The motions shown below should be performed using the neck strengthening strap for 8-10 repetitions, utilizing a 3:1 tempo (3 second eccentric, 1 second concentric). Once again, the key is to focus on eccentric control!

Attach the Neck Strengthening Strap to the front of a facemask, and while holding the strap out to the side, rotate your head away. Repeat on the other side.

Attach the Neck Strengthening Strap to the front of a facemask, and while holding the strap straight down, extend your neck up.

Attach the Neck Strengthening Strap to the front of a facemask, and while holding the strap straight overhead, flex your neck down.

Attach the Neck Strengthening Strap to the earhole of a helmet, and while holding the strap down to the side, tilt your head away.

Run through this routine in just a few minutes every day, and you'll be well on your way to a stronger neck this season!

 Photo Credit: FlamingoImages/iStock

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Topics: FOOTBALL | CONCUSSION | INJURY PREVENTION | YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS | NECK MUSCLES