The Ultimate Neck Training Exercises for Combat & Contact Athletes

Today’s blogpost is a guest post by a creative, humble and respectful guy in the field by the name of John Gaglione. John contacted me shortly after I posted a couple of neck training articles on my site several weeks back. In this post John outlines how he trains the neck in his facility.

The Ultimate Neck Training Exercises for Combat & Contact Athletes
By John Gaglione

First let me say I feel training the neck is a very underutilized aspect of training and is lacking in most programming. For anyone involved in combat and collision sports, such as wrestling and football, training the neck should be an integral part of their training programs. Training neck for strength and stability can help prevent injuries. A thick strong neck is vital for preventing concussions as well. We see concussions more and more frequently in sports and it is important to start thinking about training the neck on a more regular basis to help combat these injuries.

Bret went into a lot of science last time is his EPIC blog post titled Neck Training 101 so I am going to focus on giving you practical neck exercises and show you how to program them into your workouts. This is your Ultimate guide to a bigger, stronger and healthier neck.

If you follow the joint by joint approach to training, then you know that the cervical spine, much like the lumbar spine, will need more stability based training. A lot of people talk about training the back for stability, and the neck is essentially part of the back so shouldn’t we treat it the same way and give it the attention it deserves? So if you are into “core” training you should be training your neck just as much as your “six pack abs”.

The first thing to look at when training the neck(cervical spine) is to make sure the neck is in optimal alignment for basic exercises such as push ups, planks, squats, and deadlifts. We often see new trainees go into poor postures such as forward head posture, chin protrusion, and cervical hyperextension during these exercises.

This can cause neck and shoulder problems in the future. I tell my athletes we don’t want to have a “turtle head” when performing these exercises. If they are still having trouble I instruct them to try and make a “double chin” and this usually helps keep the cervical spine in neutral. Another great verbal cue is to try to “pressurize” the back of your neck.

If an athlete has a forward head posture to begin with or it is exaggerated during exercises we want to make a point to strengthen the deep neck flexors before going on to more advanced neck training. The chin tuck is the basis for our neck training program as it serves as a great exercise to strengthen the deep flexors of the neck.

When I train with my powerlifter friends we often joke and use the cue make a FAT NECK, but it actually helps quite a bit when you are trying to ingrain this position for squats, deadlifts, and other heavy compound lifts. Remember a fat neck is a more stable neck!

Shown below is the supine and quadruped chin tuck.

Supine Chin Tuck

Quadruped Chin Tuck

The chin tuck is a great way to train the deep flexors of the neck. It can be done from a variety of positions such as lying on the back (supine), on all fours (quadruped) and in the standing position. The chin tuck position can essentially be used during any exercise in order to strengthen the neck while you are training other lifts as well. This will help strengthen the neck, correct forward head posture as well as prevent injuries. Make sure your form is SOLID before progressing in difficulty.

After progressing through all of the variations of the chin tuck we want to start to challenge our athletes by adding some resistance to the exercise.

The first way to progress the exercise is instead of doing repetitions of the chin tuck they will hold a chin tuck static hold for a given amount of time. They can do chin tuck isometric hold from a variety of different positions such as plank, push up position, quadruped, supine, or standing.

The next way to progress the chin tuck is to add perturbations to the exercise. Just like when training for stability for the lumbar spine we want to train to resist movement. This is the most functional way to train the spine. In combat sports athletes are constantly trying to snap their opponent down or wrench the neck in order to score near fall point or get in a more advantageous position. The athlete must brace the cervical spine in order to resist the motion.

Once you can hold a chin position that resembles Peter Griffin than you are ready to progress to the next level of difficulty.

OK well at least give it an honest try and remember to make a FAT neck! Your stability will go through the roof! The biggest compensation is elevation (shrugging) of the scapula. Try to relax your upper traps and keep your shoulders packed (retract and depress shoulder blades down and back) when you tuck your chin.

If an athlete can develop a strong and stable neck they can stay in better position, prevent unwanted movement to the neck, and prevent injury.  The coach will add light perturbations (light taps to try to move the athlete out of optimal position) at first in a variety of different directions. The athlete should be able to resist flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation of the cervical spine.

Once the athlete can successfully resist the perturbations the coach can start to add manual resistance in the three main directions (flexion, extension, lateral flexion), or add weight if a partner isn’t available. Certain positions work better to train certain patterns. For example the quadruped works very well for training anti-flexion and anti-lateral flexion.

The weighted neck variations are great when an advanced athlete doesn’t have a coach or an adequate partner to provide manual resistance. The other benefit is that the progressions are endless since you can always apply more load or more time to the athlete. When doing weighted variations we like to use weight plates, chains, or bands in order to provide resistance. We still want to train to resist all directions flexion, extension, and lateral flexion.

Here are some examples below.

Quad. Weighted

Manual Quad.

The supine position is great for resisting extension and lateral flexion. Here is an example below.

Weighted Supine

You can also train these patterns in a variety of positions such as the push up position.

We can use old school “boxing” head weights as well. This is not as effective as weight plates in my opinion for certain positions, but it is stills a viable option for push up and plank variations. This is a great way to train for stability for the lumbar and cervical spine at the same time. The push up variation also trains scapular stability as well.  This is a great tool to take your planks to the next level and involve your entire core from your tail bone to your cranium!

We can also use bands to resist flexion, extension, and lateral flexion. Remember bands are a form or accommodating resistance so the further the band stretches the harder the exercise will be. The exercise can be made more difficult by stepping further away from the anchor point. You can also adjust the difficulty of the band exercises by using a smaller or larger band. The thicker the band the harder the exercise will be.

Here are some examples below.

Rooney Band Good Morning

Band Retractions

Band Look Aways (This is the best way to train rotation with a band just go light with this one)

4 Way Gray Cook Band Neck Static Series

If you do not have access to weights or bands you can use the weight of your partner or coach as resistance.  This is still much more advanced than manual resistance. This is a great option for coaches who don’t normally implement neck exercises in their training. You can start off with static holds in quadruped position and progress from there.

The partner can simply lean their body weight on the athlete from a forward and side position. The athlete can lean on their partner at a more shallow angle (more horizontal and close to the floor) to increase difficulty or perform push ups to make the environment more unstable. Make sure the partners are very close in body weight of course.

Partner Push Up Series
Linear and Lateral from PUPP and Quad

When dealing with heavier athletes I suggest using a very steep angle (more vertical and further away from the floor) since the athlete with have a much greater load to deal with due to the large body weight of their partner. You can perform these variations from quadruped, push up, or plank position to vary the difficulty.

The stability ball is also a viable option to progress the 4 way chin tuck series if you don’t have bands available, but I much prefer the banded versions. As with the partner push up series you can start off with a very steep angle (more vertical and further away from the floor) and work away from the wall over time. A larger ball is also a progression since you will automatically be further way from the wall because of the size of the ball.

Check out the variations below.

4 way Standing series

Quad Stability ball stab.

Nick Tumminello Ball Anti-Rotation

The weighted, band, and stability ball exercises are fairly advanced progressions when it comes to neck training. Make sure to only use these variations with your advanced athletes and lifters. We do not want to use an advanced exercise in our neck training too quickly. We want to build up the muscles over time and make sure the movement quality is spot on!

So now you have all of these exercises, but how do you integrate them into your own program?

A good rule of thumb is once the athlete is able to keep a neutral cervical spine for a total 30 seconds or more then it is time to either change the exercise or make it harder.

This is just a guideline as you can perform the 30 second hold in a variety of different ways. For example you can perform 3 repetitions of a 10 second hold or 2 repetitions of a 15 second hold. A good place to start when implementing the isometric holds is 3-5 reps with 5 second holds, which equals 15-25 seconds total. In general I like to use timed sets. I will go anywhere from 30-50 seconds of total time for an exercise.

I generally do 3-5 sets of 5 reps with a 5 second hold on many of these exercises. My personal favorite is to use the Cook bands since they are very comfortable on the head. Start off with the basic chin tuck exercises and stick with them for 2-3 weeks and every 3-4 weeks after that you can pick a new, more advanced neck progression to add into your routine.

A good progression would be

1-Body weight Chin Tucks
2-Perturbations
3-Manual Resistance or Quad. Stability Ball
4-Weighted or Bands
5-Standing Stability Ball or Partner Push Up Series

We spend a good amount of time at level 1 and 2 in the beginning and then for most of my guys we stay at level 3 or 4.

These can be part of a pairing of a heavy compound movement such as deadlifts or thrown in during your assistance movements or on a separate day. If you do an upper lower split many people like to do neck on their upper body days, but find what is best for you. We usually do neck and grip exercises at the end of our workouts in conjunction with some static stretching and soft tissue work at the end of a total body strength session. Neck training can be done 1-2 times a week and you can see great results in size, strength, and performance.

Example 1 Filler Exercise Paired with Main Compound Movement
A1) Deadlift 5×2
A2) Band Neck Good Morning 3×5 with 5 Second Hold
 
Example  2 During Assistance work Part of a Tri-Set
B1) Towel Chin Ups 4×8-12
B2) Kettlebell Goblet Bulgarian Split Squats 4×6-8
B3) 4 Way Gray Cook Band Neck Series 4×1 Rotations 10 Seconds each Position
 
Example 3 During the End of a Session in conjunction with static stretching or soft tissue work
E1) Quad. Chin Tucks 3×5 with 5 Second Hold
E2) Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization 3×3 with 10 second hold
E3) Hex Holds 3×20 Seconds
E4) Cressey 3 Way Band Hamstring Stretch 3×3 10 seconds each positions
So there you have it! The most kick ass comprehensive guide to functional neck training for athletes and lifters alike. So if you want a bullet proof neck to help prevent concussions and improve your performance start adding these neck exercises into your routine. Your friends won’t be calling you a pencil neck anymore! The only negative side effect of doing neck training is you will never want to wear a suit and tie again!

If you have any more questions please comment below or shoot me an e-mail gaglionestrength@gmail.com

I would also like to thank the “Glute Guy” for having me on today. It is an honor to write for one of the top blogs in the strength and conditioning field and I hope you enjoyed the post and you learned a lot.

About the Author
Coach John Gaglione is a Sport Performance Specialist out of Long Island New York. An avid strength sport athlete, John also competes in powerliftering and kettlebell strong sport competitions. Elite Fitness Systems, Testosterone Nation , One Result & local wrestling site Long Island Wrestling Association .If you would like to learn more about John you can reach him at http://www.gaglionestrength.com or e-mail him  gaglionestrength@gmail.com.

26 thoughts on “The Ultimate Neck Training Exercises for Combat & Contact Athletes

    1. John

      Juliette Johnson it is impossible to tell without knowing your medical history, how you move, etc.

      A couple of general rules to follow is to make sure you have good hip and T-spine mobility and good lumbar stability(core strength).

      Always make sure the tissue density and length of the muscles surrounding the hips and upper back are good. In other words foam rolling or using a lax ball on the hip flexors, quads, IT bands, glutes, hamstrings, lats, upper back, etc would be a great help.

      Glute activation and lower trap exercises would be good as well and so would core stability work such as planks, side planks and anti rotation presses.

      My friend Jim “Smitty” Smith of Diesel Strength and Conditioning also has a great resource called the lower back rehab protocol on his site you should check out as well.

      Reply
      1. Bret Post author

        John it’s spam. If you click on the link it takes you to a WBV site. But since she asked, I’ll provide an answer. Yes, I know plenty of exercises for people in low back pain, but you’re not interested in that. You want people to click on the link and go to your silly site. Well this is a science and practical based blog so you spammed the wrong guy. Whole Body Vibration is the most overhyped crap on the market. I’ve read dozens of studies and hundreds of abstracts and the research always shows worse results than controls, no results compared to controls, or barely any results compared to controls. Nothing is ever impressive. Not for strength, flexibility, warming-up, or anything for that matter. It’s a $10,000 waste of space. For the same price you could outfit an entire gym full of squat stands, Oly bars, chin bars, rings, sleds, plyo boxes, benches, db’s, kb’s, specialty bars, trx’s, bands, and plates. These will do far more for building a strong back then a silly WBV platform. So “they” are full of crap – don’t listen to “them.” I hope that answers your question.

        Reply
  1. John

    Bret Thanks again for having me on the site! If anyone has any questions or feedback pertaining to the article please feel free to leave a comment below! Thanks again and I hope you enjoy the exercises and the information.

    Educate, Motivate, Dominate
    -Coach Gaglione

    Reply
  2. Aranarth22

    I have another option for the heading, perhaps you d better call it: “everything you should know about neck training”!! Very deep and thorough approach of a very forgotten part of training,i guess that after reading it, it s mandatory for me to start training my neck!! Thanks!!

    Reply
  3. Tom

    Hey John great article. In your opinion what is the optimal frequency for neck training?? Being a small muscle group would it be like calves where some people recommend a high frequency approach like 3 or 4 times a week? or would 2 times a week be best?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. John

      Hey Tom Thanks for the comment. Typically with my athletes we do neck training 1-2 times a week since they are still getting some neck work during there skills practices. Personally I think twice a week would be enough. Thanks for reading!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  4. Todd Bumgardner

    Wow. Great article, Gags–and Bret, thanks for publishing this. Neck training is too often over-looked for combat athletes, and this is a great go to for anyone that is looking for a place to start with neck training. Thanks for including some of my exercises and videos!

    Todd

    Reply
    1. John

      Todd,

      Thanks for the feedback man. And thanks for putting out those kick ass videos! It helped me get this post done a lot quicker since I didn’t need to tape any extra videos! And I totally agree I think more athletes and lifters should be training their necks. Thanks for reading!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  5. Ciaran

    Great article John neck training is something that there has always been a bit of mistique aboout and is so hard to get good information on. I just recently started reading your stuff on tnation and im really impressed. as a guy who takes a scientific approach to S&C i love to read articles like this that take a scientific approach to training. Iv been reading articles by Bret for ages and have never been dissapointed and am a big fan but i will now look up your stuff. thanks again

    Reply
    1. John

      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree training the neck isn’t talked about too much so there isn’t too much information on it compared to other topics. Thanks for feedback on the T-nation articles as well! Bret always puts out great content and that is why I jumped on the opportunity to do a guest blog for him. Glad you got something out of the article and take care!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  6. Mark

    Very kewl information. I recently(about 3 months now) started neck training and found that plates were too hard to keep stable and often left me woundering if I used ”alittle” help from my arms which made it hard to determine rate of progress. I decided ”for me” I prefer bands without hands. The ends attached to the pins in my power-rack. I dont and wouldnt put anything in my mouth and dont see the need to really? But I do wrap the rubber bands with knee straps or a towel where it meets my head and its a great workout at all four angles.I rotate laying and standing versions. My neck is gaining strength very fast and the added benifit is I have less pain or strain from everyday stuff now that my necks stronger. I wish I would have started doing my neck 30 years ago but I plan to make the most of what I got left. I started of with 17 1/4 inches at 210 lbs and at the same weight Ive added managed to get to 17.5 in what I feel is a short amount of time and not a terrible amout of effort. I dont train to failure and dont think with the neck anyone should. A neck injury can be a real problem which is all the more reason to train safe an smart.

    Reply
    1. John

      Mark, Thanks for the feedback and I am glad that you are experiencing all of the benefits of neck training! Nice work!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  7. Matt B

    Thanks John and Bret for this post!

    I currently train with some tough bjj/submission grapplers in NYC and after a night of defending guillotines and triangle chokes my neck neck gets stiff for a couple days. I’ll definitely use a few of these to help strengthen my neck. The partner push up one will definitely be a great add to the practice warm-ups.

    Keep on posting guys! I really get a lot out of your posts.

    -Matt

    Reply
    1. John

      Matt,

      Thanks for the feedback. I train a ton of wrestlers and these exercises have helped them quite a bit. The BJJ and MMA fighters that I have worked with have also benefited greatly from this type of exercise.

      If you ever want to stop by to visit our facility(located in Syosset, Long Island NY) and learn more feel free to send me an e-mail to gaglionestrength@gmail.com. We also have a seminar coming up this January as well if you want to learn more about how we train our guys!

      Thanks again for reading!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  8. Roman

    Hey John i just read your article and learned a lot of essential stuff, Great job! but I was wondering that when i exercise my body or neck, should i be holding the chin tuck? for example if im doing neck extensions with a harness should i be holding the chin tuck?

    Reply
    1. John

      Roman Thanks for the question! I am glad you learned a lot from the article as well.

      For the first question in general for major compound movement you want to keep as neutral spine as possible(IE Squats, Deads, Overhead press). Brace neutral is best and then fixed extension would be second best, flexed would be the worst. For example if you spine is an over extended position in a squat I think that is more desirable than a squat with a rounded posture. I hope that makes sense!

      For the second question. Either way could work. I personally don’t do a lot of dynamic neck work with my guys since they get that on the mat( neck bridges etc). When using the neck harness you can do full flexion and extension of the neck or just go to the chin tuck position ( this would be an ISO dynamic variation where you should hold the chin tuck position for a given amount of time).

      If you goal is hypertrophy do the typical dynamic version , if you want stability do the latter.

      I hope that helps! In the end it depends on your goal and if you have any injury history or pathology.

      Thanks for reading!

      Educate, Motivate, Dominate
      -Coach Gaglione

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Neck Workouts - 5 Ways to Strengthen Your Nape - Fitness Whitby

  10. Muscle Care

    I have another option for the heading, perhaps you d better call it: “everything you should know about neck training”!! Very deep and thorough approach of a very forgotten part of training,i guess that after reading it, it s mandatory for me to start training my neck!! Thanks!!

    Reply
  11. Chris Theo

    Hi John,

    I don’t do combat sports but am particularly interested in the use of chin tucks and other exercises to help correct forward head posture (which have lead to chronic headaches and shoulder/neck muscle pain).

    I am seeking medical advice separately of course but have been through numerous physical therapy professionals over the years and all I’ve been shown are various stretches. No strengthening exercises whatsoever! I’ve been doing vanilla chin tucks for the last couple of days and have experienced some pain relief. I’d like to do more! I’ve included a scan of my head and cervical spine where you can see this forward head position.

    I’m so glad to have stumbled across your article.

    Reply

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