This article was written by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
“Take care of your neck, you’ve only got one.” was one of the first things a grappling instructor ever said to me. Last year I hurt my neck and it kept me out of training for almost two months. The incident made me realise that even though I was in pretty good shape, I had been neglecting neck-conditioning in my training regime. It was a powerful reminder that in jiu-jitsu your physical ‘chain’ is only as strong as its weakest link. It always astounds me how few jiu-jitsu guys train their necks.
The late catch-wrestler, Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns had developed his neck to such a degree that he would perform demonstrations in which he would hang himself with a noose for several minutes without harm. (But that’s extreme, please do not try this at home!)
There are also reports that Rickson Gracie’s neck was so strong that he used to start his seminars by placing his hands in his belt and having one of the attendees take his back and try (unsuccessfully) to choke him.
Why Should I Care About the Strength of My Neck?
There are four jiu-jitsu-specific reasons why you’d want to improve the condition of your neck:
- Better Submission Defence
- Improved Balance & Posture
- Increased Mobility
- Less Likelihood of Injury
Better Submission Defence
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a Peruvian necktie, D’arce or guillotine and saved myself by keeping my head aligned through nothing but neck strength. Your neck represents three major attack opportunities for your opponent – strangulation techniques, cranks and chokes.
Strangles work by cutting off the blood supply to the head by pressing on the blood vessels, primarily the carotid artery. Increasing the size and strength of the muscles that lie above those vessels and tensing them when you are being strangled can buy you several seconds in which to initiate your escape.
Neck cranks are joint-locks applied against the upper part of the spine. They are usually done by manipulating the head or upper body into unnatural positions. Cranks are the attacks most likely to thwarted by improved neck strength. With strong musculature of the neck, we are more able to keep the head aligned correctly during our opponent’s attempts to manipulate it.
Chokes can be further sub-divided into two specific types – those that attack the trachea (wind-pipe) and those press against the voice-box (larynx). Strengthening the neck does little to improve defence against choking techniques as there is no muscle tissue in front of the trachea that can be built up – that part of the anatomy will always be vulnerable in submission-based grappling arts.
Strengthening the muscles of the neck can buy you time when you're being strangled
Less Likelihood of Injury
We all know the enormous amount of strain that jiu-jitsu puts on the body, and the neck is often the focus of that strain. It’s obvious that a strong, healthy neck is much less likely to be injured when exposed to the forces and loads sustained during training than a weak or damaged one.
We’ve all heard the wrestler’s adage ‘Where the head goes the body follows’. The range of motion of your neck determines the mobility of your head and where it can ‘go’. If your neck is stiff and weak, you will not have access to many important grappling movements (e.g. the Granby roll) and your agility will be compromised. (Note that mobility without strength is a recipe for an injury.)
Improved Balance & Posture
If your opponent can pull or push your head off-centre he can break your posture and begin to impose his will. Having a strong neck is the foundation for avoiding this. High-level grapplers are able to use their heads as a fifth ‘limb’ to manipulate different parts of their opponent’s bodies (cross-face during guard-passes, trap wrists for arm-locks, etc.) and to maintain their balance while being attacked with certain sweeps and reversals.
How to Condition Your Neck
There are several methods of neck-conditioning that I’ve had success with. (Note: again, please consult your doctor before using any of the methods below. If you have a current or previous neck injury, please don’t risk it at all. I also strongly recommend proceeding under the supervision of a certified instructor and using caution when attempting any neck exercise.) Yoga Headstand (Shiasasana) I love the headstand because it helps with both neck-strength and balance. Here’s a good instructional on it:
Wrestler’s Bridges Wrestler’s are often called the most conditioned athletes in the world and it’s no surprise that they practise both the front bridge and back bridge regularly. Here are videos detailing how to do them correctly:
Swiss Ball The swiss ball offers a gentle alternative to neck stretching exercises – here’s a good one to start with:
Resistance Band Training Perhaps my favourite of all, using strong resistance bands to challenge your balance and neck posture will greatly enhance your grappling ability. Here’s a great instructional video that explains how to use them:
Stretching Often over-looked, stretching is a crucial part of neck-conditioning and influence the mobility we spoke about earlier. This is a good routine to use at the end of your BJJ classes:
Keeping your neck strong and healthy is one of the key factors required for you to perform at your peak in BJJ. Incorporating an intelligently-designed and diligent neck-specific conditioning component into your training program will be well worth the effort.
For more information on keeping your neck strong and healthy, check out the Grappler's Longevity Program Volume 1.