Preventing Neck Injury

I get some strange looks when I do my neck exercises in front of BJJ and especially Muay Thai folks. It looks strange to see someone apparently running around on their head, but there a solid method and extremely sound reasoning behind this activity.

Leo Frincu is a former wrestling world champion, successful entrepreneur, and has been strength and conditioning coach to champions like Ronda Rousey, Diana Prazak and Romulo Barral. In the video above, he demonstrates the carousel, and some regressions of the front-to-back bridging sequence.

I started looking for effective neck exercises while trying to return to training after spraining my cervical spine during BJJ training in 2011. Previously, my neck had been strengthened through the process of Muay Thai clinching, which had given me very strong and active upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles, but had not prepared me at all for the myriad of positions in which one finds oneself while grappling – falling or being dropped on the mats head-first, posting and bridging on the head, being stacked, and resisting chokes and neck cranks (intentional or otherwise.)

Physiotherapy didn’t help. I was given the standard prescription of rest, treatment and the directive to “strengthen the rhomboids and mid- and lower-trapezius.” All of those things were useful and relevant, but only succeeded in bringing me to the point of being able to conduct activities of daily living without pain or dysfunction. No amount of advice from any physiotherapist enabled me to return to grappling training without recurrent re-injury.

Fortunately I had recently started wrestling, which gave me the opportunity to learn bridging exercises, along with progressions and regressions, similar to those that you can see performed by Leo Frincu in the video. These traditional wrestling exercises allowed me to strengthen the muscles around my neck and train the proprioception of these muscles.

Proprioception is what helps the muscles in your ankle to react to compensate for uneven surfaces when you’re walking – something which, when it works, is so natural to us that we seldom think of it. Transitioning from a standing art like Muay Thai to grappling arts like wrestling, BJJ and MMA meant that I needed to think about it. If I had had good proprioceptive ability in the muscles around my head, neck and shoulders, my body would have reacted when I had been rolled onto my head to stabilise my neck, rather than allowing me to sprain my neck. We don’t often think about training our bodies to fall or bridge or stand or post safely on our heads, because these aren’t common scenarios in daily life, but while grappling these are not just likely but inevitable.

I’m no longer the type to blindly follow tradition for tradition’s sake, but sometimes certain practices are customary for a reason – and unless you have a physiotherapist who has had some experience in your sport, they probably won’t know about them. While many of these traditional exercises may fall into the “high-risk” category in terms of standard physiotherapy or mainstream personal training practices, if you’re involved in a high-risk sport, you need exercises which appropriately mimic the movements and positions of your sport and condition your body to perform these movements safely.

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