I’m often asked… How do fighters train their necks? What’re some neck exercises for fighters?
I’m sure you’ve all experienced firsthand that the neck gets plenty of punishment in Muay Thai training let alone fighting.
Our necks are subjected to sudden blows from any direction and are yanked, pulled and twisted in the clinch. In short, your neck is a prime target for injury. It’s therefore a very good idea to strengthen it so it won’t let you down.
Neck injury is no joke, and an inappropriate training load can seriously mess up your neck. So don’t go crazy, start small and be progressive or you’ll regret it.
A strong neck also seriously reduces your chances of being knocked out in a fight, or sustaining a concussion (mild traumatic brain injury).
If you have a strong neck, and you see the strike coming and brace for impact, you can seriously reduce the amount of displacement on impact and the effect on your brain.
So let’s look at how you can strengthen your neck safely…
Neck Loading Directions
Neck movements are the same as the rest of the spine, it can flex and extend (look up and down), laterally flex (tilt to either side) and rotate (look left and right). Training all of these movements is a good idea if you want a robust neck.
Neck extension, flexion, lateral flexion and rotation
A good range of motion is essential and warming up with a set of all of the movements I’ve just mentioned using a full range of motion is a great 2-in-1 warm up and mobility time saver. If you want some sophisticated neck mobility drills, check out what the CST (Circular Strength Training) coaches do. It’s spot on.
When comes to strengthening, it’s useful to consider the muscle actions:
remaining the same length (isometric or static)
Muscles shorten as you lift and lengthen as you lower a weight — this is a dynamic or isotonic muscle action. If you hold a static position (no change in muscle length) against a resistance, this is a static or isometric muscle action. Because of the nature of the loads the neck is subjected to in Muay Thai – cranking in the clinch and absorbing strikes – all three actions should be developed. Although, the majority of the time you’ll hold your head isometrically in a fighting stance with the chin tucked in.
Static Neck Exercise (Stage 1)
Isometric or static loading is the safest, and the recommended starting point for your neck training. I favour manual resistance exercises for the neck, simply pushing against your head with your hands while maintaining static position. You should work all four main directions (front, back and both sides) and both rotational directions. Begin with easy pressure and work up to pressing harder for 2 to 3 sets of between 5 to 30-seconds, initially training the neck like this twice a week for for a period of 3-4 weeks.
Isometric contractions build strength in the specific position that you load the joint . So If you want a strong neck in your fighting stance with chin tucked, do these exercises in the same position. I also like to push against my jaw rather than my forehead when resisting flexion or rotation, it’s more specific for a fighter – and you’ll have to clench your jaw (wear a gumshield too if you like).
Isometric muscle actions can stabilise the body against slow, controlled loads like the exercises above or explosively against a suddenly applied force. This involuntary, reflexive isometric stabilisation of the head and neck can be produced in response to bounding and jumping plyometric exercise or Olympic lifting for example (Mel C. Siff). This is of specific interest to Thai boxers because it’s the way we experience the load in training or the ring. You’ll get a great deal of reflexive isometric work when sparring.
Dynamic Neck Exercise (Stage 2)
Following three to four weeks of isometric, static exercise you can build in some isotonic exercise, dynamically moving your head. Again work all four main directions and both rotational directions. Start with your head upright and manually apply resistance with your hands as you allow head movement against it. Then while maintaining an effort against the hands, push to overcome your neck and move back to the starting position. It’s important that you resist this movement using the target muscles concentrically and eccentrically – both as they shorten and lengthen.
Your neck needs to absorb force eccentrically as the muscles lengthen when a strike smashes you in the head. Neck muscles will shorten, contract concentrically to fight against your head being pulled down in the clinch. Progressively build from 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 20 reps each direction.
Eventually, you could begin incorporating both methods into your training session. Following your neck mobility work you could begin using static, isometric neck exercises in your warm up (activating the relevant muscles), and try the dynamic, isotonic neck movements as part of your cool down. Be patient, apply static and dynamic neck exercises, work in plyometric bounding and Olympic lifting exercises and get the sparring and clinch rounds in, and your neck should be up to the test.
Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), a Muay Thai coach, podcast host, and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.
Don helps ambitious fighters and coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.