Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Falling back in love with my Sternocleidomastoids

I swear to whatever gods are up there and/or in another dimension that as soon as I get this knee back to normal, I'm going to squat every, single day for a long, long time.  I don't care what kind of squat or how much I can handle I'm going to pull a Johnny Broz and not let a day pass without some sort of hips-back action.  That's how tired I am of looking down at my left leg while doing PT and realizing that it's only a matter of time before my neck is thicker than my left leg.  Of course, this isn't just from the months-long inaction of my left leg.  It's also the results of my weeks-long, re-kindled craze for training my neck. 

This wasn't a wholly original idea of mine.  Jamie Lewis did two, timely blog entries (here and here) about neck training a couple of months ago.  I realized then that this was a body part that I could work out while not putting any strain whatsoever on my bum knee.  What I find both fascinating, bizarre, and unfortunate about neck work is how common it used to be.  You don't need to do an extensive search on the Sandowplus.co.uk website to find a picture of some old-time strongman with a massive neck.  A bit more reading and you'll find out how they did that.  It was considered to be an essential part of strength training from the late 1800's until, at least, the 1930's. 
Obviously didn't skip neck training...
Since those times, neck training has fallen past the point of underground training into the realm of what even a lot of "hardcore trainers" consider borderline-insane.  The only groups of people that I know of that make an effort to train the neck with any frequency are boxers, wrestlers, and Navy SEALS.  In other words,  only a small group of people who regularly run the risk of getting their head or necks fucked up on a regular basis.   The biggest risk the average gym rat has of hurting their necks is by looking at a piece of ass to their left too fast and even then, their necks are likely so weak that even that could do some damage. 

The Navy SEAL explanation, as I heard it years ago, for the importance of neck training was pretty simple:  the neck carries your head...which protects your mind.  You may not be punched in the head regularly or wearing a heavy helmet on your head for HALO jumps but that doesn't mean that you have no business making your neck muscles strong.  The neck is part of your spine and since when do we think it's a good idea to neglect the spine?   You can also increase the size of your upper traps if you start neck training, if you're into that sort of thing. 

So, neck training is as neglected as it is important.  How do we train the neck? 

The Rules
Regardless of whether or not you grab iron or elect to do BW training with your neck, there are rules that apply equally to both.  The first thing about the neck is that it has to be warmed up.  The neck could easily be the most susceptible body part to injury.  Still, there is no need for a rocket-science 20 minute warm up procedure.  Just gently turn your head a few times in the directions that you plan to move it when you train.   The next rule is high repetitions.  You have to do a lot of volume with neck training to see results.  The movements are very short and doing low reps won't stimulate shit, even with a really heavy weight.  Think 15+ reps per set...or 30+ seconds of work.   The final rule is slower, controlled reps.   Remember The Bodyweight Files most fundamental mathematical equation here:  SPEED-CONTROL=INJURY

Bodyweight Neck Training
Believe it or not, Matt Furey probably gave the best BW neck training advice and nobody really noticed.  I can't blame everyone for that either.  Furey made millions off telling people that the wrestlers bridge could strengthen the spine like no other exercise while improve sexual function, curing foot cancer and eradicate fish herpes outbreaks.  What more could you possibly need if you had a pencil neck, a flaccid prick and a disorder that only animals with gills get?  Yes, my first foray into neck training was the wrestlers bridge but from the neck training standpoint, I think that there are two other options that work better. 
The first involved getting into a headstand with your feet against the wall.  From there, use the hands only to maintain balance while you roll your chin to your chest and back.  Then, roll the head side to side so each ear touches, or almost touches, the shoulders.  Some kind of padding on the floor really helps on this one.  While the forward and backward rolling does yield results, I skip it because I have a weird, egg-shaped head that makes this maneuver painful and leaves a bunch of redness on my scalp.  I mainly stick to the side-side movement.  This is a training effect that's hard to pull off with any other neck training. 

The second one that I liked was what I call the straight bridge ( I forgot what Furey called it).  Instead of resting on your feet and forehead, you grab two chairs, place less than the length of your body apart, and lay down with your feet/ankles on one chair and your head resting on the other, keeping your body as straight as possible for as long as you can.  This is absolutely brutal on the entire spinal musculature, including the neck.  Even 30 seconds of this will get your attention like no other iso-hold could. 

The Weighted Stuff
I opted to buy a neck harness when I was getting ready for my surgery.  There's not too much to explain.  Sit down while leaning forward with your back straight, start with the chin to the chest and carefully lift the weight until you're looking upwards.  Like I said above, do a lot of these per set... and lots of sets.  Again, under control. 

The second piece of harness lifting that I like to do is what's generally called neck crunches or curls.  You'll be lying down with the weights hanging behind your head (you may need to hold the harness in place with your hands to keep it from slipping off.  Just don't use your hands to pull the weight!) off from a bench.  You might be able to get away with a bed if you're not lifting much weight (less than 40 lbs...which may be okay since you won't use as much as you do with the first harness exercise).  From that position, bring your chin to your chest and back down.  You'll know when you're doing this one right because you'll feel like something's going to rip off your collar bone.  Do it wrong and it'll feel more like an ab exercise.  

Advice from Glen:  don't get cheap with neck harnesses.  Apparently he's broken two.  I bought a Spuds neck harness and while it's crudely put together, it does seem to hold up to the weight.  My early pictures of my neck training were with 35 lbs.  I'm now up around 75 lbs, training my neck two or three times a week, and it's still doing well.  Also, find a neck harness that doesn't put the lifting straps directly over your ears.  Elite FS's neck harness is wonderful for painfully folding your ears under the tug of the weights.  Spuds goes in front of the ears so the strap just rubs annoyingly on the front of the ears rather than crushing them.   
Yeah, that's a good reason to splurge on a good neck harness...

Another, more indirect option that I've done for months now is doing weighted BW movements (dips, pull-ups, and push-ups) with chains wrapped around the neck.  Prior to getting back into neck training, I did a lot of these with 30 lbs of chains around my neck.   In the past five weeks of neck work, I've put on about a half-inch on my neck, 17" to 17.5".  While my starting point wasn't spectacular, it's hardly pencil-necked for someone around my size (5'10" and 175-180 lbs) .  Putting weights around my neck during BW movements was the prime source of this. 

As I slowly begin the crawl back to normalcy from my ACL reconstruction, I find myself able to do a bit more in the gym every time I show up.  I mentioned to a guy I met at a gym that I take an off-day by training my neck.  He looked at me like I had just shit my pants, reached around, stuck my hand in my ass, and took a taste test. 

There is no good reason to treat the neck like some sort of glass-like appendage on your body.  There's a perfectly good reason why the second-biggest muscle in your back (trapezius, dumb-ass) inserts at the base of the skull, why the sternocleidomastoid muscle (yes, you should know what that one!) is about as thick as a small bunch of pencils on even a skinny-ass human, and why there are a pile of little muscles in the neck that practically rival the shoulders in quantity and obscurity.  That's because, like your shoulders, your neck should be big and strong.  If you have a weak neck and shit yourself when merely thinking of lifting 30 lbs by your neck, then you should consider sticking your hand in your ass and taking a taste.  Or, remedy the problem by getting some neck work done now. 


Bnewman said...

Great information. I missed your original post about the straight bridge years ago. Tried it. Wow, extremely humbling. Enjoy your blog!

Australian Ninja said...

Good article man. I've been using the front and back bridge for several years, and the headstand/side movements on wall as pictured. Never gave a thought to neck training until I picked up Matt Furey's programs when I used to train in Ju-jitsu. Thanks for the link to Chaos and Pain, bookmarked that and your blog for further reading. My favourite exercise for neck at present is a front bridge held for time, rocking back and forth, then up into a headstand for 30-60 seconds, then drop legs down into back bridge - alternating head to ground into gymnastic bridge, then repeat the whole sequence several times, with plenty of rocking movements. I also like to do a stationary wall headstand with no arms with deep breathing for 10 minutes at a time, not so much for strength, more about balance, co-odrdination and focused concentration, very relaxing!

John Flower said...

For the last few months I've been doing carries. Whilst I think Farmers Walks are the cat pajamas for the traps, I believe that Two Arm Waiters Walks (dumbbells above the head) are great for all round neck building. The muscles of the neck do more than move the head around, they hold the torso steady relative to the neck. It is this that is tested mightily by walking with weight overhead. I can't say how they compare with the methods in the article, but I do suggest that they are complementary.

Justin_PS said...

There is a simple explanation for this: the trapezius insert at the base of the skull. So, they are a neck muscle too. That's why farmers walks help the neck.