Monday, January 28, 2019

The Body Part You've Been Neglecting in Your Training – And What to do About It

Q&A with Sandesh Rangnekar

Note from Travis: A few weeks ago, I saw a great Instagram post from my friend Sandesh Rangnekar on neck training. After sliding into his DMs to ask him a few follow-up questions, I knew I had to share his great information. I hope you learn as much from this Q&A as I did!

Travis Pollen: What types of people should train their neck? 

Sandesh Rangnekar: The answer is pretty simple. Have a neck? Train it!

TP: Why is neck training so important?

SR: The entire world of rehab and strength and conditioning goes batshit crazy when asked about “core.” Ever thought of the benefits if you start considering the neck as part of the “core” and train it? If you look at it on a larger canvas, there are two school of thoughts here. One school of thought is that the core musculature consists of the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex (including the abs!), or simply put the muscles in and around the hip and low back region. The other kind of “in the trenches” school of thought is that everything is core and everything is connected. I favor the latter.

If we divide the body into regions with regards to the spine, we get three subdivisions: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. While the thoracic and lumbar regions generally get a lot of attention (t-spine mobility, six-pack ab training, lumbopelvic stability, this drill, that drill, those drills on Instagram), the poor cervical region is like an outcast. It just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And therefore, we need to look at it as equally important.

TP: What neck muscles should we focus on during training?

SR: Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) at the front of the neck. Suboccipitals help in extension and rotation of the head. Trapezius, although it’s concerned with providing stability to the scapula, originates from the lower back of the skull. Levators. Honestly, the musculature is quite complex and works in sync, so it’s very difficult to point out every specific muscle. Train it as a whole structure. I just mention a few names to sound cool and nerdy.

TP: If neck training is so important, why do so few people do it?

SR: People think of the neck as an intricate structure, which it is, but I think that scares some away from training it. Even if you try to find out more about neck training, you’re likely to come across a title like “exercises for neck pain.” As a result, the average person who isn't in pain and is just going to the gym to get in shape and be healthy might think they don’t need to train it.

How many people do you see performing neck exercises in a commercial gym, unless their physical therapist has asked them to do so because they’re in pain? We have this idea that we need to perform these special exercises for this special structure only when it hurts. The truth is, there are no special exercises. And every exercise is special. If you prioritize your neck, just as you would your biceps and chest, you are likely to benefit from it (unless you do some circus shit and hurt yourself in the process!).

Even some athletes have been slow to adopt neck training. Consider collision/impact sports like American football, wrestling, boxing, and kabaddi (a traditional sport played in India and other surrounding countries with movements resembling a mix of wrestling and rugby. These are all looked at as sports that would require their athletes to train the neck year round. Yet if I tell most sports "experts” that cricket, soccer, and hockey players would also benefit from neck training, they would laugh it off. (Some of them have. I’ve experienced it.)

TP: In your work as a strength and conditioning coach in kabaddi, how have you been able to incorporate neck training with your athletes?

SR: The first thing I did when I started was to watch the sport and understand its true nature. (Shoot, I just gave all the people a trade secret to becoming a good strength coach!) Imagine colliding with each other for more than 20 matches with full contact. Risk of concussions? You bet. So during pre-season and in-season I tried to incorporate some neck work. It wasn’t a lot, but it got me some athletes’ eyeballs. I was able to educate them about the importance of direct neck work, which may actually help minimize the risk of concussion. Notice I said "minimize the risk." The risk of concussion may still very well exist. Neck training won't totally protect you from tons of external force during collision and contact. But weak neck musculature is one factor that increases the risk of injury.

TP: How do you convince people neck training is important enough to prioritize it in their training?

Adding a lot of stuff to people’s routines will drive them insane. Just start with a few exercises (like the ones I show at the end of this Q&A). And educate people on the benefits of neck training: how it can help them build a strong upper body, how it can help them in their activities of daily living, how it may possibly reduce neck injuries. Same applies to athletes. In both populations (athletes and general population), overload them with information and they’ll ignore you. Give them just enough stuff to start with, and then guide them along the way.

TP: How often should people train their neck?

SR: I have found that three sessions per week often does the trick. Some individuals may need more. Some less. Frequency depends on the demands of the person’s activities.

TP: Can people who aren’t looking for huge neck muscles still train their neck?

SR: A few sessions of direct neck work using isometrics, resistance bands, and some neck movements against gravity would be great for anyone. And no, it won’t make your neck look like that of pro wrestler Kurt Angle or boxer Mike Tyson.

TP: Why do you think neck training isn’t covered more in strength and conditioning education?

SR: To be honest, I have no clue. I think its performance benefits should be covered more. Also, maybe we need more quality research studies with dosage/prescription to highlight its importance.

TP: I’ve seen special equipment for neck training. Do you recommend any of that? Or can you basically do everything with normal everyday gym equipment?

SR: The Iron Neck is a pretty rad piece of equipment. Very versatile and easy to use. People have been using neck harnesses for ages now. So, if you get your hands on these, grab them and put in some work. If not, don’t worry. Bands, bodyweight, towels, and plates work just fine.

TP: What are some of your go to neck exercises?

SR: Before we roll this out, let me clear that none of these are my exercises. I mean, I've used my brain to put out these variations, but I am sure they have been done already by plenty of awesome strength coaches out there. However, as always, I am happy to contribute in whatever little way I can. I would also like to acknowledge the fact that articles from awesome people like Jim Wendler, Sean Smith, Martin Rooney, Mike Gittleson, Carl Valle, and others (forgive me if I missed your names) pushed me to read and understand more about neck training. And last, but not least, thanks to Travis for giving me a nod to write this and consistently checking on my pathetic grammar so that I don’t make a laughing stock of myself.

Now, before you try these exercises, make sure you do not have any underlying neck-related issues. If you do, visiting a physical therapist and seeking advice is a no-brainer. Generally speaking, performing neck movements like flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotations and moving through full ranges of motion is great to begin with. Do it every day. Maybe around 15-20 reps.

After you're comfortable with those movements, add some external load. Some of the variations shown below have a slightly greater degree of difficulty. Some are easy to perform. Stick to moderate rep ranges, maybe 8-12 reps for 3 to 4 sets. Every rep must ideally be performed with crisp quality. Do it too fast and you won’t get anywhere. Too slow and you’ll get bored. Find your own comfortable tempo and work with it.

Enjoy and good luck!

Low Box Neck Bridge
Watch the Video – 0:14

Band Blocking
Watch the Video – 0:24

Band Anyhow
Watch the Video – 0:22

Whole Body Tensioner
Watch the Video – 0:41

About Sandesh Rangnekar

Sandesh Rangnekar has a Master of Science in Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy from the Manchester metropolitan University, U.K. and is an Accredited ASCA level 1 strength and conditioning coach.His work includes rehabilitation and fitness training of Olympic level wrestlers, Tennis players, Kabaddi players, youth swimmers and elite soccer players. He is currently the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club and at Kinspire sports clinic in Mumbai. His key areas of interest are strength and conditioning, return to participation, and performance training. Follow Sandesh on social media: Facebook| Instagram| Twitter

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