Training cervical stability and strength has long been misunderstood and underestimated. Think of the neck as an adaptable three-dimensional column that maintains our binocular vision orientated to its target. In most athletic activities, the head remains stable to provide an orientated platform for the eyes to track the target object. The body moves beneath the neck in order to keep the head stable and to deliver the hands or feet to the tracked target. When the head is directionally “pointed” by the neck, the rest of the body/trunk will usually follow this orientation.
An adult head weighs between 20 and 27 pounds. The first two cervical vertebrae are uniquely evolved to offer an almost complete 360-degree range of movement backed up by the positioning capabilities of the next five cervical vertebrae. The cervical spine is driven by 36 muscles, has 20 joint articulations and is richly innervated by proprioreceptors, balance receptors and equilibrium sensors. It is there for a very important reason!
Popular current training techniques have seen the use of head slings, stretch band and weighted helmets putting an emphasis on cervical training in terms of concentric contractions against resistance followed by release. Resistance machines have been developed, but they essentially rely upon the ability to push the head into a pad/resistance. The head becomes the prime moving object whereas, in true athletic function, the body beneath the head is the prime moving subject.
Cervical stability and strength training is most applicable to sports that will expose the head to significant mass and momentum forces. It is now becoming common place in motor racing, motor cycling, mountain biking/BMX, piloting, rugby, equestrian sports, American Football, etc.
Cervical training should not be overlooked as a contributing component of any athlete’s functional training program. An optimally performing neck and its subsequent influence on our dynamic vision and balance/equilibrium is an essential criteria for athletic function.
We use a tightly fitting lightweight rugby/football scrum cap. The ribbing allows us to vary the band attachment to work at any vector. The resistance comes from stretch cord connected to an adjustable column attachment. This set up is cost effective and portable.
Cervical training with this method is perfectly safe if guidelines are followed and technique and equipment is checked regularly. Low resistance bands are used. Always train with a partner/instructor. Always start with low repetitions emphasizing technique and control. The athlete should be familiar with stability ball training and show good prior ability in the seated ball posture.
- Start with a simple static postural hold. Maintain spinal alignment and normal head posture.
- Progress to multi-directional lunge patterns while maintaining head and trunk posture.
- Add a trunk range of movement and resistance component to the lunge, but still maintain head posture and orientation. In the third example above, a transverse plane trunk drive with resistance coils the spine, and the neck reacts to this with counter rotation. The transverse plane patterns are emphasized with neck training.
- The fourth example is a sagittal plane overhead lift with cervical posture and alignment still held.
- Progress to a seated position on the stability ball.
- Once a static postural hold is mastered, progress to a narrow base or single leg balance. The trunk is now actively stabilizing, and the cervical spine is reacting to both this and the resistance vector to maintain posture.
- Add an upper body resistance pattern while maintaining cervical postural alignment. The example above is reciprocal overhead dumbbell raises.
- The process is essentially repeated with a different resistance vector with the above example demonstrating a lateral resistance.
- Static control is developed and fed into varied dynamic lunges. In example two, a side lunge is being performed with the arms driving into opposite rotation. Neck posture and alignment is maintained.
- In example three, a cross body dumbbell punch is combined with an anterior lunge of the opposite leg. Both of these patterns expose the neck to great multiple plane training and highlight the influence of what happens beneath the neck.
- Progress to a seated posture on the stability ball. Once a static postural hold is mastered, progress to a narrow base or single leg balance.
- Add an upper body resistance pattern. In example two, a transverse plane medicine ball trunk twist is performed while maintaining neutral cervical posture (eyes forward).
- In example three, a counter rotation is performed with a purposeful side drift away from the resistance vector on the ball. This emphasizes total body equilibrium training via the neck.
- Finally, dynamic balances are performed, challenging the body in multiple planes while maintaining neutral cervical posture. In this case, pelvic ball circles are performed while maintaining neck posture and a level horizontal stick hold.
The process is now performed with an anterior resistance vector challenging the posterior cervical “chain” of stability. Static postural holding is progressed into the dynamic lunge patterns. Both of the above examples are posterior lunges, although all directional variations can be used. Repeat upper limb/trunk multi-plane movements and resistance patterns.
The same stability ball progressions are employed. Example three above shows a resisted transverse plane trunk drive in a same side single leg balance. The triple challenge of trunk equilibrium/balance, with an upper body resistance pattern, and the anterior elastic resistance presents the neck with three functional criteria to deal with while maintaining head posture!
Multidirectional Trunk Movement
Finally, this elastic resistance technique can be used with rhythmical multidirectional patterns of trunk movement. In this example,
trunk circling is being performed from the hips in a wide neutral stance. The head and neck are free to move. However, head alignment and orientation with the spine is maintained throughout the movements.
This exercise can be performed in a variety of stance postures and with elastic resistance from different directions.
- This training technique is quite reactive and “reflexive” in its nature. The athlete is asked to maintain cervical posture, alignment and orientation while the neck “deals” with the challenges asked of it from the body beneath.
- The athlete can be instructed to use visual fixation on a point in front of him to give more postural feedback. A highly advanced progression is to free head and neck movement and ask the athlete to track a mobile target provided by the trainer while performing the exercises.
- In specialist sports where postural endurance is required (i.e., motor racing etc), the static holds with low resistance can be extended to reflect this demand.
- These techniques have been successfully used in late stage cervical rehabilitation where dynamic resistance techniques are often overlooked.
- For contact sports training, the lunges and trunk movements can be performed at speed but with very low resistance band.
- Dumbbell and medicine ball weights are purposefully light.
As discussed previously, many trainers, therapists and athletes will be unfamiliar with cervical training benefits and technique, and it could be suggested that the cervical spine has become neglected in terms of an expansive “kinetic chain” approach to training. I strongly recommend that these simple but effective techniques be integrated into all athletes’ balanced training regimes.
- Strength Training of the Cervical Spine, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 35(5) Supplement 1:S47, May 2003
- Cervical strength of young adults in sagittal, coronal, and intermediate planes. Clinical Biomechanics, Volume 16, Issue 5
- Resistance training and human cervical muscle recruitment plasticity, J Appl Physiol 83: 2105-2111, 1997, Conley, Stone, Nimmons, Dudley
- Dr Ricardo Ceccarelli, Formula Medicine, Toyota Racing Team