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The Principles of Posture

Over the last year, I have been more consistent with my Jiu Jitsu training. I have had the luxury of working with many of the top black belts in the sport (Renzo Gracie, Ricardo Almeida, Roger Gracie, Kyra Gracie, etc.) and I have also entered competitions. In addition to this, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of Olympic level Judo players. During this last year of training in both disciplines, I would constantly hear “Posture, posture!” from my teachers as I was competing. Through them, I learned that proper posture was the first key that had to be mastered. Before you can work on any throw, submission or escape, proper posture must first be maintained. Jiu Jitsu and Judo are both about controlling forces and balance. When you or your opponent’s body is not in balance, full force cannot be exerted. This is the underlying message in what the Japanese call Kuzushi. Understanding this, every athlete should strive to first understand the proper postures of every movement and use them to simultaneously break their opponent’s balance. When this is done correctly, this is the first step toward victory.

The word “posture” in Portuguese also stands for etiquette. Just as posture is the first key to master for training Jiu Jitsu, I believe etiquette must first be mastered before training. For instance, respecting your opponent (through bowing and mutual benefit), trimming your nails, maintaining good hygiene and a clean gi, keeping away from spreading skin conditions as well as following proper nutrition and physical training are all prerequisites to training. Once these are all in place, then an athlete can train Jiu Jitsu and work on technical posture.

When I began to train more seriously in Jiu Jitsu, I was more drawn to the speed of no-gi training. I liked the quickness of the movements and enjoyed the competition. For the first number of months, all of my teachers implored me to focus on gi training, stating that it would make me a more technical player. Although I was skeptical at first, I followed one of my rules for success: if a number of trusted people around you are telling you the same thing, it is true. I began the gi work and learned to love it. At first though, I was easily forced off balance, and I realized it all started from my head and neck position. As soon as my neck was pulled down or cranked to the side, much of my hard earned strength was gone. I realized it all started with posture and that the head held the first key. Move the head, and the body will follow. 

After researching the topic scientifically, I was not surprised to find that studies testing Olympic Greco-Roman wrestlers found that the highest ranking wrestlers also had the strongest neck extensors and flexors. Now this could mean that the athletes with the strongest necks had a better chance to win by not being off-balanced, or that the athletes that reached the highest levels developed the strongest necks. Either way, I believe that a super strong neck is the first key not only to better posture, but also injury prevention. Everyone that trains knows a sore neck holds back training. A stronger, more prepared neck makes sure that injury has a decreased chance of occurring.

This article is going to focus on training for the neck. Since many muscles of the neck are small and often underworked, begin training this area conservatively. Start with one session of neck training per week, see how you recover, and eventually move up to a maximum of two specific training sessions per week. The exercises listed below are in order of intensity, so begin with the easiest first. Do not attempt all of the exercises during one session. Work up over a number of weeks to the more difficult exercises. Any exercise that causes pain should be removed from your training. There are always other options, and your body will help you to decide what they are by avoiding a particular kind of pain. When you are training your neck, it is critical for you to maintain proper technique. Remember that we are training the neck to prevent future injuries, not cause them. Use slow, controlled tempos, and don't jerk or bounce in any of the positions. Do not forget that before you begin any training session, make sure you properly warm up first. Begin with some calisthenics to get the heart rate and body temperature up and then work specifically on warming up the neck. A good neck warm up would be to flex your next forward and extend backward, tilt the head side to side and turn your head from left to right for 20 reps of each movement. Finally, you must make sure you keep your jaw closed during training of the neck. Since changes in head position affect the articulation of the jaw and the skull, it is important to keep this joint locked by biting down during the exercises. Not only will this strengthen the jaw, it will teach good habits for the ring as well.

1. Manual Isometric Resistance

Figure 1

One basic method for training the neck is manual isometric resistance. This is effective, and it takes little time. Start by placing the heel of your hand(s) on your forehead or side of the head (see Figure 1). Apply pressure with your hand and resist with your neck without allowing the head to move. Begin with easy pressure and work up to pressing as hard as you can, as long as you are able to keep your neck still against the resistance. Instead of using the hands, you can also use a stability ball to make the exercise more comfortable. If you'd like to do this movement with a partner, have him or her place a hand on your head and resist the direction you are moving. Again, no movement should take place. Begin with light resistance and work up to more. Begin with 10 repetitions in each direction for one to two sets. Eventually work up to two to three sets. Each isometric hold should be held for five seconds.

2. Manual Isotonic Resistance

The more advanced version of the above movement is to now allow your head to slowly move back and forth against the resistance, while keeping the resistance as high as possible. This method can be used for training flexion, extension, side bending and rotation of the neck. Again, this can be performed manually or with the help of a partner. Begin with two to three sets of 10 reps in each direction.

3. Neck Harness or Band Training

Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4

This exercise is a classic for developing neck strength. One limitation is that the neck harness is best used for the extensors of the neck. The harness is traditionally a leather cap that fits over the head, and it has a chain hanging down that holds the weight selected. I like to perform this exercise standing to completely develop the postural muscles of the neck and back. You can stand with hands on knees to work the back of the neck. Again, the movement of the head should be slow and controlled. A weight that you can perform 10 reps is a great selection. I have recently begun to perform this exercise using heavy elastic bands with tremendous success. My athletes have gained great extension strength using this drill. To perform this, the athlete wraps the band behind the head and bends completely forward (see Figure 2). Then the athlete sits up straight and retracts the head while extending the arms to create more tension in the right direction (see Figure 3). The athlete then holds at the top position for five seconds (see Figure 4) and slowly lowers the head. Repeat for three sets of eight reps, depending on the tension.

4. Back Neck Bridge (Wrestler’s Bridge)

Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7

Although many novices may think this is an advanced exercise, I think this is a must for anyone doing grappling training. To perform this exercise, you will need a strong and conditioned neck, so begin carefully. The athlete should begin on his back with the knees bent and the palms flat on the floor next to the head (see Figure 5). The athlete should then lift the body on the hands and feet and place the weight of the body on the top of the head (see Figure 6). At first, keep the hands on the floor to help support the weight and hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat for three to five reps for the first week or two and then move to more advanced versions. 

After conditioning has been built, the athlete can remove the hands (see Figure 7) and move the head into more extension and side bending during the hold to continue to strengthen the neck.

5. Front Neck Bridge

Figure 8 Figure 9 Figure 10

The athlete begins on the stomach (see Figure 8) and then places the palms on the floor and lifts the hips into the air as high as possible while placing the weight on the forehead (see Figure 9). The athlete should begin by holding this position for five to 10 seconds and repeat for three to five sets.

After conditioning has been built, the athlete can remove the hands (see Figure 10) and move the head into more extension and side bending during the hold to continue to strengthen the neck. An advanced version combining movements #4 and #5 would be to move from one to the other by flipping over on the head or rotating the body from one position to the other.

6. Partner Sit Ups and Neck Extension

Figure 11 Figure 12 Figure 13

This is one of my favorite partner stability and neck strengthening exercises. Athlete A begins on the floor in the hands and knees position. Athlete B sits high on Athlete A's back while placing reverse hooks in on Athlete A's legs (see Figure 11). From here, Athlete B sits all the way back while Athlete A lowers his head and maintains balance by locking the body in place (see Figures 12-13). To complete the movement, Athlete B sits up and Athlete A assists by extending his neck. This is a demanding exercise that works isometric strength as well as the neck. Perform 10 to 20 reps for two to three sets, depending on skill. A great start would be to have a partner at a similar weight and build.

7. Neck Bridge Partner Press

Figure 14

Another great partner drill for training the neck is the Neck Bridge Partner Press. Here Athlete A begins on his back and moves to the back bridge position from #4. From here, he extends his arms upward and Athlete B places his chest on Athlete A’s hands while facing the opposite direction (see Figure 14). While holding a powerful bridge, Athlete A performs eight to 10 presses with Athlete B. Repeat for two to three sets. Remember that this is an advanced exercise and athletes need to work up to this level of neck strength.

After this is improved upon, an athlete can also use a weighted bar to perform sets here as well.

8. Back Bridge Pullover

Figure 15 Figure 16 Figure 17

This exercise is one of the toughest on the list and builds upon #7. The athlete begins in the back bridge position and grabs a bar of weight lying by the head (see Figure 15). The athlete then pulls the weight up (see Figure 16) and overhead, holds the weight up over the body for three to five seconds (see Figure 17) and then lowers the weight again. Perform eight to 10 reps for two to three sets.

Note: Neck training machines also exist in gyms, but you may not have access to one. If you do have one at your gym, try it. Most neck machines train the neck in multiple directions. Just make sure to follow the safety protocols discussed in this article.

I hope everyone enjoys this article and starts getting to work on the neck right away. Even though it is a less common area to train, I believe it is one that will quickly enhance your game without even being on the mat. Do this training for the next few months, and you will be popping buttons off of your shirts and the fingers of your opponents trying to pull you out of posture. Now get to work!