By Dr. Ken Leistner
“Go Ape” as a rallying cry in one’s weight room, with no offense intended towards University of Tennessee football fans, is certainly no worse than the Vols “HTB – Hide The Ball” trash can call to arms that brought ridicule to their underachieving 2017 season. If every athlete and especially those of high school and college age understood the true importance of giving proper training emphasis to the muscles of the cervical spine, trapezius, and upper back regions, there would be a reduction in concussions and catastrophic cervical spine injuries. If they entered the training facility and pictured the neck development of a Silverback Gorilla or football players Takeo Spikes and Paul Posluszny for example, perhaps they would give more attention to this vital anatomical area.
I have written numerous articles regarding neck training and its importance as has Mike Gittleson, the former long-time S&C Coach at the University of Michigan and the program’s founder. Kim Wood, the first full-time S&C Coach in the NFL is another who stressed specific training targeted for the neck, decades prior to anyone else in the field noting its importance for injury prevention. Before reading to this point and stating, “I know this, I’m a responsible coach who cares about the well-being of my players,” take a moment to review the important points of neck and head injury and the possibility of reducing both the frequency and severity of damage. Perhaps the most important point for coaches to focus upon is that while performance is important, and weight room work is designed to enhance on-the-field performance, the reduction of injury frequency and severity is truly the most important purpose of any training program. Concussion and associated conditions such as CTE, early onset dementia, and even Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis have all fallen under scrutiny in recent years and rightly so. The association with and to head and neck trauma has also received a great deal of study. Coaches, athletes, and parents must understand that the football helmet industry as an obvious example, has designed products that are in fact well made to do their assigned job but the nature of the sport will not allow for the prevention of all concussions or other injuries nor those specifically related to the helmet. The game is the game and there are realistic risks that the available equipment will not prevent.
Until relatively recently there has been a “common sense” acceptance that a muscularly larger neck, enhanced development in the trapezius, and well-trained stronger “supportive muscles” of the head and neck area in the upper back region could assist in reducing concussion and neck injury. Physics dictates that compressive or rotational force that is absorbed in and through the head has to be dissipated and these muscles when prepared to do so can play a vital role in transferring force from the head and cervical spine. It is only in the past few years that a number of legitimate studies have given clear indication that the development of muscular structures in general, serve to prevent or reduce the impact of athletic related injuries. Two studies from 2014 [The American Journal of Sports Medicine, March 2014; The American Journal of Sports Medicine, January 31, 2014] reinforced the importance of increasing the strength of the neck’s musculature. One article noted that “Interventions aimed at increasing athletes’ neck strength and reducing unanticipated impacts may decrease the risk of concussion associated with sport participation.” This specific study focused on the skill development and practice that comes with anticipating impact and “bracing” for it in split-second fashion and the importance of having increased strength in the cervical region.
A 2017 publication [The Journal of Biomedical Engineering, October 1, 2017] indicated that “Simulation results indicated that active responses of neck muscles could effectively reduce the risk of brain injury.” Enhanced development and strength in the neck region had the two-fold effect of allowing the athletes to first “tighten up” or compress the area upon anticipation of impact and then to reduce the damaging effects of contact. This study for the most part reinforced the findings of the 2014 study noted above.
Coaches as well as athletes often forget that the trapezii are large muscles with multiple points of origin and insertion and the ability to do more than “shrug the shoulders.” Head and neck movement, rapid response movement of the head, and the body’s directional changes are dependent upon trapezius function. Serving as a “shock absorber” during contact may be a football-related first response but is far from the total answer for these exceptionally important muscles. The rapid and immediate contraction of the “traps” is a time-honored response to sudden impact or recognition of danger. Many researchers who have through the years or decades focused on concussion and catastrophic cervical spine injuries, at least within the context of informal discussion, refer to the “Oh sh-t!” position or response on the football field. Immediately prior to recognized collision or impact, there is what we can term a “natural” protective body response that draws the traps up into contraction while attempting to “duck” or retract the head and neck from the point of impact.
Many years ago the author and long-time University Of Nebraska and Husker Power Strength Director Mike Arthur had a productive conversation related to the burgeoning awareness of concussion and catastrophic neck trauma as it occurred on the football field. Both of us had a “barbell” and powerlifting background with Coach Arthur recognized as one of the best 132 pound class lifters of his active era and a world record holder in the deadlift. While we both had obvious agreement that an athlete’s strength foundation should be built with basic multi-joint movements, I believed the two of us surprised a number of coaches who sat with us during this lengthy but informal, social conversation about strength training. Mike had, during specified periods of time, organized his programs so that a great deal of upper back work in addition to the clean variations that the Huskers were known for was part of the routine. He believed this was an important way to stimulate muscular weight gains in those athletes targeted as “under muscled.” We both agreed that enhancing the musculature of the upper back was a key to take compressive force that began with impact of one’s helmet with an opponent or the ground, and have it “travel” through the cervical spine, upper back, and then towards the ground. Of course it’s when compressive force is not dissipated as per a segmented chain design allows that the force is absorbed within the cervical spine with potentially life altering results. Variations of lat pulldowns, rows, and exercises that involved the scapulae retractors were important components of a complete program designed to be protective against head and neck injury. When a coach states that “We don’t do none of that bodybuilding stuff, we just do the basics,” it becomes a short-sighted statement that does not allow for the fullest protection of the athlete. Certainly build with the basics but enhance protection and performance with movements that allow for development of muscles that may require “other work.” For all female and male athletes this is most important for the head and neck area!
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