No “Paine” No Gain?
By: Matthew Kavalek
Historians often refer to Thomas Paine as “The Father of the American Revolution” because of his book Common Sense. The book presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of independence was still undecided. Mr. Paine first published the book anonymously, full well knowing his views would bring some hostility even though they proved to make sense.
It is well known that the majority of the most detrimental injuries occur in the region of the cervical spine. Well more than half of catastrophic injuries in sports are cervical spine injuries. Cervical spine injuries have been reported in most contact sports, including football, hockey, rugby, and wrestling. They have also been reported in several noncontact sports, such as skiing, track and field, diving, and equestrian events. According to Ralph Cornwell Jr, the leading researcher and foremost authority regarding strengthening of the cervical spine, “If an impact force imposed on the cervical spine is greater than the yield strength of the vertebrae, a fracture and possible dislocation with spinal cord injury can occur”.
The #1 priority of any strength coach is to protect the athlete. Injured athletes are the most unproductive athletes simply because injury prevents participation and negatively impacts performance. Given that an injury to the cervical spine is one of the most debilitating injuries that can occur, it would make sense to train the musculature that encompasses this region. Hundreds of protocols have been developed to rehabilitate and minimize the prevalence of ACL injuries. A simple search on Pubmed will supply you with such overwhelming evidence. It wasn’t until recently that any cervical spine training protocols had been established though.
Training the head and neck had been a staple in some weight rooms, but the vast majority of strength coaches neglected any form of training for the head and neck. Their reasoning: More important issues regarding musculoskeletal development need to be addressed first. Based on the undoubtedly brief synopsis of the debilitating injuries that can occur in the cervical spine stated earlier, it would seem asinine to make such a statement. The current concussion epidemic plaguing athletes of all sports warrants the implementation of a neck training program alone. Yet strength coaches continue to make such statements, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Strengthening the musculature of the cervical spine has profound effects. According to Mr. Cornwell, “The application of a proper cervical spine resistance training program will result in (1) increased passive stiffness of the head/neck (2) increased resistance to deformation forces (3) lowering of concussive and subconcussive forces (4) enhanced ability to move the head quickly (5) increased maximum oxygen uptake by strengthening the musculature that elevates the rib cage (6) increased blood flow to and from the brain to become more effective at cooling (7) reduction of headaches due to weakened head muscles (8) increased balance and athleticism by training the hot bed of proprioception (9) have an ongoing strength measurement so an athlete can safely return to play after head and/or neck trauma.” Few regions of the body provide such vast benefits to an athlete.
Simply put, training the musculature of the cervical spine will induce physiological changes that will decrease the likelihood of concussion or other injuries to this region. Although these injuries can never be fully prevented, provided continued participation in sport, strength coaches must implement a sound cervical resistance training protocol into their programs. Your athletes may be able to bench 500 pounds. If they are concussed and can’t play on the field though, they are of no benefit.
It has also been hypothesized that training the head and neck may make your athletes smarter. According to Mike Gittleson, “A well developed vascular neck benefits the athlete in concentration as well as dissipating heat during competition by increasing blood flow to the head”.
Blood flowing through the brains blood vessels is a sign that nerve cells have been activated. The blood rushes into active areas supplying neurons as they fire. It is hypothesized that blood not only nourishes cells, but may be intimately involved in information processing.
Research in neurodegenerative and mental disorders has found a link between blood vessels, neurons, and dementia. Vascular-induced dementia is when neurons die due to improper blood flow. Neurodegeneration-induced dementia is related to vasculature collapse following nerve cell death. Some feel that vessel changes occur earlier than the neuronal changes. It stands to reason that training your head and neck musculature is the first thing that all your athletes should do. A smarter athlete is a better athlete.
Upon implementation, you may find overwhelming opposition from your athletes. When an individual goes through a neck training program for the first time, they will find their musculature is extremely sore the next day. Although athletes know the difference between muscular soreness and injury, they will undoubtedly have never experienced such soreness before. They may perceive this soreness as injury and may view neck training as unsafe. It is important to explain to your athletes that this is not indicative of injury and you must assure them that the protocol they are following is extremely safe when done properly. You must also emphasize the importance of this type of training for injury prevention. The more educated your athletes are on the cervical spine and its relation to concussions and other injuries, the more apt they will be to do it.
Your athletes may also be scared to train their neck in fear that a stiffer neck may reduce their range of motion and inhibit their ability to “scan the field of play”. They also may view a stiffer neck being more likely to break upon impact. These are just simple cases of misguidance and lack of education again. It is your job as a strength coach to properly educate them.
As a strength coach, it is your job to (1) protect your athletes and (2) make your athletes bigger, faster, and stronger. Given that your first priority is protection, a proper cervical resistance training program should become a staple of your strength program. It only makes sense.
NOTE: I chose to target strength coaches because they are responsible for protecting their athletes and providing them with proper strength training programs. They can have the greatest impact on how athletes view training the head and neck.
Gittleson, M. (2011, November). Rogers Athletics. Retrieved December 3, 2011, from Rogers Athletics: www.rogersathletic.com