Neck bridging is an exercise that supposedly strengthens the neck that is almost unique to the grappling arts. It is also controversial.
Broadly speaking, there are two main ways of bridging: the backwards neck bridge (belly to the sky) or a forwards neck bridge (where you are belly-down to the mat).
Most grapplers who bridge do both forward and backward bridging.
First the pro of bridging: it is a great way to strengthen the neck in sport specific positions. If you grapple you are eventually going to end up using your head to post on the mat or to push your opponent.
You will also occasionally have your head introduced to the mat with velocity and force by your opponent.
Either way, if your neck is strong and conditioned to bearing your weight, then you will be less likely to get injured when your head is bearing the entire weight of your body.
The major con of neck bridging is that some people’s necks can’t take it – my own included. My neck is strong enough to do at least one hundred front and back bridges, BUT if I do more than about 20 of either type I’m guaranteed a neck-ache that will last for days and require several trips to the chiropractor.
Something about the compressive force on the vertebrae makes my neck very unhappy, and the resultant discomfort makes the benefits of bridging not worth it. I’m not alone here either – while there are some people who claim that bridging actually cured their neck problems I think the reverse (bridging causing problems) is much more common.
(One reason wrestlers like bridging up onto their head so much is that their sport really penalises them when they touch their shoulder blades to the mat. In jiu-jitsu we don’t care about our shoulders touching the mat, so we can bridge off of our shoulders instead of our head, as in the photo below.)
But regardless of whether you bridge onto your head or not, a strong neck is still super important to prevent injuries, resist submissions, manipulate opponents, and make your clinch more effective, what are your options if you don’t want to bridge? Here are just a few:
- Lie flat on your back and lift your head off the ground a bit. Now repeatedly and reasonably rapidly move your head up and down, bringing your chin towards your chest and then away again. Start with a set of 20 or 30. You can add a bit of resistance to your forehead by pushing on your forehead with your fingers.
- Lie on your back on an exercise bench, your head off the end of the bench. Now place a folded towel on your forehead and hold a 25, 35 or 45 lb plate on top of that with both hands. Now bob your head up and down just as in the previous exercise, but for fewer repetetitions.
- Lie flat as in the first exercise, but now turn your head from side to side, looking towards one shoulder then the other. Start with 10 repetitions (10 times to the right, 10 times to the left). I like alternating this exercise with the first one in this list.
- Neck harnesses, available at various wrestling and boxing suppliers, can be used to strengthen the erector muscles at the back of the neck. Think about resisting someone pulling your head down in a Thai clinch and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what exercising with a neck harness feels like. Even though using a harness does compress the neck vertebrae somewhat, I find that it doesn’t bother my neck if I don’t overdo the weight or repetition.
The above list is only the tip of the iceberg: there are many other exercises and pieces of equipment that can be used to strengthen the neck. In general I would caution against extreme measures as the neck isn’t really a body part you want to take to failure very often!