Necks are delicate things. Seven small stacked cervical vertebrae protecting all the nerves in your spinal cord and held together with a multitude of flimsy ligaments and muscles.
Yet in BJJ we stress the neck continuously.
We attack it with chokes, crucifixes, and cranks. We stack our opponents, turn their heads with crossfaces, and scissor his head with our legs. We also use our head and necks offensively. We bulldoze our opponents with our head when our arms are tied up, use the neck to trap his wrist for armlocks, and plant our faces in his chest during takedowns.
It’s no wonder that the neck takes a beating. And that – sometimes – you can end up with a tweak or an injury in that body part that can make training painful and difficult.
And a bad neck can take FOREVER to heal!
The weird thing is that sometimes it’s even hard to tell that your neck is injured. Cervical nerve damage, for example, can disguise itself as shoulder and/or tricep pain, and it can take some medical detective work to get to the root of the problem.
So what can you do about neck injuries if you train BJJ?
Here’s a video I shot on the topic with some very specific suggestions and examples of what to do (and what NOT to do). First watch it, then scroll on down and check out the other injured-neck-BJJ-training-resources below
The first step is prevention. And prevention is a two-step procedure…
Neck Injury Prevention Part 1: Make your neck as strong as possible without damaging it in the process.
I prefer to use neck harnesses, light weights, and sub-maximal repetitions (i.e. NOT going to failure) to do this. I am not a huge fan of neck bridging – it works for some people but I find that the compression inherent in this form of training always makes my neck feel terrible. Click here for some more thoughts about strengthening your neck safely.
Neck Injury Prevention Part 2: Don’t allow it to get acutely injured in the first place.
Most neck injuries can be prevented by tapping out early and tapping out often. What’s the point of toughing it out when you’re caught in a guillotine, triangle or cowcatcher choke if you manage to escape but injure your neck in the process?
If your neck hurts when you’re caught in a submission, or even if you’re just in an awkward position, then just tap out. It’s not big deal – everyone does it – and it could save you years of trekking to chiropractors, massage therapists and back surgeons.
But let’s say that for whatever reason your neck is freshly injured. What do you do?
Well, if you’re in a lot of pain then don’t train. Don’t try to be a tough guy, because the odds of making this injury worse are overwhelmingly high.
Your first priority is to get better. A sore neck can potentially be for life (scary!!) so it’s rest and ice packs for you! If it doesn’t settle down quickly then leave no stone unturned to get that injury taken care of. Check out my two part series on how I fixed my bad back (part 1, and part 2) because a lot of it is relevant to neck injuries as well.
Instead of rolling and mat time instead concentrate on your conditioning, keep your head in the game by watching competition videos and instructionals, etc. If you want some more ideas of how to improve despite not actually being on the mats while your acute injury heals then check out my How to Survive Training Layoffs from Grappling article.
Let’s say that you’re dealing with a neck that is prone to injury. Maybe it’s been cranked once too often, and now it takes less and less to make it complain. Maybe you’ve received a cautionary warning from a doctor to begin taking it easy on your neck…
First off, I am NOT A DOCTOR. I cannot tell you what you can and cannot do if you’ve been diagnosed with stenosis, spondylolisthesis, or a bulging disk. That is a conversation you need to have with your team of health professionals, followed by your own risk/reward evaluation.
But I can tell you that a lot of people who have wonky necks do continue to train…
So if you’ve got a delicate or ‘touchy’ neck then what can you do to minimise the chances of further damage and allow the damn thing to heal up?
Here are some suggestions…
Minimise or eliminate your Judo and wrestling training. A large part of wrestling is shoving and clubbing the head around until you snap your opponent down to the ground and/or grab him in a front headlock. There is less harassment of the head in Judo, but the chances of landing on your head after a throw goes spectacularly wrong is pretty high. If you love takedowns this won’t be easy advice to hear, but until your neck is 100% stick with groundwork.
Avoid certain types of guard. Some types of guard just invite your opponent to put a ton of pressure on your face, neck and head. These guards include the half guard, the inverted guard, and the deep half guard. Other types of guard – the rubber guard and the closed guard among them – are especially susceptible to getting stacked and/or thrust choked. Avoid them for the time being.
Start using guards that protect your neck. Think about which types of guard protect your neck best. The two types of guard I use the most when my neck is sore include the butterfly guard and the spider guard. The butterfly guard works great because you’re not lying flat and so it’s hard for your opponent to drive forward and grind into your head. The spider guard maintains a large distance between your opponent and your head/neck area; once again preventing that grinding/mauling pressure on your head.
Use less kneeling guard passes. When it comes to passing the guard you have two choices: do it on your knees or standing up. On your knees you’ll forever have someone reefing on your collar, pulling your head down, and attacking you with triangle chokes. If your neck is feeling gimpy then I suggest not doing as many kneeling guard passes. No Bernardo Faria over-under pass for you right now, sorry!
Do more standing guard passes. Yes, if you stand up then you might be less stable, and you might be more susceptible to leglock attacks, but at least your head will be mostly out of range. Stay on your feet and use footwork and mobility to pass the guard (like this butterfly guard pass) rather than creating pressure by bulldozing your face into his abdomen.
Tap out the moment your neck feels endangered. I’ve saved the most important thing for last.
There are many submissions in jiu-jitsu that are 90% choke and 10% neck crank. If your neck is injured then the ratio flips; the very same techniques will feel like they’re 90% neck cranks. Regardless of whether you’re caught in a true neck crank (like the cowcatcher or clock head scissors), a regular choke that feels like it’s hurting your neck, or in some random position where your neck is hurting, TAP OUT RIGHT AWAY.
Don’t tough it out waiting to see if the pain will magically lessen – it probably won’t, and you’ll be reminded of your stubborness by a very painful aching neck as soon as your body starts to cool down after training.
I hope these tips, tricks and tactics for training around an injured neck help you out. If you have your own thoughts on the topic or work-arounds that have been successful for you I’d love to hear about them in the comments below…
This article was last updated Jan 11, 2018