Concussions are a serious immediate and long term concern for every athlete participating in field sports from football to lacrosse, and even in sports that don’t condone contact like soccer and baseball. We’ve developed a set of protocols that need to be a part of every athlete’s training regime. The only true prevention practice for a concussion is to eliminate all impact to the head. While rules are being put in place to attempt to cut down on blows and coaches adjusting practice plans to limit contact, players are still going full contact at full speed come Game Day and need to be prepared in the weight room for this demand. No matter the sport.
At Power Athlete we follow the dogma of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and preparing an athlete for contact is a top priority. This article will breakdown neck assessments, movements for building armor to prepare for impact, and application protocols to put your athletes in the best position to be prepared for contact on the field.
Understand, these movements and concussion training protocols do not stand alone. They are a component of the entire Power Athlete strength and conditioning methodology focusing on posture and position and the demands of sport and life. These measures are also not just about building a big, strong neck. They are pieces to the athlete preparation puzzle that increase the body awareness and orientation in space.
There is a lot of freedom of movement at the neck which puts the head at such high risk. As with the shoulder and hip, mobility without stability = injury. In order for us to build the stability necessary for protection we need to take a quick glance at the neck and where to build armor.
Also known at the ‘big neck’ muscle, is primarily responsible for flexion and rotation of the head and neck. One side of the muscle may be easily visualized when your athletes are posing for their program mugshot or the the head is rotated.
Splenius Muscles (Cervicis, Capitis)
The splenius muscles, also known as the “At Attention” muscles, are responsible for holding the head and neck upright and strong in the proper posture position. They also come into play with assistance from the upper trapezius when the athlete extends or rotates the neck.
The “buttresses” for the neck is a large posterior muscle that separates itself up into three levels: upper fibers, middle fibers, and lower fibers. The upper fibers are thin and relatively weak compared to the others. They provide some elevation of the clavicle and assist with extension of the head. The middle fibers are stronger and thicker and provide strong elevation, upward rotation, and retraction of the scapula. Rarely is this portion of the muscle weak because it’s so active in holding posture in big lifts and positioning the shoulder during Field Strong warm ups. The lower fibers assist in scapula retraction, rotation, and abduction. These fibers are typically weak as well and need to be hammered in order to protect shoulder and neck position.
When all the parts of the trapezius are working together they act as the shock absorbers for the neck. As they grow thick, they act like a natural neck roll that prevents an athlete’s head from snapping back. The traps are attacked daily in the Field Strong and Basics programs hitting all three levels because this muscle is extremely important for any athlete taking on the demands of contact sports.
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Dead Bug Home Position:
This movement is the best assessment tool for identifying where an athlete’s neck position will default to under stress.
- The athlete actively presses the back of their neck into the floor and reaching their head through the top of their shoulders training the mastoid and the splenius muscles.
- This movement is the best place to start for concussion protection training, once the floor is mastered, progress through the following movements.
- Start with 2-3 sets before lifting or pre-practice warm up. Fight to maintain position for :30 – :60, but once perfection is lost and cannot be regained the set is done.
- Departures from perfection will include lifting the chin up or completely picking the head up off of the ground and will identify the athletes that are the greatest risk for concussions.
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The active neck, reaching the head through the shoulders, emphasized in the Dead Bug must be carried into this movement. The focus here is on maintaining posture and moving the scapulas independent of the spine. The mid traps will be called upon as a primary mover, but we need at least a two count hold at the top to hit the lower trap.
- Hang from a pull up with your feet dangling.
- Allow your shoulders to relax and let your head sink.
- With a reversing shrugging motion try to drive your head through the roof without bending your arms.
- You should only get 2-3 inches of movement if you are doing it right.
- If you are doing it wrong you will drive your chest out. The chest should only move up and down. The whole movement should be straight up and down.
- Once you have mastered the movement, add weight. Start low with 5-7 reps and work your way up to 12-15 reps.
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Partner Resisted Planks:
The purpose of this movement is ensuring the proper execution of a planks and mutual accountability among athletes.
- The athlete must reach their head long through their shoulders, hold scap depression, and actively pull their hands to their toes.
- Feet width is set to athlete’s athletic position
- This is not your sister’s pilates plank, this is an all out fight for posture and position.
- The captain will apply pressure at different points to challenge this position, especially the head.
- Vary the force and direction of the pressure to keep the athlete reactive.
- Fight to maintain position for :30 – :60, but once perfection is lost and cannot be regained the set is done.
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Reverse Shrug on a Dip Bar:
Continuing to progress through more challenging movements, this movement attacks the upper and mid level of the traps while focuses on challenging neck posture.
- Set up and the top of a dip on stable parallel bars
- Reach the top of the head through the shoulders from the start and maintain long spine throughout.
- The shoulder blades must move independent of the spine, so focus on a neutral position of the shoulders and only elevation and depression of the scapulas.
- Start low with 5-7 reps and work your way up to 12-15 reps.
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6 Way Manual Resisted Neck:
Manual resistance training is a staple for any contact sport athlete, especially when applied to the neck. Muscles are able to be worked maximally each rep and to failure and the spotter can adjust the pressure as the mechanical advantage shifts throughout the full range of motion. Here, the manual resistance neck trains multiple angles to prepare the athlete for the violent angular movements they’ll face in their arena.
- Watch the video for movement demo and walk through
- 4-8 reps per movement
- Force Matches Resistance minus 1
- :04 per rep
- Range of motion takes presidence over time
Beyond the Neck: Building Armor
Concussions often occur in the sporting arena when an athlete is not expecting a hit or not prepared to protect themselves. All of the movements above introduced and focused on maintaining perfect posture which is the first step in protection. The three following movements will look to challenge this with an added emphasis on athletes awareness of their body in space.
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These go beyond weighted dips because the athlete must fight to maintain their head up and a good neck position with a chain pulling them down. We do not want the athlete to just be repping out dips here, we need them to have the awareness of their posture failing under the stress and fight for perfection.
- Begin at the top of the dip with retracted and depressed shoulder blades and reach the top of the head through the shoulders.
- Fight to maintain this shoulder and head position while moving controlled through each dip.
- Attack 2-3 sets to failure, but if an athlete loses position and is unable to recover, the set is done.
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A high level of coordination and body awareness are necessary to execute these shrugs so they will take a field sport athlete farther than standard barbell shrugs.
- Set the loaded barbell in a rack at knee height. It should only be loaded to 135 lbs.
- Strap onto the bar with your deadlift-width double overhand grip, and perform a hang clean. Hang cleans should be initiated by the pull.
- Add a plate on each side, bringing the total up to 225 lbs. Now, hang clean it again.
- If it is easy, add more plates (up to 315 for now). However, most people wont be about to hang clean 315 from the rack. This is good because is your starting point.
- Instead of trying to hang clean it this time, you are going to use the same hip drive that you would do a clean with, but violently shrug the bar up. Try to hit your ears with your traps. Bend your knees to absorb the weight as the weight comes down on the negative, and go again.
- Shoot for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps
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Single Dumbbell Kelso Shrugs
While the Starr shrugs focuses on using the full body to be explosive, the Kelso Shrug requires you to use your full body to hold a solid position. We are working anti-rotation at the knees and trunk as well as an athlete’s orientation of their body in space.
- Pick up a heavy dumbbell and start performing single arm dumbbell rows. Try to keep you back flat and avoid excessive hip drive.
- Once you get to your last rep, do not drop the dumbbell. With a straight arm, start shrugging your shoulder back by retracting your scapula. Hold for a split second and repeat. Remember to bring the shoulder all the way forward to get the greatest range of motion.
- Repeat for 12-15 reps.
- Every set of one arm dumbbell rows, bent rows or Pendlay row should finish with a set of these rows.
These programs follow simple protocols for incorporating these into their base strength and sprint templates:
- Squat Days = Concussion Protection Training Day
- Most programs would pair neck training with back days, but we have found it optimal to attack the Awareness movements on days the athletes squat heavy.
- Warm Ups must include iso-stability daily
- 3-4 sets of perfect posture Iso-holds, at least 1 movement daily
- Establish posture in the warm up with isometric holds, challenge dynamically during strength work. Vary the plane of motion and direction of force throughout the training cycle, hitting each plane and direction of force at least once a week.
- Build Muscle Neck Roll
- 12-20 Reps Sets of Starr or Kelso Shurgs
- Traps are the key component for concussion protection, so we must apply armor building protocols for them. This means A LOT of reps, as listed above we want to attack sets of 12 or more targeting all three levels of the trap.
- Develop Awareness
- Full body and multiplane movement training daily
- Once the posture is established for the training day, apply a stress of either time, weight, or reps that challenges an athlete ability to maintain it through all planes of motion.
- Heavy resistance and fatigue are great stresses for not only driving physiological adaptations, but also aware athletes. Establish athlete accountability and make them own their position and what happens under the bar and their surroundings in training.
Applying the above movements and following the protocols will have benefit in strengthening an athlete’s neck and increasing their body and spatial awareness. The optimal application of these is when applied in tandem with a quality strength and conditioning program such as The Basics or Field Strong. Programs based upon developing posture and challenging an athlete’s position through orthopedically sound movements will prepare an athlete for contact and put them in the best position for protection against concussions.
MS, CSCS, SCCC, CHES
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Former collegiate lacrosse defensive midfielder, 4-year letter winner and 3-year team captain. Coached strength and conditioning collegiately with Georgetown University football, Men's and Women's lacrosse and Women's Crew, as well with the University of Texas at Austin's football program. Apprenticed under Raphael Ruiz of 1-FortyFour-1 studying proper implementation of science based, performance driven training systems. Head coached CrossFit Dupont's program for two years in Washington D.C. Received a Master's in Health Promotion Management from Marymount University in 2010, and has been a coach for Power Athlete since October, 2012.
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