Neck Strength Masterclass

by | Jun 18, 2018 | All Posts, Exercise Rehabilitation, Training Advice | 0 comments

To improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury by learning how to condition your neck safely and effectively, contact us at

My interest in neck injuries in combat sports goes back a long way.

When I retired from MMA in 2014, there were a number of reasons. One of the major ones was a long standing neck injury; I’d been working around it for years at that point, but it was becoming increasingly clear that it was affecting both my training and my ability to perform. My wrestling, which had become a large part of my MMA game, was hampered by the adjustments I was having to make to avoid aggravating the injury. There were techniques I couldn’t use at all, and others that I lacked the confidence to do effectively. I’d gone through entire fight camps with continual numbness affecting my hand and arm, and stinging pain shooting down my arm a normal feature of many sparring sessions. Once or twice I lost all the strength in the arm. I was routinely taking painkillers to get through the days, and then stronger painkillers in order to be able to sleep at night, and having treatment from some extremely competent colleagues. None of this did more than take the edge off the pain, before getting back in the gym and making it worse again. In 2013, I re-injured my neck while training for my first UFC fight. After the fight, an MRI scan showed I had two prolapsed discs and significant degeneration and my neurosurgeon said that it was bad enough to consider immediate surgery (he advocated fusing C5/6 and C6/7). I opted for rehabilitation and stronger anti-inflammatories instead and limped along for a bit longer, unwilling to concede the inevitable, but by 2014 it was clear that it was time to call it a day.

It’s not just me, though. As my whole generation of grapplers and MMA fighters are getting older, I’m seeing more and more of those people suffering from the side effects of the sport that we love. Friends, training partners and clients alike. As an osteopath with a reputation for treating combat sports injuries, I’ve lost count of the number of practitioners at all levels – from novices through to the most experienced competitors and coaches – who have come to me with their neck problems. I see them in my clinic on a daily basis. I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that we’re doing something wrong. An occasional injury is unfortunate, but could be considered an inevitable risk of our chosen activity. This is an epidemic.

In grappling, we sometimes talk about using the head as a fifth limb – and we often treat it as one; but when we train, we rarely give this vital and complex part of the body the respect it’s due. A fighter might spend several hours a week working on strength and conditioning, but the neck conditioning I’ve seen is almost always hit and miss, poorly thought through and badly executed. Many of the practices I’ve seen used are dangerous, and have the potential to cause more problems than they solve – especially for those with existing neck problems. Over the last few years, I’ve given this problem a lot of thought. I’ve spoken to numerous strength and conditioning coaches and physiotherapists, especially those working in other contact sports such as rugby, as well as talking to coaches and athletes within our own sport. I’ve borrowed the best ideas I’ve found out there, modified a few others, and gone back to first principles to create some of my own. As I’ve worked with athletes, and in my own rehabilitation, I’ve adapted these and found the best ways of doing them.

I never did get that neck surgery in the end. It’s possible that I might still need it one day, but what I’m doing now is working. And although I don’t plan to return to MMA any time soon, I do manage to train BJJ regularly with very few problems. I know now, both from my own experience and also my work with active fighters (in the clinic, and on the mat), that the right kind of neck strengthening work can not only help to recover from and protect against injury, but it can also improve my fighters’ technique, power and confidence on the mat. I sometimes wish that I’d known what I know now fifteen years ago, and wonder how things might have worked differently for my MMA career (and my health), but mostly I try to avoid looking back.

Instead, I’ve focused on passing what I’ve learned on to others in my sport: both those like myself who have had some neck problems, but still want to make the most of our training, but also the next generation of combat sports athletes coming through who can (hopefully) learn from our mistakes. I’ve been working one on one with individuals for a while now, but I’m keen to spread the word more widely. That’s why I’ve put together a seminar to teach a series of fundamental concepts, exercises and sport specific drills that I use with the fighters I work with. I also teach the same material in small group workshops. If you’d like more details, or to book a seminar or workshop, drop me an email at

Note to sports injury professionals – I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts, ideas or contributions on this topic. This is an area where I’d love to see more research, and would be keen to collaborate with others who have an interest in neck injuries in contact sports. Please get in touch!