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Enhancing Neck Strength for Combat Sports: A Guide for Athletes

Uncover the critical role of neck strength in combat sports and the synergy of specialized nutrition.

Jabari Martin, Registered Dietitian, NASM Certified Personal Trainer

Written and researched by Jabari Martin R.D., NASM C.P.T.

The Importance of Neck Strength in Combat Sports

In this article, I combine academic research with my 14 years of experience working with high-performing-athletes — as a coach, trainer and nutritionist — to provide you with a trustworthy, science-backed source of information. My aim is to provider readers with a genuine, practical understanding of how to integrate biomechanical and nutritional knowledge, step-by-step exercise instructions for developing a strong neck.

Neck Strength for Injury Prevention

Neck strength is crucial for stand-up combat athletes, especially in scenarios involving head blows. Strengthening the neck helps minimize head movement upon impact, reducing the risk of brain trauma. This highlights the need for targeted neck training alongside a protein-rich diet to support muscle strength and recovery, where protein bars can play a significant role.

Neck Muscles' Response to Impact

Different types of blows require varying neck muscle contractions. For instance, a direct strike to the face necessitates anti-extension contractions, while a blow to the side requires anti-rotation or anti-lateral flexion contractions. Understanding these biomechanics can inform targeted strength training and nutritional strategies, emphasizing the need for micronutrient-dense foods and protein to support these specific muscle actions.

Neck Strength in Clinch Situations

In sports like Muay Thai, where clinching is common, neck muscles must perform strong anti-flexion contractions. This further underscores the need for an isometric training approach, supported by a diet rich in protein and essential nutrients to enhance muscle endurance and strength.

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Three Exercises for Developing a Strong Neck

Anti-Flexion Exercise: Front Neck Bridge

The front neck bridge primarily targets the anterior muscles of the neck, crucial for combat athletes who frequently face forward-directed force, such as boxers and Muay Thai fighters defending against frontal strikes. Grapplers also benefit greatly as they often resist opponents pulling their head down. This exercise helps in strengthening the neck muscles to maintain a strong, upright posture, crucial for both offensive and defensive maneuvers.

Collegiate wrestler from University of Iowa doing a front neck bridge


  1. Start Position: Begin by sitting on your knees on a soft surface, like a yoga mat. Place your hands on the mat for support and slowly lower your forehead to the ground.
  2. Initiate the Bridge: With your forehead touching the ground and your hands still supporting some of your weight, gently lift your knees off the ground. Your body weight should now shift onto your head and hands.
  3. Lift Your Hands: Gradually remove your hands from the mat, balancing solely on your forehead and feet. Keep your hips elevated and back straight.
  4. Hold the Position: Maintain this bridge position, ensuring your neck muscles are engaged. Hold for as long as you can comfortably manage, aiming for around 20-30 seconds to start with.
  5. Return Safely: To come out of the bridge, carefully place your hands back on the mat, lower your knees, and gently roll back up to an upright position.

Anti-Extension Exercise: Neck Plank

The neck plank focuses on the posterior neck muscles, vital for fighters absorbing blows that push the head backward, such as uppercuts in boxing or knee strikes in Muay Thai. It's also beneficial for grapplers who need to resist their head being snapped back. Strengthening these muscles through anti-extension exercises helps maintain a neutral head posture and reduces the risk of neck hyperextension.

Athlete doing a neck plank on a grey exercise ball


  1. Start Position: Lie face down on a mat with your body straight and toes on the ground. Place your hands by your sides or under your forehead for support.
  2. Initiate the Plank: Carefully lift your head and chest off the ground, engaging the muscles at the back of your neck. Look straight ahead or slightly downward.
  3. Elevate the Body: Press your toes into the ground and lift your body into a plank position. Your body should form a straight line from your heels to the back of your head.
  4. Hold and Engage: Keep your neck muscles engaged as you hold the plank position. Focus on not letting your head drop backward. Hold for 20-30 seconds to start, gradually increasing as you get stronger.
  5. Relax Safely: To finish, gently lower your body back to the mat, relaxing your neck and back muscles.

Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercise: Isometric Side Neck Hold

The isometric side neck hold targets the muscles on the sides of the neck, particularly useful for fighters when they're absorbing or bracing against side blows, common in all forms of combat sports. Grapplers, boxers, and Muay Thai fighters benefit from this exercise as it strengthens the neck's resistance to lateral movement, crucial when facing side clinches or hooks.


  1. Start Position: Sit or stand upright comfortably. Keep your head in a neutral position and your shoulders relaxed.
  2. Place Your Hand: Place your right hand on the right side of your head, just above your ear.
  3. Apply Pressure: Gently push your head into your hand, resisting the movement with your neck muscles. Ensure the pressure is gradual and controlled.
  4. Hold and Resist: Maintain the pressure for about 20-30 seconds while breathing normally. You should feel the muscles on the side of your neck engaging.
  5. Switch Sides: Relax and then repeat the exercise on the left side with your left hand.

For all these exercises, it's crucial to start slowly and increase the intensity gradually to avoid injury. Consistent practice will lead to improved neck strength and stability, enhancing performance and safety in combat sports.

Nutritional Strategies for Enhanced Neck Strength and Overall Performance

Protein for Muscle Strength and Recovery

Protein is vital for the repair and growth of muscles, including the neck muscles. Incorporating protein snacks into an athlete's diet provides a convenient and effective way to ensure adequate protein intake, essential for muscle recovery post-training.

Micronutrients for Optimal Muscle Function

Vitamins and minerals play a critical role in muscle function and overall health. A diet rich in superfoods, known for their high micronutrient content, supports the intricate needs of combat athletes, promoting better performance and resilience.

Balanced Diet for Sustained Energy

Besides protein, a balanced diet including complex carbohydrates and healthy fats is essential for maintaining energy levels and overall health. Combine pre-workout supplements that improve blood circulation like citrulline, with foods high in healthy fats like salmon and flax seeds, and finally, high protein foods like eggs, chicken, or nutrition bites to provide your body with the perfect blend of nutrients for optimum power, endurance, and recover.

In summary, understanding the importance of neck strength and complementing it with a strategically planned diet rich in protein and superfoods is crucial for combat athletes. This approach not only enhances performance and aids in injury prevention but also supports overall physical development and health. Through a blend of scientific understanding and practical application, this article aims to provide combat athletes with the knowledge and tools needed to achieve their best physical condition.