Concussions, are a hot topic in the sports research world today, especially with retired professional athletes now filing massive lawsuits against major sport leagues.
Unfortunately, we must understand that by playing a sport such as hockey we are at risk of a head injury and despite the fast-growing body of research, we still have a lot to learn about what these injuries might mean. With the potential consequences of concussions, it should be a top priority to do everything we can to learn more about what we can do to prevent and manage concussions.
Although we will never completely prevent concussions in hockey, there appear to be some things we might be able to do to reduce our risk. Just as sport coaches continue to teach players how to properly take a bodycheck, we as Strength and Conditioning Coaches look at ways that we can potentially prepare the body for these impacts.
What Can We Do?
One component of all of our programs at Relentless Hockey is neck training.
Several studies (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3) have reported that concussion incidence is lower with increased neck strength, including one study with 6704 high school athletes showing that “for every one pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decreased 5%” (Source 4).
While many football organizations have successfully implemented neck training, we should be just as focused on neck training in hockey, especially women's hockey as the concussion incidence rates are staggering (Source 5). Although there are a ton of proposed reasons for this, genetic differences in neck strength do exist (Source 6). What makes neck strength an interesting factor, however is that we can improve it through training (Source 7), making it an element of "physical preparation" that hockey players should focus on.
By focusing on neck training in your workouts, you can develop the hypertrophy and strength, to help reduce your risk of a potential concussion. Here are a few simple exercise protocols to implement into your workouts today.
Prehab Type Neck Exercises
These are typically done as part of a general warm-up or just following the warm-up.
It is important to address both isometric (where no movement occurs), an eccentric and concentric range of motion when neck training, as well as directions of movement (forward flexion and extension, lateral flexion and extension, and rotation).
What do these exercises look like? While there are fancy machines and equipment for neck training, with the use of an exercise ball, resistance band, partner, or simply a solid power rack we can train our neck safely and effectively. These are specific exercises to strengthen the neck as general training, which we will discuss later, is not enough to stimulate significant hypertrophy (Source 8)
Neck Exercise #1: 4-Way Isometric Series
If you have limited equipment this is a good starting point as a partner and towel is all you need. Either on all fours or while seated with good posture (and using a towel because hockey players are sweaty) you are going to push the side your head into your partner's hands, or the side of their leg if you are on all fours and your partner will simply resist the movement creating an isometric contraction of your neck muscles. You will do this for both sides as well as the back of your head and forehead to train anti-flexion/extension in all 4 directions.
If you train alone, simply get down on all fours and place a mat or towel between your head and a power rack, and push the side of your head as hard as you can into the rack. After completing both sides, find a bench and again on all fours and push your forehead down into the bench. Lastly standing against a wall or lying on the floor, you can push the back of your head against the wall. For all four of these, there will not actually be any movement of your neck rather the muscles will contract against an immovable object.
For both of these options holding a hard contraction for 1-2 rounds of 5-15 seconds (start with a lower amount gradually building up) is a good starting point
Neck Exercise #2: Four-Way Flexion Extension Series
This one will be set up with a partner the exact same way as the isometric series, however this time your partner will allow you to very slowly move through the full range of motion. Communication with your partner is important here, and the movement should be real slow and controlled. Start out with about 6 slow reps in each direction for 1-2 rounds.
Neck Exercise #3: Exercise Ball
Although they may be starting to look goofy, an exercise ball can give you a ton of options for neck training. One option we like to do is to spell the alphabet with our foreheads pressing into a ball up against a wall. You can also do pretty much the entire 4-way series discussed above with a ball if you have one.
This video by Joe Defranco (a very well respected Strength and Conditioning Coach) provides you with a couple more good options with the ball).
Neck Exercise #4: Exercise Bands
Another simple but very useful piece of equipment can work for neck training here. One option is demonstrated in the above video, however, another great setup uses a thicker band and a power rack. Set up the standards at about head height and attach the band so that it runs horizontally, across the rack connecting to the standards at either side. Again from here complete the 4-way series described above.
Neck Exercise #5: General Postural and Large Muscle Group Strengthening
As the above prehab exercises are necessary to directly target the neck, it should come as no surprise that they are only one (although the often missing) piece of the puzzle, and need to be done in conjunction with a solid training plan. This plan should almost always include a form of the deadlift, or weighted carry to ensure we are building off of a strong postural base.
Additionally heavy exercises such as cleans and shrugs target the large Trapezius muscle of the upper back, which also ties into the upper neck. This muscle is targeted indirectly and directly through many aspects of training therefore it rarely requires extra attention but should not be neglected due to its size. It is also important to gently spend time stretching these large and small muscles of the neck as extra training may cause them to tighten up, however, with proper care this shouldn’t be a concern.
With the above prehab exercises, you can choose from a wide variety of neck options depending on what you have access to. I would recommend picking one for each day and including both isometric, as well as active range of motion exercises throughout the week.
Adding 2-3 minutes at the start of every your workout is a simple way to help protect against one of the most serious injuries in hockey, one that we all need to put our best effort forth to keep our brain safe and healthy for our entire lifetime.
There are many factors involved in a concussion, and neck training won’t stop them completely, but for the low time commitment, and good potential for risk reduction, we feel they are a very worthwhile addition to your training program.
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.