Neck Strengthening for Muay Thai
It’s New Year’s Day and instead of a hangover, I had difficulty getting out of bed due to a terribly sore neck (the whole upper and middle trapezius) from yesterday’s clinching session. We usually get partnered up with someone of a similar weight class, but due to the odd-numbered attendance, I had the pleasure to get schooled by Kru Ko (Kwankao Mor Ratanabandit).
I was swept to the mats countless times pretty much like a rag doll. It wasn’t only so much the difference in weight or strength. Prior to the clinching, we did 5 rounds on the bags and pads, I was obviously feeling a little worn out. But I could tell Kru Ko wasn’t even using much strength, while I had to summon the remaining of my brute strength to muscle out of his control. As a result, I am gifted with a sore neck and a quest to improve my clinching game; and a realisation of the importance of a strong neck in Muay Thai.
Muay Thai Clinch, Briefly
Clinch training is not a particularly popular aspect of Muay Thai (training). It isn’t exciting to watch in a fight, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it the first time I had a go at it. Basically, a lot of Muay Thai guys dislike it for the same reasons they shun Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: too much hugging. But as I continue to train and get the hang of it, I started to appreciate the beauty of the clinch especially when seen in professional fights. He who masters the clinch, takes the belt. Case in point: Petchboonchu FA Group, King of the Clinch. Kru Benz -as he is known at our gym- has 14 championship titles to his name through his mastery of the clinch.
The Thais start training at a very young age and as soon as they do, clinching becomes a part of their daily routine. After years of drilling, clinching becomes second nature. Every move and maneuver becomes ingrained into muscle memory over time. There is no other way around it: to get good at clinching, regular practice is a requisite.
Even though brute force is not the way of the clinch, if you are facing an equally-skilled opponent, strengthening and conditioning becomes a key factor. If your muscles become fatigued prematurely, there is no doubt that the stronger party will outlast and control the game. With respect to clinching, some particular muscles are more important, namely, arms, shoulders, back and the neck.
When your opponent controls your neck, he controls the clinch. Once he has two hands on your neck inside of the clinch, he can throw you off balance or knee you with ease. Keeping your neck and body upright while your opponent is constantly trying to press your neck down to get a knee to your face requires you to have a strong neck (and back). Additionally, a strong neck is also essential to withstand the impact of punches because it helps transfer much of the force received from a blow to the head to the torso. Despite its paramount importance, neck strengthening is often overlooked.
Neck Stretches Before Training
I have to admit that I never did pay much attention to doing neck stretches until today. Do not underestimate those subtle neck stretches and head/shoulder rotations that you perform at warm-up. Proper and regular stretching will improve the flexibility. Adequate and proper stretching prepares the muscles for physical activity and helps to lower risk of injuries.
Neck Strengthening Exercises and Equipment
There are many exercises for strengthening the neck. Old skool to new skool, no-tech to hi-tech, you’ve got it all. After some researching, I found some methods that I will be considering:
A towel and a wall is all you need for wall lean neck strengthening. Lean your head against a wall -with the towel as a cushion- and apply pressure with your neck strength. You can lean with your forehead, the back of the head or the sides. Voila! A free and easy neck strengthening workout. The wall lean can also be performed with a stability ball which is more effective as the space allows you to use more or your neck strength rather than body weight. Additionally, stability ball can be used in a multitude of other exercises such as push-ups, yoga, neck bridges etc. which makes it a low-cost yet versatile training tool. (Here are 2 wall lean with stability ball exercise videos on YouTube: Video 1, Video 2)
Latex Resistance Bands
Latex resistance bands can be used for a wide variety of strengthening and rehabilitation exercises for different muscles. They usually come in different color according to varying resistance levels. Thera-Band is one of the brands but there are other manufacturers that you can consider. They are low-cost, portable, versatile, and a great way of strengthening the neck and upper back. (Click here to see resistance band neck training video on YouTube)
Weighted Neck Exercise
Weighted neck workouts are performed by professional athletes from NFL, wrestling, boxing and also Muay Thai. This can be done the old skool way by holding weights hanging off a rope with your teeth or using head harness. Used by the best boxers and Muay Thai fighters, this appears to be a very effective way of strengthening the neck but as with weights training, it is better to get some guidance or supervision from your instructor before attempting to minimize injury risks.
Neck exercise machines (such as the 4-way neck machine as seen above) are specialised equipment that you can find in some weights training gyms. They may or may not involve weights but they work principally on resistance. These are ergonomically designed and will target the the appropriate muscles precisely for best results. The downside is of course the price and bulkiness. They are also rather limited in its application, being too specialised an equipment. If you are setting up your own basement or training gym, you can consider one of these.
Like my Krus say, it takes years of practice and drilling to get good at the Muay Thai clinch. But as you continue to drill and work on your techniques while you get repeatedly swept to the ground, remember to strengthen your neck and back muscles to level the game. You don’t have to devote much time for neck exercises but 5 minutes a week may be all you need to see improvements. At least that is what I plan to do.
The more you train, the more exposed you will be to all of your weaknesses and that is what I love about Muay Thai. A never-ending learning journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. Quote of the day: “A sore body today is a strong body tomorrow”.