“It’s not possible!”
That’s the feeling a lot of people on the jiu-jitsu mats will have when the subject of keeping your neck and shoulders healthy is brought up.
To some degree it’s a fair point. If you belong to a world where people are often trying to strangle you or break your arm in to smaller pieces, your neck and shoulders are likely to take a bit of a battering. Especially the neck! If it’s not being strangled then it’s probably being cranked on or at least pulled about as your opponent uses your head to manipulate you and how your positioned. This all makes the likelihood of a sore neck or grumpy shoulders very, very, high.
But this ‘I’m doing jiu-jitsu so I’m going to have a crap neck’ approach is part of the problem. There are plenty of things we can do to help ourselves and if we want to keep doing the art we love (as well as look over our shoulder when we reverse a car) it’s important we spend some time showing our neck and shoulders some TLC.
There are some things we should consider before we start:
- Firstly the neck is a complex area so if you’re suffering with some issues it’s highly recommended you get it looked at by a trained professional. And if those issues are things like intense shooting pain, tingling or numbness IT IS ESSENTIAL YOU GO AND GET IT CHECKED.
- Secondly, be careful if you’re performing self massage around your neck. I know it feels nice to massage the surrounding muscles but it’s not always the right thing to do and again your neck is more complicated than something like your quad. If you are going to do it be very gentle, but I would recommend getting a trained professional with experienced hands to do the work if you feel it needs some manual therapy.
- Lastly, and this is a common mistake on the mats, accept the fact that you’re injured! You are always going to get niggles when doing this sport and it can be super frustrating when it feels like it’s stopping your progress but pushing through is never really the answer. Taking your time to let things heal and then rehabbing them properly is the best way to make sure a problem doesn’t keep coming back, or worse, escalate into a bigger problem. And if you keep picking up niggles and injuries it’s time to listen to the pain and address the larger picture. Things like:
- Are you doing enough stuff off the mats in terms of rest, prehab and nutrition?
- Does your technique or approach to sparring need refining?
- Is there too much intensity or volume in your training load?
So what can we do to help out our neck and shoulders as much as possible?
Well the first place to start is to look at our mobility. A lack of mobility can be an issue for many reasons, but the main one is this; In jiu-jitsu it’s very likely that your shoulder and neck will end up in a variety of weird and wonderful positions and if you don’t have the necessary control or flexibility to be in them naturally then they are much more likely to cause damage to you. Lacking mobility can also identify tissue quality issues and if there is stiffness to the tissues then our movement quality is likely to be diminished, also leading to pains and niggles.
In jiu-jitsu populations you often see the following mobility and tissue problems:
- Overly tense muscles in the neck.
- A stiff back, especially in terms of extension.
- Rounded shoulders and tight pecs.
- And heavily toned and tight lats.
The techniques listed below are a good starting point for trying to undo some of these issues, but always remember that these problems won’t apply to everyone. Feel free to gently explore the exercises but if they don’t feel challenging or beneficial, or if worse they feel sketchy then they probably aren’t helpful for you. If in doubt find a professional who can thoroughly assess you and work out exactly what will be best for you.
Neck tension is a common trait among most people, let alone the BJJ community. Now this can be posture related and it can be due to muscle length / asymmetrical issues, but it also has a lot to do with how we breathe. Thanks to seated positions we tend to do a lot of our breathing through our neck and chest. Not only does this lead us towards the fight or flight stress response, it also means we tend to take shorter, shallower breaths. This leaves us with a body and mind that’s constantly on edge. It also tends to tighten up our neck muscles which are overworked due to the fact they’re not meant to be used as the primary breathing muscles.
Another reason that breathing is an important consideration is the volume of breaths we take. On average a person can take 23,000 breaths per day! That’s a lot of extra work for muscles that aren’t meant to be doing this job.
Ideally we want to breathe using our diaphragm. This means that the initial inflation comes through our belly and not our chest. Try to inflate through your belly for the first two thirds of the breath and then let the breath expand into the chest. Aim to practice this for 5-10 minutes daily.
For anyone looking for decent shoulder and neck mobility, good movement in the thoracic spine is a must.
To perform the thoracic rotation drill:
- Set up on your side with your top leg supported and your bottom leg straight. You can use a support for your head if needed.
- Now stretch the arm closest to the ground away from you and wrap the top arm around your body.
- Keeping your lower body still use your arm to encourage your ribs to rotate as you take your back towards the floor.
- You can either stay in this position and cycle deep belly breaths or rotate back and forth.
- Aim to play around with this position for 2-3 minutes each side.
The pec muscles tend to get a lot of use both in the gym and in sport. Thanks to sitting, driving and mobile phones they also get left in a shortened position a lot of the time. This can lead to them pulling the shoulders into a rounded position putting a lot of tension on the neck muscles, making the shoulder joint more prone to niggles and possibly injuries.
To perform the pec stretch:
- Place your arm on a frame, forming 90 degree angles at the shoulder and elbow.
- Step forward with the foot on the same side and gently move your shoulder blade across your back.
- To enhance the stretch more, turn your body away from the frame and/or slightly lean forward.
- Avoid excessive force or arching in the lower back.
- Once you’ve been here for a few breaths, feel free to slide your arm up and down the frame to play with new positions. If you feel there is a particular angle or position that is restricted feel free to drop in a contract / relax. While in the stretch take a full breath in, lasting roughly 4 seconds, then hold your breath and contract the muscles you’re trying to free up for 4 seconds, then slowly relax the muscles whilst breathing out for about 8 seconds. If you feel you can move into some new territory with the stretch now is your moment!
- Aim for exploring each side for 2 minutes.
Another muscle group that get’s a lot of focus in the gym, as well as in jiu-jitsu, are the lats. Too much tension in these muscles can lead to the shoulder blade and collar bones being pulled downwards. Again this leads to excessive neck tension and a shoulder joint more prone to aches, pains and injuries.
To perform the lat stretch:
- Start on the floor in a 4-point position.
- Reach one arm out in front of you and turn the palm upwards as much as you can.
- Now imagine you’ve glued that hand to the floor so it can’t move and gently sit back towards your heels.
- To enhance the stretch more use your other hand to push you sideways towards the arm that you’re stretching.
- Feel free to move side to side and also explore different angles with your arm. If you feel there is a particular angle or position that is restricted feel free to drop in a contract / relax. While in the stretch take a full breath in, lasting roughly 4 seconds, then hold your breath and contract the muscles you’re trying to free up for 4 seconds, then slowly relax the muscles whilst breathing out for about 8 seconds. If you feel you can move into some new territory with the stretch now is your moment!
- Aim for 2 minutes on each side.
When trying any of these techniques keep your eye out for obvious asymmetries. If one side is significantly worse than the other then it would be a good idea to spend some time on it and even things up as much as you can.
Take it easy at first and experiment a bit with each one to see if they’re right for you. Finally remember to stay consistent. A little and often approach is far better than one big campaign that ends after a few weeks.
As always if you’re unsure about anything or would like to look at your neck or shoulder issues in more depth please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Until next time.