I’d seen weighted neck exercises in movies before ever trying it. I did know that neck strength was important for clinch and I’d learned the boxer and wrestler exercise of “yes, no, and maybe” that has you lying off the edge of a ring or bench and moving your head up and down (“yes”), back and forth (“no), and side to side like your ears are tagging your shoulders (“maybe”). Those are good. But there’s nothing quite like the weighted neck exercises of the Muay Thai variety, which involves holding a tube or rope between your teeth, from which weights are hung.
Some folks sit and let the weights dangle between your legs, but I prefer to stand and keep my stance wide, hips forward like I’m actually clinching. But whether seated or standing one generally has one’s hands behind the back and with the rope/tube held in the jaw (farther back is best, but you might gag a bit after higher reps) bring the chin down to the chest and, using the neck and not the back, tilt the head all the way up and to the back, like looking up at something. I use about 10-15 lbs at the moment and have worked up to three sets of 20 and one set of 15, but I started at two sets of 10 and a set of 5. Some folks use lighter weights with higher repetition – some folks use the same weight with high repetition, like doing 100. Thais love sets of 100 and Sakmongkol had his fighter, Cat Zingano, do 100 of these at high speed with what looked to be about 20 lbs of weight directly after clinching at their gym in Broomfield, CO. That was impressive.
I’ve had people complain to me online that this looks like it messes up your teeth. I haven’t noticed this at all among the Thais I’ve met who did this all throughout their careers. Further, when I was a kid I had to wear headgear at night when I had braces in order to correct my bite and I had to wear that torturous contraption for 10 hours at a time in order to move my molars by fractions of millimeters. The odds that my teeth are going to move in the 1 minute it takes to bust out a few sets of these exercises seems highly improbable.
Holding the weight in your jaw rather than having some kind of straps for around your head (which I’ve seen) allows you to strengthen your jaw and adjoining neck muscles in addition to the muscles required to move the weight up and down when the head is tilted. This is good because iron jaws are better than glass ones. If you wear a mouthpiece, you’ve probably spent a little time reading the back of the package from various different brands and have seen the diagrams of how a clenched (or semi-clenched) jaw helps prevent and reduce concussion. This is also how dentists have entered into the high-end mouthguard arena by aiding in fitting custom mouthpieces that keep the jaw positioned just-so and increasing strength by whatever-percent. Jaw muscles are good. Batman knows.
Neck muscle in the clinch is paramount. Spend even five minutes with some jerk kid or inexperienced partner cranking on your neck and you’ll be sore for a day. Just five minutes will do. Being able to keep your head upright in the clinch is a sound advantage and having the strength to pull it back up when it’s already been cranked down is what separates the boys from the men, so to speak. My head got cranked down with no effort at all for a few sessions of clinch before my neck strength got better. Now I become less sore, less injured, and I can not get kneed in the face – which is nice. When the head gets cranked down, if your lower back bends it’s already too late. Once the line from your lower back to the base of your neck is “broken”, you’re going to have a hard time muscling your way out of anything. It’s like a fish – all one piece is strong, but if you are a budding psychopath and you break the straight spine line of the fish while it’s still able to swim, it won’t be able to swim with any power. Same with the neck in the clinch: all one line is strong. But you also want to be able to tuck your head down between your shoulders or into the neck of your opponent, not only because it’s a great position to control from, but also because you won’t be susceptible to elbows from there. It’s “turtle power.”
If you’re going to have your head tucked down, your neck is semi-exposed and you’re going to have to have the strength in the neck to be able to reposition and not get cranked down if your neck is already down a bit. The Thai boys I train with have incredible neck strength and they will tuck their heads down, digging their chins into my shoulder or their foreheads into my face – that hurts like hell – and yet the moment I grab behind the head they’ll just unfold themselves and can actually lift me, all 103 lbs of me, off the ground with just their neck and straight back. It’s amazing. I think with a few more stages of increasing my strength through the weighted exercise, I could lift my own weight as well.
Bring a Towel
The one thing that I’m hardcore about is using a spare shirt or a towel over the rope or tube so you’re not putting your mouth directly on it. That’s gross, even if you’re all community-of-love about it personally, be a dear and don’t put your mouth on shared equipment.