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Is neck bridging safe? Neck bridging can be a safe exercise for Jiu Jitsu students and competitors, but it should be practiced with extreme caution. Do not attempt neck bridging on your own without professional instruction and supervision – especially the first time you try it.
Every muscle group is important in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but the neck is one group that can often be overlooked.
The neck and spine don’t typically come to mind first when thinking about the most important muscles, for looks or function. But this group is very important in combat sports and mixed martial arts, especially Jiu Jitsu.
Often times competitors end up on the ground in positions where they are forced to push off with their back and neck to escape.
Unfortunately, many BJJ students overlook strengthening their neck muscles or are just too scared of injuring a very important part of the body.
It’s true that the neck muscles and vertebrae of the spine are very sensitive, but they still must be strengthened and can be worked out without fear if you know what you’re doing.
Jiu Jitsu competitors need to strengthen their neck to avoid injury when grappling.
Neck bridging is one of the more popular exercises for BJJ practitioners and wrestlers, but it is also very misunderstood.
Students who are new to the sport may have seen more seasoned Jiu Jitsu practitioners at their gym performing the exercise and felt ready to jump right in.
Before doing that, however, there is a lot to know, because there are plenty of mixed opinions in the BJJ community regarding the safety of bridging onto your head and neck.
Let’s try and break it down to present a fair assessment of how safe is neck bridging overall.
What is neck bridging and why do it?
For BJJ grapplers and wrestlers, neck and back strength can be very important, especially in competition.
When a Jiu Jitsu match or training session requires you to work on our go to your ground game, the neck can be dangerously close to meeting the mat with a violent force.
Pushing off the mat with your neck can also help to break free of an opponent’s hold. Without any strengthening exercises, the neck is not meant to take these forces.
Neck bridging has become a popular method to work on neck muscle strength for Jiu Jitsu practitioners.
There are two ways to bridge onto your neck and head – backwards (stomach to ceiling) or forwards (stomach to mat).
A backwards neck bridge looks similar to a gymnast’s backbend, while a forward neck bridge is similar to the first steps of getting into a handstand position.
Both make your neck stronger, but pose injury risk if not done correctly.
To perform the forward neck bridge, kneel on all fours on your mat. Place your head between your hands, then raise and straighten your knees behind.
Roll back onto forehead until your nose touches the mat, then reverse forward until your chin touches your chest.
The execution of the rear neck bridge is similar, except you begin lying on your back and roll backwards.
How can you hurt yourself?
The potential for injury exists pretty much every time you set foot into a BJJ gym to train.
It’s a contact sport, and there can never be a 100 percent guarantee something won’t go wrong while sparring or training.
Even with this understanding, Jiu Jitsu practitioners need to feel confident they are not opening themselves up to excess risk when they try new exercises and techniques.
Without proper technique and positioning, you can hurt yourself bridging onto your neck.
Getting into the position with your neck and head pushing into the mat introduces huge amounts of axial compression and shear forces into your neck and spine.
In competition, your head might meet the mat in a violent way at some point, so you do need to be prepared for these moments.
The goal, however, is to get that preparation done without injuring yourself.
To understand the risks involved with neck bridging, Jiu Jitsu practitioners first need to understand how the neck works and what muscles the exercise is targeting.
The goal of neck bridging is to strengthen the cervical muscles of the neck. The primary function of these muscles is to resist motion while keeping the head aligned to receive sensory feedback.
They’re stabilizer muscles – not intended to support the entire body. By pushing with force into the mat, we are asking these muscles to perform a task they were never intended to do.
This can create problems, especially if the neck has not already been sufficiently strengthened with other exercises.
In addition to overstraining the neck muscles, bridging can potentially injure vertebrae and the discs that separate them. The discs serve to absorb compressive forces on the spine – but they have their limits.
The potential for injury when bridging onto the neck is very real, and BJJ students should only attempt this exercise after first receiving careful instruction and supervision until they have mastered it.
The pros and cons of neck bridging
The biggest pro when it comes to neck bridging is that it will strengthen your neck in a sport-specific way for Jiu Jitsu competition and sparring.
That is the number-one reason to consider adding it to your strengthening routine.
Strengthening your neck to prepare for competition will make you less likely to suffer a serious injury if you end up in a compromising position on the mat.
Unfortunately, the biggest con to these types of exercise is that there is a high risk of injuring your neck while doing them. Some people just flat out can’t handle neck bridging at all.
The potential strength gains that may be achieved through neck bridging just may not outweigh the risk of injury for most recreational BJJ students.
Alternatives to neck bridging
Luckily, there are several safer alternatives to neck bridging that can still strengthen the target muscles effectively.
Consider the following instead of neck bridging:
- Lie flat on your back and slowly lift your head a few inches off the ground. Slowly rotate your head back and forth, moving your chin towards your chest and then back towards the ground. You can start with 20 reps and increase as your neck gets stronger.
- Using an exercise bench, lie with your head off the back of the bench. Place a towel across your forehead and set a weight on top of the towel. Determine the weight based on your own level of strength. Move your head back and forth similar to the first exercise.
- Lie on your back as in the first exercise, but for this exercise, turn your head side to side from shoulder to shoulder.
- The prone cobra also strengthens the neck, but also involves the shoulder girdle and upper back. It is effective for strengthening multiple muscle groups. To perform this exercise, lie face down on the mat with your arms at your side, palms down. Pinch your shoulder blades together and lift your hands from the floor. Slowly roll your elbows in and lift your forehead off the mat about an inch. Hold for 10 seconds and then perform as many reps as your comfort level allows.
So, is it safe? Here’s the truth
There are risks of injuring your neck when practicing neck bridging.
This is an extremely sensitive area of the body, and the potential gains don’t necessarily outweigh the risks, especially for non-competitive Jiu Jitsu practitioners.
Do not attempt neck bridging on your own without professional instruction and supervision – especially the first time you try it.
You’ll also need to know your own limits. Not every neck or spine is built to handle the stresses of bridging, no matter how long you’ve been practicing BJJ.
So while neck bridging can be called “safe” under certain circumstances, keep in mind that there are alternatives to build up neck strength that are less likely to result in injury.