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    Neck Strengthening Key As

    Jimmie Johnson Prepares

    for First IndyCar season


    by George Perry - 4/8/21

    The seated-and-strapped-in nature of motor sports resulted in their exclusion from the "athlete club" for most of racing's existence. Over the last 15 years, though, an understanding of the forces high-speed driving applies to the body has led to an appreciation of what the body has to do to perform under those conditions.

    Race car drivers have to withstand several times their body weight in G forces with each turn and, against those forces, scan their surroundings, explosively extend their legs through a tight range of motion to work the gas and brakes, and turn the steering wheel. They have to endure and, to whatever extent possible, dissipate hundreds of pounds of shear, compression and tension specifically at the neck.

    Motor sports: Engineering increases the demands on sports science

    These physical and cognitive stresses, the accumulated loading of training and weekly races, the temperature within the car and potentially the effects of altitude and jet lag all contribute torace car drivers having a physiological profile consistent with athletes in a range of sports.


    Professional race car driver Jimmie Johnson emphasized three aspects of his fitness training for the Wall Street Journal's weekly "What's Your Workout?" feature: eccentric movements, grip strength and neck strength.

    Photo: Wall Street Journal (Gabriel L'Heureux)

    Johnson is preparing for his first season of IndyCar racing after 20 years in NASCAR. The design of the car - less than 50% the weight of a stock car, open-wheeled - means Johnson will be driving faster than ever. The course design will add to the magnitude of gravitational forces he experiences on turn, and the number of times his body experiences a surge in G's. And because IndyCar's do not have power steering the way NASCAR vehicles do, he will face greater demands on his arms and shoulders.

    These physical and cognitive stresses, the accumulated loading of training and weekly races, the temperature within the car and potentially the effects of altitude and jet lag all contribute to race car drivers having a physiological profile consistent with athletes in a range of sports.


    Professional race car driver Jimmie Johnson emphasized three aspects of his fitness training for the Wall Street Journal's weekly "What's Your Workout?" feature: eccentric movements, grip strength and neck strength.

    Johnson is preparing for his first season of IndyCar racing after 20 years in NASCAR. The design of the car - less than 50% the weight of a stock car, open-wheeled - means Johnson will be driving faster than ever. The course design will add to the magnitude of gravitational forces he experiences on turn, and the number of times his body experiences a surge in G's. And because IndyCar's do not have power steering the way NASCAR vehicles do, he will face greater demands on his arms and shoulders.

    And then there's this guy, who may win the award for Best Setting for Sport-Specific Neck Training.

    Nothing against Indianapolis or Johnson's home gym, but what better place to have a seat and improve your neck strength for F1 racing than a seaside balcony in Monaco? That's the life of an international athlete at its peak.


    Photo: Wall Street Journal (Gabriel L'Heureux)

    While strength and conditioning coaches program anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension exercises for athletes in more mobile sports, being an athlete in a motor sport is almost entirely an exercise in "anti-" movement. Working the pedals and turning the wheel are just about the extent of their concentric movements. Their performance depends on how well they can resist and control the external forces.


    As Johnson told the Journal, "Essentially my core and lower back act as my anchor and I use my arms to fight forces through the [steering] wheel."

    Johnson says he carries his grip strength device with him everywhere as he aims to "burn out my forearms daily." A 2005 study by Jani Backman found that isometric grip strength decreases 15% after only 30 minutes of driving - less than half the duration of standard races.

    Jimmie Johnson uses several techniques to increase his neck strength. The Journal shows him doing an isometric hold against gravity with a weighted band wrapped around his head, and using the Iron Neck for rotational resistance. Like many Iron Neck users, Johnson endures the amazed or amused looks of those around him because he knows how critical neck strength is to a race car driver.

    Equipment and training to reduce head and neck injuries in race car drivers

    It doesn't take a sports scientist or biomechanist to imagine the worst case scenarios for head and neck injuries in race car driving. Prior to 2001, craniovertebral junction (CVJ) injuries were the most common cause of fatalities in motor sport. The introduction, refinement and requirement to use the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device over the last 20 years has dramatically decreased the risk of death and serious injury from trauma to the CVJ.

    The HANS device was designed to bring the forces acting on the neck below the known thresholds of severe injury. The HANS device reduced the load and shear stresses on the neck from potentially twice the injury threshold to less than one-third. Research shows that drivers wearing the HANS are now "only" exposed to 200+ pounds of neck forward shear, axial and stretch loads. Merely one bodyweight, or so, focused at the neck.

    While the near-instant deceleration caused by collision was the design factor, the HANS device also ameliorates the repeated stesses of rapid braking and acceleration. These moments may not cause any injury individually, but their accumulation over the course of a race contribute to pain and fatigue, with the potential for acute or chronic injuries over a season or career.

    Backman found that open-wheel drivers had greater isometric neck strength than a control group. Even so, 4 G's of force placed the cervical erector spinae muscles under strain that, for some individuals, exceeded their maximum velocity contraction. The same study showed that isometric neck lateral flexion decreased 18% after 30 minutes of driving, along with a decrease in the force-time curve for lateral flexion.

    This provides some insight into a survey William Ebben and Timothy Suchomel conducted of 40 stock car drivers for a 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

    Shoulder fatigue and neck soreness were the most common complaints of post-race muscle soreness. Back pain and neck pain were the most frequent ongoing physical problems experienced by the drivers they surveyed. And, in response to the question "What racing-related injuries are you concerned about in the future," head and neck injury was a close second behind fire and burns.


    Despite all this neck-centricity, none of them reported doing any resistance training on their necks.

    Mainstreaming neck training in motor sports

    Jimmie Johnson may now be the most well-known advocate of neck training on the IndyCar circuit or the NASCAR alumni group, but he's not the only one.

    PitFit Training and St. Vincent Sports Performance, both in Indianapolis, include the Iron Neck in their training programmes for athletes like Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Josef Newgarden, and Conor Daly.

    And then there's Max Verstappen, who may win the award for Best Setting for Sport-Specific Neck Training.


    Nothing against Indianapolis or Johnson's home gym, but what better place to have a seat and improve your neck strength for F1 racing than a seaside balcony in Monaco? That's the life of an international athlete at its peak.


    And then there's this guy, who may win the award for Best Setting for Sport-Specific Neck Training.

    Nothing against Indianapolis or Johnson's home gym, but what better place to have a seat and improve your neck strength for F1 racing than a seaside balcony in Monaco? That's the life of an international athlete at its peak.