Neck it to keep fit

Most athletes know that they have to work major muscle groups like their biceps, quads and gluts. But even elite athletes may neglect one of the most important muscle groups - those in the neck.

The neck can be the weakest link in anyone's physical condition. In a game or vigorous activity, the neck has to support over six kilograms or more - the average weight of the human head – and balance this weight as the arms, shoulders and back make sudden and powerful athletic moves.

You can actually build bulk in the neck, which provides a beach body balance to a well built upper body. But it's far more important to build strength in this body part, which will help protect your upper back muscles and spinal cord against impact.

Whiplash isn't limited to car accidents - a hard fall or a tackle can literally rattle your brain and cause months of lingering pain and downtime. Protect yourself by working the neck muscles to make them stronger and more flexible. This will also help prevent spinal injuries.

There are over 15 muscles in the neck area. The most noticeable of these is the multisyllabic sternocleidomastoids - those two front side muscles that stand out when your neck or jaw is tensed.

You can easily strengthen these, as well as all the other muscles in the neck, with your own two hands. As with every other muscle-resistance work-out, you need to warm up the muscles first.

A neck warm-up is easy – simply turn the head from side to side, then flex it in a full range of motion. Let your head relax and lean back, then to each side, then forward. Finally, move your head in an upright circle in both directions.

Put your palms together in a "prayer" position, then put them over your ears on one side of your head. Push upward with your hands, while pushing your head downward. You should feel this in your head, neck, upper back and upper arm. Do this on both sides of the head. Then, bracing your elbows on a solid surface like a desk or table, put your head in your hands and push down.

You'll feel this in the back of your neck. Next, interlace your fingers at the back of your neck and pull your hands forward while pushing your head back against your hands. Breathe deeply with each rep.

The neck should not be worked out every day, twice a week is sufficient to build both strength and bulk in this important area. Give those small muscles enough time to fully recover from every work out. They will also be stretched as they are worked, thus becoming more flexible.

While self resistance from the hands will do the job, it's much more efficient to use a head strap. This is a "cage" of canvas straps that fit over the head and allow a weight to be attached under the chin. It can be used while lying on a bench or a bed, or even while bending over at the hips. It can be found at most sporting goods stores as well as online.

When using a head strap, start with small weights of less than two kilograms feel a bit of soreness the following day when you first begin working this area, but once the muscles are accustomed to being exercised, there should be no soreness. If so, you're lifting too much weight, lower the resistance.

Once your neck has become strong and flexible, it won't matter whether you take a hit on the field or in a fall from your bike your "weakest link" will help protect you from injury.