Thursday, April 17, 2014

Get Your Head in the Game

by Doug Ward on April 3, 2012

Concussions and brain damage are not topics anyone wants to discuss, but injuries of this type are not exclusive to boxing and combat sports alone.  They impact all athletes in various types of contact sports and it’s best to address these issue head-on, protect yourself properly and take the proper precautions to be sure that you can perform at your best and remain injury-free.  There are numerous pro-active moves you can make to help avoid suffering head trauma or sustaining a concussion.

As it relates specifically to boxing, a knockout occurs, or concussive-type injuries happen, when the brain is rocked back and forth in your skull.  Without getting too technical or precise in terminology, your 3lb mass (roughly) consists of gray matter that is connected by networks of white matter, nerve cells.  These cells contain axons and they relay signals from cell to cell.  These connections account for every function of your brain.  When you are struck, your brain sloshes against the walls of your skull and these connections are temporarily disrupted.  In boxing terminology getting hit like that means you got rocked, stunned, buzzed or, in extreme cases, knocked-out.  While you can’t do anything to strengthen these connectors (called tendrils) and avoid this entirely, you can take some precautions and tip the odds in your favor.

The first precaution you can take isn’t about gaining neck strength, but it is still the first step towards protecting your noggin.  Keep your chin down.  Yes, that’s basic advice, but some fighters still stand up too tall, open themselves up when they’re punching and don’t keep their chins tucked behind their shoulders.  Watch yourself while you are shadowboxing in the mirror and be sure this isn’t you. Good technique is the best form of protection you can employ.

The next thing you can do to prevent and/or reduce the amount of impact you sustain during competition, in sparring or an actual fight, is strengthen your neck muscles. You can reduce the rapid acceleration that happens when you get hit, causing your brain to strike against the inside wall of your skull, by increasing your ability to absorb the impact from each punch.  Strong neck and shoulder muscles can help hold the head firmly in place so there is less reaction from taking a clean blow.

The idea is to reduce the amount of violent head movement that occurs when you get hit with a punch.  By strengthening the neck muscles they then can help you absorb impact and your head is not as prone to being tossed about on your shoulders.  This can be accomplished by incorporating a series of neck exercises into your routine.  You should be spending at least ten minutes per workout, a minimum of three times each week on developing your neck muscles. It may seem unimportant and second to everything else, but it can have huge implications on your ability to take a punch, continue to fight or keep your wits about you after getting hit clean.

You can utilize a traditional neck strengthening devise that has an attachment for added weights or a more contemporary model that typically attaches to your head with hook and loop and contains sand for added weight.  Both are fairly easy to use and work well.  Be sure when using either style of equipment to work all sides of your neck equally, lying on each side of your body, your back and your front when performing repetitions.  These pieces of equipment can be used most effectively while standing in a crouched position or hanging your head over the edge of a bench or ring apron.

Another version of this resistance-type of exercise is to have a partner wrap a towel around your head.  As you nod your head back and forth or side to side, your partner can provide just enough resistance to make it hard for you to turn your head.  This is a safe, but effective approach because it utilizes natural opposition, force and gravity, to provide resistance.

You can also do bridges. Place a towel or pad on the floor and rest your head on it.  Then, rise up on your toes and balance, using just your neck muscles to hold you up.  Rotate your head at all angles to get all sides of your neck, but avoid any type of compression on your spine.  These exercises should put pressure and demands on your neck muscles, not the vertebras in your back. You can also do this by leaning against a wall and adjusting the amount of force you are applying by how close or far away from it you stand.

Preventing or alleviating impact is a big part of protecting yourself.  Another major factor in this equation is found in the mouthpiece you use.  A good mouthpiece doesn’t just keep the teeth separated to avoid a trip to the dentist.  Although that might make your mom, wife, significant other or insurance agent happy, that’s almost secondary.  A good mouth guard not only protects your teeth and gums, but it also creates separation between your jaw bone and the base of your skull.  It serves as a shock-absorber, of sorts.  By reducing the amount of bone on bone contact and adding an air pocket in between your jaw and your brain, your mouthpiece is helping dissipate the impact of the blow.

The other preventative approach is in supplementation and doing what you can to reverse the adverse affects of getting hit.  Some studies have shown that a diet that includes taking antioxidants can help decrease damage to the part of the brain that produces dopamine, the area called the substantia nigra.  Much of what boxers suffer is oxidative damage so the theory is that supplementation that includes doses of antioxidants and high concentrations of vitamin C and E will help preserve neurons. Adding vitamins and nutrients to your regimen can help keep you thinking clearly.

Head trauma, in general, is an area that isn’t discussed in most gyms and by most trainers because it is somewhat taboo.  However unwanted, it is part of the sport.  It is a part of all athletics and scientists and athletic directors are becoming more aware of the serious side effects brought on by repetitive concussions.  Be progressive in this area; openly confront it because that’s the best way to avoid it.  Simple awareness, understanding and preparing for it is half the battle.  Although good headgear and keeping your guard up in the proper position are the most obvious preventative measures, it’s the little things that mean the most when it comes to protecting your melon.  Neck exercises may seem trivial, mouthpiece selection easy to overlook and what you put in your system too much of a hassle to deal with, but these are the details that champions pay attention to.  They’re willing to spend time on all aspects of their game to improve their offense, their defense and anything that can make them better. Be smart about your approach to this sport because there really is no room for mistakes or complacency.  When it comes to your head, use it or lose it.

Doug Ward is the President and Trainer for the Underground Boxing Company.

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