Watch a Formula 1 race and you will see fast cars and beautiful vistas. But look closer at drivers themselves and you will also notice their huge ripped muscular necks. That’s by design.
There’s a common misconception that you do not have to be an elite athlete to be a Formula 1 racer ― but that could not be further from the truth. “The amount of people I meet who are surprised that you have to be fit,” seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton shared with Men’s Health Australia. “People can’t drive one of these cars. They don’t understand.”
One of the physical demands of motor racing is the G-force, or gravitational force, as drivers accelerate, brake and turn at high speeds, said Michael Italiano, a Formula 1 performance coach who currently trains AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and has trained Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo in the past.
As an example, Italiano said that some high-speed corners can get up to 5Gs, where a driver is feeling a force on his body that is equal to five times his body weight. When you multiply that with the weight of the human head and driver’s helmet, that can be an additional 7 kilograms of force.
In that situation, “That’s 35 kilos of force being placed on their neck on a horizontal load above that particular corner,” he said. “It’s like getting a 35 kilo dumbbell in a weights gym, and putting that across your neck, it’s a serious amount of force. And they’re enduring that for 90 minutes.” In American metrics, that’s around 77 pounds.
Ricciardo, the Red Bull reserve driver Italiano used to coach, has described turning a long corner at 150 miles per hour as if “someone is pushing against your head and you’re trying to keep your head straight and not fall over.”
“If you were to try to take a turn at high speed, basically it’s gonna force your head in the opposite direction,” said Patrick Maloney, the lead athletic trainer at Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine in New Orleans. “So to be able to maintain eye contact on the road, these guys have to have very strong neck muscles to kind of brace against those forces.“
Strong necks are necessary for enduring a 90-minute high-speed circuit, but it’s also necessary for maintaining driver accuracy and lap times. “If you’re losing one- or two-tenths on a corner, because you can’t keep your head still, you know, sometimes in qualifying that’s the difference between like a P5 or a P11 [position on the grid at the start of the race]. It’s that close,” Italiano said.
Exactly how strong are these beefy necks? Just look on social media and you will see drivers show off their impressive strength through their grueling training regimens. You will see F1 drivers like McLaren’s Lando Norris and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen grimacing as their necks are strapped into harnesses and torture-like devices.
My neck would personally buckle at holding anything heavier than my pillow, but Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso can use his neck to crack open a walnut and Mercedes’ George Russell can hang 30 kilograms, or around 66 pounds, from his head.
Italiano said that when he trains Tsunoda, he mostly uses what’s called a GS harness, which is where straps are placed on a person’s head and neck, and the trainer can use the high tension cord and pulley system to apply weights on the cervical spine, lumbar spine and the limb joints.
“That gives us the ability to apply forces on the neck in different particular angles and areas where they’re essentially gonna be feeling it during a race,” he said. “I will say though, from experience, it’s close to most sports where like you can train so much, you can run so much, but until you actually jump in a car, you’re not race fit.”
How We Can All Benefit From A Stronger Neck
Unless you are driving a Formula 1 car, you do not need a beefy neck for your everyday life.
“They’ve got big necks, which is an advantage in motorsport ― not sure if it’s an advantage in other things,” Italiano said. “I’ve read some research that having too big of a neck can actually be a bit of a nuisance when it comes to sleeping.”
But all of us could generally benefit from strengthening and conditioning our neck muscles. Our bodies are a kinetic chain, Maloney said, and we need each part strong to help us with our movements.
“It’s a very important part of the body,” Italiano added. “Most of the time people are getting a lot of neck stiffness and a lot of neck tension because they have a weak neck.”
Neck pain can cause muscle tightness, spasms, headaches, and can radiate down your legs and arms.
To help strengthen our necks, Maloney suggested focusing on posture. He said if you took a picture “most of the population would have a somewhat forward head, meaning the head is forward of the shoulder girdle, and that’s not very good long term. It can lead to chronic pain and neck pain.“
To counteract that, Maloney suggested doing a cervical retraction exercise. One way to do that is simply standing with your back flat against a wall with your feet six inches from the wall.
“And then just pull your head back until it touches the wall,” Maloney said. “And you’d be amazed at how far you have to go to get your head to touch the wall, but really that’s the kind of posture that you’re supposed to have. You know, if you look at a side view, your ear lobes should be right over the tips of your shoulder. I think you’ll find that most people are forward of that, just because we’re always on devices and computers.“
For his exercise suggestion on how to strengthen your neck flexors, Italiano said to lay on a flat surface on the floor and have your legs up with your feet crossed, so your knees are at 90 degrees essentially, and your hands are on your chest.
“From there, you can elevate your head just off the ground and you can just do some rotation side to side. Try to get your chin to your left shoulder and your right shoulder,” Italiano said.
“Trust me, that burns, you try and do three 20 reps of that for three sets. I’d be very surprised if you can do it. It starts to burn very quickly.”
Next time you are at the gym or are sitting at your desk, try paying some extra attention to stretching your neck, because we may not need a large beefy neck to withstand extreme G-force, but we all could use some “neck-st”-level strength.