Protect Your Neck

It’s my belief that people are unaware of how they can get injured when it comes to getting “stacked” from the guard. I also believe that if armlocks from the bottom of the guard were applied faster, people would increase their defensive skills and tap less.

When getting caught in an armlock from the bottom of the fight (meaning your opponent is under you and you are inside their legs) it is common practice for the person on top to do what we call, “stack.” A stack involves the person on the top who is stacking the bottom person’s legs over their own head. When done correctly this takes away some of the bottom person’s power and ability to raise their hips in the necessary motion to apply pressure on their opponent’s arm.  A stack can be done a two different ways; you can run someone’s knee into their own nose or you can bring their knees way above and over their head placing even more pressure on the neck, mid back, and all the way to their lower spine. Dr. Dave Nguyen from the Non Surgical Spinal Care Center shared his expertise on the matter and explained, “When applying the stack it puts pressure on the bottom person’s spine and can possibly cause sudden injury to the cervical spine or neck. This can contribute to micro-fiber tearing of muscles causing severe inflammation and swelling in the cervical spine, disc herniation, vertebral injury and in rare cases, permanent paralysis. The pressure placed on the cervical spine can cause a very serious problem because of all the nerves that are supplied to the rest of the body have to first pass through the neck region possibly affecting the use of your arms and upper torso as a whole.”


When someone is attacking your arm from the bottom of the guard, do you stack your training partner over their neck as fast as possible or do you stack them slowly with minimal weight? Chances are you stack very quickly and with as much weight as possible.

Recently I caught myself having a small argument with my friend Brendan about how my iPhone is better than his Samsung Galaxy III.  It was as if we were defending a sibling, when in fact it was just our phones.  Weeks later I was training with one of my favorite training partners, Kevin, and I was attempting a triangle. I had the triangle set up and he began to stack me.  Once it was all over I remember thinking that this felt similar to the smart phone argument except he was telling me that his stack was better than my triangle.  Of course I did not want to hear it so I fought and fought. Whether I caught the triangle or not is irrelevant, what is relevant is that later that afternoon my neck was so sore that I could not move my head to the right and that lasted for a few days. Throughout a sparring session there are dozens of these small arguments. When someone grabs your wrist its your wrist release vs. their grip. Imagine if they use the “Grapple Grip” they will be that much stronger, and fight harder. We identify with our phone the same way we identify with our technique.  Think about what battles are worth fighting, is fighting for a submission and allowing yourself to be stacked everyday worth the wear and tear on your back and neck?  If I had released that triangle set up earlier there is a good chance another opportunity for submission would have presented itself and I could have escaped having prevented a neck injury.

Note to bottom person: The bottom person applies the armlock at a safe speed because of safety and out of respect.  Sometimes the top person complains about their partner applying pressure too quickly, more reason for the bottom person to be careful.  When the top person does a very fast stack, is it the bottom person’s responsibility to release the armlock quickly to protect their neck from the stack? Very rarely do you see the bottom person complaining about a stack being too fast. Instead, the bottom person just releases the armlock and might walk away with a sore neck.

Note to top person: The other morning at breakfast I asked a friend how fast he stacks and he said very quick because he is not going to hurt someone from the stack.  Most of the time this is true and a sore neck will be the most someone experiences, although we can not deny that the downward force that someone experiences in the stack can be harmful over time, plus the possibility of a more serious injury.  The fundamental error is that people do not see the stack as something as harmful as a submission. This is the main reason stacks happen quickly, people are stubborn to release and years later possibly contributing to back or neck pains.

When your partner attempts a submission on you, the reason you fight so hard to keep from being submitted is because we associate being submitted with losing. We all know that when you lose it is because you made a mistake and when you make a mistake it must mean you were wrong. The last thing anyone wants is to be wrong, we all know how much we like being right. So the reason we fight so hard not to lose is because we do not want to be wrong or we want to be right. BOOM! But if someone escapes your armlock or triangle it does not mean you are wrong, it just means his or her technique was on point at that moment.

Now that we are aware of how a stack can be very dangerous and possibly keep someone off the mat; I wonder if this will make jiu-jitsu practitioners stack more slowly or if it will teach people to release submissions from the bottom sooner.

The most important question to ask is: Do you think that someone should be able to apply pressure to your arm at full speed if you are going to stack them at full speed? Remember the same way the person that is being stacked can release the submission the person being submitted can yell ‘tap’.  I personally am a black belt and have been armlocked and stacked very quickly. Due to my level of understanding I am prepared for whatever happens. Although, I personally choose to armlock and stack people with control even going against other black belts that I know are very capable of tapping quickly or releasing the submission.

Faster Armlocks: If people increase the speed at which they apply armlocks it will lead to less injuries from being stacked. The person that is stacking knows that people apply armlock pressure with care so they have a small buffer to get the stack started, and if that pressure happens too quickly at times the top person complains. But if pressure comes faster this will prevent the top person from being able to rely on the stack to save them, forcing a greater understanding of the submission and therefore earlier defense.

Beginner Students: Whether you are being stacked or being attacked by a beginner student it is important to be protective of them. The beginner will sometimes apply armlocks quickly, attempt to stack slowly with control or tap out. When applying an armlock on a beginner, squeeze slowly even though they might stack quickly or if necessary release.  The beginner is growing in understanding everyday we need to do everything possible to protect them and keep them on the mat.

Fast Stack: For those who will continue to stack at full speed, keep in mind that you are asking to be armlocked at full speed especially by anyone who sees how the stack can be as dangerous as the armlock. Don’t forget that the same way you expect the person being stacked to release when they feel discomfort you can also yell ‘tap’ when your arm is being attacked.

KeepItPlayful team: Sometimes you will stack slowly and still get tapped out, other times you will armlock people with care and be stacked quickly.  Don’t think that it is all for nothing. When you stack slowly and get tapped out, believe it or not, next time you will see the submission coming much sooner increasing your awareness and not needing to rely on the stack. When you squeeze an armlock slowly and someone escapes not only did you protect their arm, but you are forcing yourself to soon figure out a way catch the same submission with control that does not allow an escape.

Remember that what keeps us coming back for more jiu-jitsu is fun.  Do everything in your power to keep having fun for as long as possible and that includes learning to “protect your neck.”  Those who are training for a street fight, MMA, jiu-jitsu competition or a black belt, train hard  but remember to “protect your neck” because getting hurt in practice is not worth it.

Safety Tip: Anytime you are being stacked, whether you have a submission or you are getting your guard passed, keep your core activated and sometimes use your hands to support your partner’s weight, especially when having your guard passed.  Do some chin-ups, core exercise and stretching.



About KeepItPlayful

I keep it playful for a living.
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55 Responses to Protect Your Neck

  1. Nohan says:

    Awesome insight and word that pops out to me…fun.

  2. Milly Djukic says:

    I love this article Ryron…thank you!! Earlier this year, I was stacked hard and fast by a new blue belt, and had one of my ribs separate from the cartilage. Not only was it painful, but I was not able to train until it healed. I love your Keep It Playful movement…Please, let’s spread the word!!

  3. Jose Aguirre says:

    When I’m going for the armlock from the bottom some training partners stack immediately causing me to release the submission attempt because I’m aware that their stack & most importantly their ego can cause injury either to them, by me fighting for the arm, or to my neck from the stack. The bad thing is not even the discomfort or injury caused by fighting but them not being able to learn my secrets by not keeping it playful. As always, thanks for a great article.

    • Phaedrus says:

      Jose, I like your response – which is consistent with Ryron’s message.
      Regarding the specific question of fast or slow stack in response to an arm lock, I’m reminded of the wisdom shared in “Egoless Sparring” under “Gracie Philosophy” in the “Support Material” track of the lessons found in Gracie University. This mindset emphasizes valuing your training partner as an extension of yourself. It doesn’t matter if it is you or your training partner that is injured – you both lose in the long run.

      • Jose Aguirre says:

        Phaedrus, Thanks. Heeding Ryron’s message and keepitplayful philosophy and mindset has taken my Jiu-Jitsu to new levels. Regarding the “Gracie Philosophy” videos, I believe those can be as important, if not more, than any technique video or lesson. Those are like the instructions on how to use Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in a correct manner.

  4. hawkhardy says:

    I really like this article! It brings forth another question. Which is more dangerous, a stack or a slam? Further, which is better for the street? I have always preferred a stack because it wastes less energy, A stack is easy to defeat, but in doing so you have to let go of your submission and/or let your opponent pass the guard. The sport mind set of not letting an opponent pass no matter what the cost is a main source of injury in sparring that I’ve seen. At my age and with my injuries, the Keep It Playful mindset has added years to my GJJ lifestyle! T he advice in this article is great for anyone, but priceless for me! Thanks Bro!

  5. Phaedrus says:

    Not that I haven’t ever been injured on the mat, but as I sit here typing my reply I realize my neck has suffered more damage from laptops and cell phones than overly aggressive training partners. I think that’s because of the slow and insidious way in which computers and cell phones sneak up on you – never giving you the opportunity to tap out. Imagine if we could take the same kind of body awareness we have on the mat off the mat into our everyday lives, even into our sleep – kind of like a dog does every moment of its life. My dog has never complained of a sore neck : ^ D

  6. Awesome post Ryron. I really like this post. The reason being is that I always had this problem when I caught people in armlocks from my guard. If the person was bigger or had “Incredible Hulk” size arms they could resist my attemp and be able to stack me. I always used to try to finish, but found that I seemed to hurt my neck the more I tried to resist the stack. When I released the arm I ended up in a bad position most of the time. So I learned to realize when I could possibly finish the armlocks, and when I was not. This taught me to quickly release the attempt and go back to guard and try again with something else or if I felt I couldn’t avoid the stack, belly down transfer, or underhook sweep them over. This is something I will discuss with my students. Thanks again my man.

  7. immykidsmom says:

    I’m really guilty of this. I stack hard but I only so it to prevent my arm from being torn of my body. Oh and as for the iPhone Samsung debate. I’m team iPhone all the way.

  8. We are so luckey we have the best teachers in the world I also luv those sketches of the move I have learned so much in the past 2 years thank u Sir keep the knowledge coming thank u Sir

  9. christeillas says:

    As a two stripes white belt I already try to go slowly on my armlocks and stacks. Mostly because I’m 43 and want to keep my head and arms in shape and also because I want to keep me and my fellas on the mat and not out of them. (by the way I’m a iPhone man too ha!)

  10. Megan says:

    To this day, especially because I train with bigger guys, I have a paranoia of being stacked. Until reading this (especially the information from Dr. Nguyen, I thought I was being unnecessarily (or maybe overly) careful. Thanks so much for addressing this and especially highlighting the fact that we should all have an attitude of concern for our training partners over being “right”.

  11. Fantastic article Ryron and it inspires a future blog post 🙂

    I’ve always felt that jiu jitsu is, above all, a community activity so I feel my, and my training partner’s safety, are EVERYONE’s responsibility and that injury, irrespective of who gets injured, is the ultimate and only enemy.

    I work hard to stay safe, stay healthy but also to keep my training partners safe and healthy and never let an opportunity go by without sharing these thoughts with everyone on our mats.

  12. Dalen says:

    I truly appreciate the depth of your articles – they are holistic, going to the crux of the matter, not just focusing on the surface. [i.e., technique, etc.]

    It is indeed amazing the injuries that happen due to our identification with technique.
    [And as you pointed out, this mindset of defending/identifying with non-essential elements is something that is with us in our waking life – and ultimately has a negative affect on the desired outcome of what we are trying to achieve.]

    Again, thank you, and I’m happy to be able to share both the art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the philosophy with my children. I’ll soon be 40, but I can see doing this art for years to come.
    [My children will make sure of it as they keep me on the mat virtually everyday with Bullyproof.] 🙂

  13. Nelson Ruiz says:

    In the beginning of my Gracie Academy Jiu-Jitsu Journey, I experienced a lot of pain and soreness the day after training. Sometimes it would take 3 to 5 days for the soreness to go away that I would be able to exercise or strength train. As I started to read entries from Ryron Gracie here at and some of your tweets and instagram quotes, I began to relax my body and rely on technique rather than strength to train Jiu-Jitsu. Although strength is needed, I have learned and have listened to the hidden messages in the Gracie Combatives and from my Jiu-Jitsu instructors to use technique and not brute strength. Using that, i have been able to train Jiu-Jitsu more often, keeping it at the most playful level during the roll sessions enables me to feel great the next day and not be sore, even if that means I get tapped 20 times or 1 time that day, i learn something each time. Ryron told me as I am sure he has told many people, “it’s ok to get tapped…matter of fact, get tapped out as much as you can”. True. The more I tap out today, the less I tap out tomorrow. Once I got rid of the mindset of getting tapped out or losing, I learned! I have been training in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu for about 6 months now, and in each roll, fight sim session, I would be confused and not know what technique to apply, but persistence and dedication and most of all, keeping it playful, all those days of training and getting the wrong technique, tapping out, believing in the techniques learned, this month, my 7th month, during fight sims, the techniques are starting to come natural and be instinctive. To the beginners starting Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Combatives, don’t be ashamed that you did the wrong move, don’t be upset, don’t give up. Take each lesson one at a time, get the technique down and learn the indicators because one day, maybe in a month or two or even 7, like me, they will come naturally and instinctively and it will feel great! #keepitplayful!

  14. Roger says:

    For these reasons, I typically avoid finishing the armbar from the bottom. I am typically one of the smallest people in my gym and I have been stacked very hard; there are parts of my spine and neck which I’m sure will never heal.
    What has helped me with being stacked were hamstring, glute, and neck stretches. This combination gives my body more leeway and tolerance when being compressed by the stack technique.

    A better option may be to underhoook his ankle with the blade of your arm, when the uke is stacking. When your body becomes perpendicular to him after achieving the underhook, he has to bear the weight of your body with his neck rather than his strong back and leg muscles. If all goes well, the weight of your body will cause his posture to break and the guy will fall over and you can finish the armbar from where you are.

    I think the overall theme is a solid one though. Instead of stacking harder or armbarring faster, perhaps the solution lies with technique rather than with attributes.

  15. Vini says:

    When people ask me: “who do you learn Jiu-Jitsu from? I say: Ryron Gracie! they say: How?! He lives in the States and you are here in Brazil! I say: and!

    Thank you Ryron.


  16. Ivan says:

    This exact thing happened to me on duty, conducting training. No ego involved trying to submit anyone, just simple exercise, geared to the officer winning, It was a freak thing, my shoulders got stuck to the mat, in a fold of all things, I couldnt shrimp back in time and got stacked, HARD. It caused a cervical herniation that I am still dealing with today, and I was out of instructing for a year. I am still not 100%. This in a controlled use of force training session, so I havent trained Gracie in that time, and am only now starting to go through my instructor manual, review my Gracie DVD’s, Im also saving pennies so I can afford a bubba dummy sooner rather than later, as instructing is something I believe in. In spite of being wheeled under the bus by the agency and left to dry by those who are supposed to help.

    Gracie Jiu Jitsu is a great thing to have, and something I still believe in, it wasnt the fault of the system, just one of those freak things that really hurt. I do work hard and did prior to be in shape, required as part of my instructional duties, stretched, warmed up, practiced at home on my own doing solo drills, watched my dvd’s, reviewed my Gracie manual, but it happened anyway.

    It can happen folks, even without ego, please be safe,

    • Thanks for the story and I am glad you are recovering. Its true that it can happen no matter what so we have to really just be safe and look out for each other. all the best.

  17. Greg Hoyt says:

    Thank you, Ryon. Humility is the key.

  18. tooraj moradi says:

    It’s a very good article Ryron, especially when you add your personal experience and Iphone argument it makes it more real! For me as a 60yo blue belt it was very timely. I add that stretching by folding yourself in a stacked position for at least one minute and also turning your head slightly to one side, away from stack’s angle, will help add to our Juijitsu life! Thanks Ryron!

  19. SeanK says:

    Great article. I will definitely remember this next time I’m stacking or being stacked. Thanks.

  20. Alison says:

    Ryron I so appreciate your insight into how we view our worth in submitting/winning against our opponents/training partners. What an important message to add to our children and the younger Jiu Jitsu players that will carry the Jiu Jitsu message forward. I so agree that being submitted doesn’t equate with losing or not having good enough Jiu Jutsu, but that it means the other person’s technique was on point at that time. Valuable wisdom.

  21. I’ve really enjoyed following you guys over the years on the internet. This article is yet another reason why! I am a Combat Hapkido school owner but picked up your Gracie Combatives program a couple of years back as I’ve grown to love grappling. As I age (now 35) I prefer more and more grappling to kickboxing as my sparring medium of choice. Grappling is something I can see myself doing through out my lifespan and your online courses, dvds, and words of wisdom help immensely in my growth as a submission wrestler and well rounded martial artist. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

  22. Kai says:

    WELL DONE, emphasizing putting safety in the context of “keeping it playful” is both clever and effective. No one likes to “lose” and yet you can’t really grow without moving through “loss” and focusing on the greater victory of having a long life of enjoyment in the art.

  23. francesco451 says:

    dear Ryron, thanks for all your wise suggestions. The straight armlock from the guard is a wonderful technique but, in the same time, is the one where I feel more vulnerable. Sometimes I try to push the opponent down by the legs bite so that I can turn the position into a normal straight armolck. We are always very careful with each other and I suppose this is the reason why we enjoy so much to practice your prodigious art. Our key words are definately: Keep it playful !!!
    Best greetings from Gracie Garage Milano.

  24. zaiteku says:

    Great article! I was just talking about this with one of my teammates. It’s so easy to get in the mindset of never tapping, always winning and ” I must crush the lower belts or ill look bad”. What we don’t realize is that when we injure our teammates we weaken our school since there is one less training partner. When we injure ourselves we also weaken our school.

    An important philosophy gained from Judo is that your training partner is literally “sacrificing” their body so that you can learn and improve. You are essentially doing the same. This is serious business and requires respect from Both sides.

    It’s hard to find balance in jujitsu between training hard enough where you and your training partner are learning effectively, and also moving forward injury free day to day, but this balance I believe, should be the end goal in training as it requires a very high level of technique and grace to achieve, and we are practicing day to day to improve our technique, not our ability to smash someone without technique.

  25. Matt Regalado says:

    Very good wisdom Sir. It reminds me of what Saulo Ribeiro says. “Your training partner is your best friend. You dont want to hurt him.” It is a challenge to keep the ego out of the equation, but I think it is important. By Keeping it playful, I have removed my ego from it and I owe that to you Sir. If I screw up in rolling, I laugh now instead of getting mad. In a recent tournament, I was mounted and I remembered you saying to keep it playful, so I didnt panic or over think things. I kept my composure and pulled off a trap and roll that got me in a great position. I didnt win the match, but I didnt get tapped either. I was ok with both outcomes. Thank you Sir.

  26. Sue Armstrong says:

    Ryron, who gets credit for the sketch??

  27. Abner Negron says:

    I wanted to take the time and thank you for sharing your philosophy on GJJ, self-defense and keeping it playful. When I first started BJJ I never wanted to tap. I hated losing. I would fight out of bad positions like my life depended on it. What would end up happening is that I would get super tired, get tapped out and I would go home feeling terrible. Your fight with Andre Galvao was amazing. You kept your composure through out the entire match and still looked fresh. You were even more aggresssive towards the end. The match Inspired me to work on my defensive skills so like Grand Master Helio said, “there are no worst case scenarios”. I’ve been researching your style along with Saulo Ribeiro’s and it has helped me tremendously. I no longer view rolling as always a must win scenerio. I now try to have more fun. If I can’t get dominant position and submit the guy, I take it as an opportunity to work on my defensive skills. If i get tapped I take it as a learning experience. Let me tell you it has been working great! I now can roll for longer periods of time and my defense has improved. I’m also running into more submission opportunities. It’s amazing how people get frustrated when they can’t tap you right away. Then they make mistakes. Most of all I look forward to training more. Training feels more like a game now instead of work. Thank you very much Ryron! Keep doing what your doing. Your positive attitude is helping many. I know it has helped me!

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