Your Neck Needs the Support of Strong Abs
In Pilates, we do a lot of exercises where we are on our backs lifting our heads away from or returning them to, the mat. Chest lift, the hundred, and roll up are examples of these kinds of exercises. Coming up or rolling down, at a certain point, your abdominal muscles have to be really strong to support your upper body in resisting the pull of gravity as your relationship to the floor changes.
If your abdominal muscles aren’t doing a lot of the work, the neck muscles tense, taking on more effort than they should. Further, if the neck muscles are really weak and can’t support the head and neck, then the bones are not supported and that can lead beyond soreness and tension to muscle strain and misalignment of the vertebrae.
Developing Abdominal Strength
Two related practices will help you develop the strength and coordination you need for your abdominal and neck muscles to work together to support your head. First, neck and shoulder tension are often chronic habits. We use these muscles even when we don’t need to. The cure for that can be as simple as increased awareness. Notice, let go, and put the effort where it belongs, in the abs. Second, the neck muscles are going to get work, but you do have to develop the core abdominal strength that will allow the abdominal muscles to relieve extra pressure on the neck muscles.
Pilates exercises are all about creating strong abdominal muscles and overall core strength. The first thing you need to know is how to pull your abdominal muscles incorrectly because this is almost always the supportive move that happens before anything else. Once you have that, we use a lot of forward bending (flexion) exercises to focus on increasing abdominal muscle strength.
Making sure that your abs are working throughout an exercise is very important but if you are experiencing neck pain, you might need to modify your exercises as you build strength and release neck and shoulder tension.
Here are some ways to modify exercises to protect your neck:
Don’t keep your head up for long. As soon as the neck muscles take over, you might as well put your head down and come up again, engaging the abs for the lift.
If you are rolling down, stop when the neck and shoulders get tense, back off a bit then go again keeping your abs working this time. You might not roll down all the way; just move to your limit and back off. You will get stronger and go further with practice.
Place your hands behind your head for light support (elbows out).
When the legs are outstretched, raise them or bend them to tabletop position to take strain off the abs until they get stronger.
Your Neck Needs the Support of Strong Back Muscles
Your abdominal and back muscles work together to support your spine and neck. When we go for a long spine as we do in Pilates exercises, we are asking for the support of back extensor muscles. When those don’t work for us, we get extra tension in our shoulders and necks. This is true when we do exercises that are forward bending, back bending, or in neutral spine. To strengthen the back extensor muscles, we do extra back bending exercises like a swan, swimming and the more advanced, double leg kick.
To protect your neck when you do back extension exercises, you must engage your abs and get your mind to help you use your back muscles to lift and support your upper body and head instead of lifting with the neck and shoulders. This is true all the time but if you have neck pain you might have felt it more in exercises like swimming where you are lying face down and lifting the upper body away from the mat.
Modifications you might want to use for back extension exercises are similar to those we talked about with the flexion exercises: Use a smaller range of motion, reduce the hold time for the exercise, and stop when you don’t have the core support you need to continue. Another tip is that the arms being up adds extra weight and difficulty to exercises. For example, swimming is harder than half swan because the arms are extended. If you have neck pain, try keeping your arms by your sides or use them for light support as we do with a half swan.