I know when I do Pilates if my hands are not behind my head just at the right position for me, I can feel a tiny bit strained. However, for those exercises that you don’t put your hands behind your head, just remember to not lift with your neck and get your abs to help.
A sore neck, neck pain, and tension in the neck and shoulders are not uncommon complaints for Pilates beginners. Readers have even written to me asking for neck strengthening exercises to help them get past the sore neck stage. While neck muscles that are strong enough do factor in, a weak neck is often not the main cause of neck pain in Pilates.
When the neck and shoulders are not properly supported in an exercise, they take on too much of the work. Weak abdominal muscles, weak back muscles, and poor alignment are likely culprits. The abdominals, back, and alignment must work together to create the stability in the trunk that frees the neck. Of course, if you have constant back and neck pain or it gets worse, you need to work with a health care provider and look to potential other causes.
Here we will take a close look at the factors that contribute to straining the neck in regular Pilates exercise and what you can do to remedy that. This is not an article about therapeutic exercises.
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 in correctly 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.