Many Pilates exercises are done on our back where the head is lifted away from the floor. In this position it is the core, including abdominals and back which is responsible for supporting the head, neck and shoulders and maintaining the elevated position. As the abs tire and stop working the neck muscles start to tense and strain, which if left to persist can create strain injury. If you continue with the exercise in this situation not only are you risking serious injury but doing absolutely nothing for the core, which has now stopped working.
What to do to avoid Neck Strain
- Relax your shoulders and neck. Many of us automatically hold a lot of tension in this area. Simply being aware of this and making a conscious effort to relax the neck and shoulders will help.
- Always engage the abdominals, drawing the belly towards your back before attempting to lift your head away from the floor.
- Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears allowing the neck to lengthen.
- In exercises where the legs are away from the floor (including all the exercises in the abdominal series) direct them closer to the ceiling rather than lowering them towards the floor. Try the Single Leg Stretch aiming each leg vertically towards the ceiling rather than lengthening it away from you in line with the floor. This will allow your core to support the upper body rather than adding the additional challenge of supporting the legs too.
- Anchor your hips. Engaging your glutes (buttocks) will help stabilise through the hips allowing you to work deeper into the core which in turn will help support the head and neck.
- Preform a modified version of the exercise. For example in The Hundred, if you usually have your legs lifted, modify by putting your feet back on the floor;
- Rest your head down but otherwise continue with the exercise pattern; after a while lift your head back up and then rest down again as you gradually build up strength.
- Place the hands behind the head supporting the base of the scull, palms overlapping and facing up. Keep the elbows wide and shoulders down.
- Breathe out as you draw the belly button towards the spine and feel the spine long in the mat. Tilt the chin towards the chest and slowly lift the spine away from the floor until the tips of the shoulder blades are just lifted from the mat.
- Breathe in and allow the belly button to sink deeper in to the mat and also the back of the rib cage, which should allow you lift the head a little more and lengthen the neck.
- Breathe out as you lower the body almost rolling down through the spine.
Once you are starting to get stronger add a progression. Keeping your knees together, as you curl up lift your right foot away from the floor lengthening your leg. As you roll down lower the foot back down the floor. Alternate your leg each time.