In Pilates Mat work, a number of exercises are executed while lying on your back, which we refer to as a “supine” position. Some exercises call for the head to lay stationary on the mat, but some of the more challenging ones for the abdominals involve lifting the head up. Right away, it’s the act of lifting the head that can potentially get you into trouble with your neck.
For instance in the Roll Up and for any of the Ab/Stomach Series the head and shoulders come off the ground. As simple as it sounds, it’s essential to set it up this move well – and if it’s not, you can wind up with neck pain, and overtaxing the muscles in your neck, rather than a workout for your core – and I’m guessing you want that effort to pay off in the core, right? If you find that you have trouble or suffer any discomfort with your neck and shoulders in Group Mat class, before you give up and think “I’m not in shape enough to do Pilates” – first consult with your instructor. I typically advise students who have neck issues to modify with the head remaining on the mat. But your pains could be solved easily by checking on your set up and execution. So let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the neck and the intention of movement.
The neck – or cervical spine – is comprised of 7 vertebrae, and atop that is your brain-container, your coconut, your noggin’, – or in technical terms, your cranium. The cranium is the top of the spine – keep this in mind when you look at the images below. The average human head weighs 11-13 pounds. Keeping the head aligned and balanced over the spine is the ideal in standing posture. Check out this article on Forward Head Posture from chiro.org. They mention that:
“According to [A. I. Kapandji, author of Physiology of the Joints, Volume III], for every inch your head moves forwards, it gains 10 pounds in weight, as far as the muscles in your upper back and neck are concerned, because they have to work that much harder to keep the head (chin) from dropping onto your chest.”
The forward head posture also dramatically affects proper breathing. So, the trick is getting that skull poundage lined up well for Pilates abs, working efficiently against the pull of gravity from supine.
In the Pilates Method we are passionate about alignment and working the core. To address these two pieces is the bridge concept of lengthening the spine. When you are doing an ab curl, consider that the core is assisting you to lengthening the spine in order to curl up, rather than to “crunch” in order to hoist your upper body off the ground.
To clarify, I’ll refer to the Pilates Principle of Precision to help guide the way to executing the ‘ab curl,’ which you may also hear referred to as a ‘chest lift.’
Lengthening the Spine to Lift
Place one hand cradled in the other under your head, holding the head in such a way that your thumbs ‘wrap’ the bottom of your skull. You can see the elbows in peripheral vision.
Imagine your crown as an arrow following a straight line from your tailbone. Leave your head down in your hands and gently tug in the direction of your crown – remember this is a horizontal line, so your pull is parallel to the ground at this point.
-This gentle tug should feel good – like it’s releasing tension in the neck. If you ever experience any discomfort though, listen to your body’s needs.
To lift the head and chest, ‘nod’ your chin toward the back of your throat leaving enough space as if to hold a small apple. The nod acts on the first cervical vertebra and helps position the head for the lift. Yes, the devil is in the details, but then again, you want to follow Precision to reap the gains!
Support your head’s weight – leave your head heavy like a bowling ball in your hands as you continue to think of lengthening the crown – the top of your spine – away from the tailbone as you lift up.
You should be well engaged in your core, eyes looking toward the bellybutton or the base of your thighs.
Once you have the execution well-practiced and gained strength, you’ll able to bring the head and shoulders up without needing the arms.
Pilates ab curl no-no’s for the neck
Avoid hovering your head off the ground as demonstrated here in the first 2 images. You might notice that this position is a lot like Forward Head Posture, viewed from the supine position.
While you do want to gently bring your chin to toward the chest – avoid overly flexing the neck or pressing your chin onto your chest.
If you still experience pain in your neck, again, check-in with your Pilates Instructor, or if it really persists, seek medical attention for further advice.
We’ll look forward to seeing your precise execution the next time you’re in the studio!