One of the common reasons people have trouble with Pilates is neck pain. Specifically neck pain when lifting the head and shoulders off the floor. Has this happened to you? Do you know why it happens? You may know that your abdominal muscles are not strong enough but do you know what you have trained your neck muscles to work too much? Bad habits over the long term, sit ups for example, teach your neck muscles to fire up every time you lift your head and shoulders off the floor. Your neck muscles “think” they are supposed to do this. You made your neck do this thousands and thousands of times.
My previous post of 3 most common mistakes in Pilates describes how to work on changing the neck muscle firing problem. This post is about progressing through Pilates exercise to strengthen your abdominals and not cause neck pain. This will get you strong enough to do the series of five, the famous 5 ab intense Pilates exercises performed back to back without rest. Hundreds, Single leg stretch, Criss cross, Double leg stretch, & the Roll up.
There are at least 6 steps to building strength for the Series of 5.
1- Practice lifting head and shoulders off floor while hands are holding the head, neck muscles must stay relaxed, this will take time. Knees bent, feet flat on floor.
2- Once you can do #1 for 10 seconds you can start adding exercise movement while hands are holding head.
Start with #1 position then lift one knee to 90 degree angle. Put knee down, lift other knee up and down. Start with 2 reps then work up to 10 reps. Your goal is to have no neck strain after 1 set of 10 reps.
3- Once you can do #2 above, try it without holding the head. Again, start with 2 reps and rest. Work up to 10 reps without holding head.
4- Now do the second exercise listed above in the series of 5. Single leg stretch – but holding head in hands. The legs alternate with each other, one knee towards chest the other stretched straight in front of you. Work up to 10 reps.
5- Time to try placing hands on bent leg in chest, then switch legs, hands hold other leg, continue switching. Do 2 reps first then rest head down on floor. Work up to 10 reps again.
6- Once you can do 10 repetitions of the Pilates Single Leg Stretch exercise without holding head (and No neck pain!) then add the next exercise right afterward, the Criss Cross, but holding the head during the new exercise. Try to keep neck relaxed while hands are holding the head.
You will continue to add one exercise from the series of 5 in this way until you can do all 5 exercises in a row without resting AND without having neck strain.
You’ll need to practice at least 3x a week to progress. I recommend adding Hundreds last when neck strain is an issue. This exercise does come first in the series because it warms up the body by increasing circulation, but this exercise will take longer to progress in, Hundreds is also about muscle endurance.
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