Do You Think Pilates is a “Pain in the Neck”?
Do you ever experience neck pain or headaches during or shortly after a Pilates class? Have you ever heard someone say, “Yeah, I tried a Pilates class one time and it hurt my neck too much.”? Well, if the answer to this is “yes”, please read on! Complaints of neck pain or headaches after a Pilates class is one of the main reasons people quit taking Pilates. Neck pain after a Pilates class is usually due to performing the exercises improperly.
When performed correctly, Pilates is an amazing form of exercise that helps to improve posture awareness, gain strength, increase flexibility and correct muscle imbalances. However, newer Pilates participants and even the well seasoned client will many times find themselves plagued with neck pain and headaches after a class.
Classic Pilates exercises oftentimes include “bowing” up or lifting the head, neck and shoulders off the floor. When performed correctly, “bowing” up helps one to engage the abdominals deeper and more completely. When performed incorrectly, most participants only feel pain and strain in their neck.
Making a few minor adjustments or modifications to the exercises can help you reap the full benefit of the moves without causing unnecessary strain.
Some reasons participants feel like they are straining the neck during a Pilates class includes:
1. Lifting the head, neck and shoulders (bowing) improperly. Your head weighs 8-10#, so it is important to position the head correctly so that the abdominals lift that weight and the neck muscles don’t.
2. Performing all the repetitions of the exercise even though you have fatigued and your form is deteriorating.
3. Lack of flexibility in the thoracic spine (mid back). If you lack flexibility in the thoracic spine, then the bowing movement occurs solely at the neck instead of the movement coming from the neck and the mid back.
4. Tensing your shoulders or “shrugging” during the exercise. Tensing the shoulders can cause excessive muscle engagement of the upper traps (shrugging) muscles.
5. Belly breathing during the exercise instead of utilizing the posterior- lateral ribcage breathing technique required with Pilates.
Well the good news, is that with a few minor adjustments you should be able to participate in the “best hour of your day” without feel pain or strain.
Here are a few tips to reduce strain in neck during Pilates:
1. Make sure you are “bowing” with correct form. Lying flat on the floor, first tuck your chin slightly like your are holding a small clementine orange between the chin and the chest. Then tighten the abdominals in preparation to bow. Inhale first, as you exhale, lift your head, neck AND shoulders using the abdominals to lift you. You should feel yourself lifting up high enough that the shoulder blades are barely touching the floor.
2. When you fatigue….TAKE A BREAK! Pay attention to your form during the exercise. As soon as you begin to lose your bow or your chin begins to protude out (you lose your clementine orange) your form is deteriorating either due to fatigue or inattention. Stop, regroup and then return to the exercise.
3. If you are rigid or tight in your mid back, do exercises to improve your flexibility. Mid back stretches include articulating bridge, trunk rotation, mini swan and arching over a 1/2 foam roll.
4. Don’t “try hard”, try easy instead. Avoid shrugging with the exercises. Don’t force the exercises.
5. Remember to breathe into the sides and back of the ribcage, not the belly. This takes practice but is extremely important to make sure you are doing this correctly as it helps to improve your chances of engaging the correct muscles when performing the exercises.
Remember, it is never too late to apply these tips in all of your mat-based and equipment-based exercises. It is also possible to perform all of the Pilates exercises without the bow and this is recommended if you have a history of neck pain.
If you need help making sure you are performing the Pilates exercises correctly, consult your instructor or contact ABS Pilates of Columbus, Ohio! A few private sessions with Amanda B. Smith, licensed physical therapist, certified Pilates instructor and certified McKenzie therapist with more than 20 years of experience, can make a huge difference in your form.
And, finally, don’t stress if you can’t correct everything all at once. Don’t give up! Keep working on your form and never stop moving. Before you know it, you will gain that strength without the strain.