Traditional “core” exercises like the Pilates hundred, crunches, or bicycles are all supposed to target your abs. However, if you’ve ever practiced these moves, you might have felt some tension or engagement in your neck. This might leave you asking yourself questions such as…
Did I do this right?
Where should I be feeling this?
How can I get this movement out of my neck and into my abs?
Does this mean my core is weak?
Hopefully, this post will help answer these questions and help you do these exercises with confidence.
Let’s start here, should you feel your neck during core work?
Actually, yes. It’s fine to feel your neck.
This is particularly true on any exercise that requires lifting your head off the ground crunches style or holding up your head in an exercise in a plank.
Why is it okay to feel your neck?
Because you neck MUST engage in order to hold up that giant bowling ball that is your head.
The better question is WHERE do you feel your neck?
Overly simplified anatomy time! You have lots of neck muscles. Some of them are on the front of your neck, some are on the sides, and some are on the back. Some of these muscles are big and ropey and some of these muscles are small.
When considering core work, the neck muscles that you want to be most curious about and you “may” feel engage are located on deep and on the front of your neck.
This muscle group is called the deep cervical flexors and they’re responsible for stabilizing your neck during core exercises. They also stabilize your neck and help you maintain good posture during all activities of daily life (e.g. walking, sitting, standing).
What does engagement in this area feel like? It depends on the person. For some people it will feel like a tiny quiver or shake. For others, it’ll be a subtle engagement, or it can feel kind of burny.
So that’s where you will most ideally feel your neck. Now what about what is less ideal?
First, if you feel your neck in these less “ideal” parts of your neck, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you’re going to hurt yourself. It’s just a clue that you might need to adjust your head position when practicing an exercise or that you need to change your speed (usually you have to slow way down) or pick a different version.
A lot of people will feel the back of their neck. Usually when this happens, it means that you’ve let your head fall back (think like those CPR dummies) as you’ve lifted your chest. The end result is that your head is moving in the opposite direction of your torso. End result, it’s going to mean less abs and front of the neck engagement and more back of neck engagement.
You might also feel those big ropey muscles in the front of your neck engage. A lot of the time, this is due to clenching your jaw or again dropping your head back. Not injurious, but also not ideal.
So what does this mean? Are your abs weak?
Maybe? Maybe not. Sometimes your abs are plenty strong, but your ribs are so stiff that you can’t move through your upper back enough to find the ab engagement and neck position that you are after.
Sometimes, it’s that the muscles in your neck are weak.
Sometimes, it’s just position and once you master that it all comes together.
How to troubleshoot excessive neck tension or not feeling your abs during core work.
Here’s a short list:
- Warm up your spine BEFORE you do core work. This can include exercises such as cat cow, tail wags, or book openers
- Put a pillow under your head, so you start with your neck in a more neutral position and it doesn’t have to lift as far off of the ground. This helps engage your deep neck muscles.
- Refine your head position and focus on engaging the front of the neck first and the abs second.
- Use props to support you in getting the best muscle engagement possible.
Want to know how to do this? I made a video for you! It’s all about troubleshooting neck tension during ab work.
How to do crunches without neck pain | Pilates tutorial for beginners
Watch it, try the exercises, and see how it goes.
Still gotta question? Leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to help.
Want some simple ways to troubleshoot upper body tension?