Core work shouldn’t make your neck hurt

Lisa Austin Exercise and Form, Most Recent

Picture this: you’re lying on the mat, aiming to reach your goal for crunches, you’re pumping them out fairly quickly and you think your form is pretty good… But even though you’re protecting 

your head/neck, you’re feeling the strain…

That’s not a good thing!

Cues for the Perfect Crunch

A common complaint I hear from clients is their neck hurts during ab work. Some cues that can help put the focus where it needs to be in a crunch so you can get the benefits of the exercise are:

    • Imagine you have an apple between your chin and chest
    • Put your thumbs on the bottom of your rib cage, pinkies on your hip bone. When contracting and crunching, that distance gets smaller. Don’t let the apple fall out and don’t smash it.
    • Interlace your hands behind the head, your thumbs sliding down the back of the neck for support. Let your head rest heavily in your hands. Focus on a spot on the ceiling. Inhale into the back of the ribs to prepare(this will also help to lift up)
    • Press the tongue to the roof of the mouth/back of the teeth
    • Then exhale as you slide the ribs to the front of the hips, and lift the upper back off the floor. The rib to hip connection helps the chest lift /crunch.
    • As you lift the chest gently draw in through the lower abs ( this reduces pooching)
    • Flexing can aggravate neck issues. Maintaining the neck in its natural curves is safer for the discs. It also helps you build balanced neck strength.

I want you to realize that the weight of your head/neck in the neutral position while doing mat work will feel heavier (our heads weigh approximately 10-11 pounds) because it’s in a position away from our center of gravity. You will probably find you will need to put your head down for brief breaks until neck strength increases and that’s OK. You will be strengthening those muscles, too.

Are you trying to do too much?

There are some great core exercises you can do to strengthen your abs but make sure you are doing an exercise that is appropriate for your abilities. I would hate for scaling can be an issue. How do you know? Well, if you are using your neck instead of your core muscles despite the cues given to you, it means that the position you are in or the exercise you are doing is too challenging for you.

Until you become stronger, trying some different exercises would be safer and more appropriate, not to mention more effective. Exercise is to make you stronger, not cause an injury.

This goes for all exercise though… If you have trouble getting the proper form with something despite the verbal cues, it’s not a problem that will be fixed with more cueing and more practice. Change the environment, change the exercise, change the position. Match the level of stress to your capacity so you can achieve your desired result.

Crunch Alternatives

The following exercises could be effective core exercise alternatives where you won’t need to engage the neck quite so much.

    • Planks
    • cable chops
    • Russian twists,
    • Bird dog
    • reverse crunch
    • superman’s
    • cat/cow
    • glute bridge
    • pallof presses
    • leg raises on a bench (so you can keep the back of your head touching the bench),
  • hanging leg raises/knees to chest on a pull-up bar

Why your neck can hurt and what to do about it

If your neck is hurting it’s often because you are moving from the neck and also have weak & tight neck muscles. If the thoracic spine is stiff, which is common, it’s also difficult to lift the chest/crunch and engage the abs correctly. This is because there is limited mobility, you will often try to move through the neck instead of the torso.

Foam rolling can release the upper back & improve your thoracic mobility ( mid back).

Another thing you could try is eccentric training… You start in a seated position and roll back through the spine half way then roll back up. It works spine mobility and eccentric control. Most people find this difficult, but the angle will be less load on the neck.

A personal trainer can show you the exercises that are appropriate for you and your goals so invest in yourself. This is important because it will ensure that you are able to progress safely. A good trainer will teach you how to start each type of exercise so you know how it’s done from the start.  When it comes to your core, you need to be building a solid foundation before starting to do more difficult exercises. Exercises, done incorrectly, can cause injuries over time; prevent that by building a strong core using the tips I’ve shared above.

Need some help?

Learning how to navigate all the noise and continue to work towards your goals when life is busy can be tough. I can help through coaching. If you would like to learn more about healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for your unique body, preferences, and circumstances—consider It Fits Me. Contact me to learn more.

If you found any of these tips helpful, I invite you to come to my Facebook group, Simply Getting Fit. This is where I share all sorts of different tips and tricks to help you along your health and fitness journey.