How To Reduce Neck Strain in Pilates

It is not uncommon for people to 'overuse' their neck in Pilates, it is important to know to to reduce neck strain when it arises. It is also important to know that any abdominal work can be done with the shoulders down and we need to learn to listen to the body in all cases of overuse.

When contracting forward you may experience strain in the neck. It may begin at the base of the skull and lead to as low as the shoulder blades and will feel extremely uncomfortable. This strain is caused by a couple of reasons. The main cause is that the abdominal wall is just not working toward the objective of drawing ribs to hips; reasons for this are more than likely:

  1. You are not breathing correctly; or
  2. The abdominal wall is tired and has begun to fail.

If the neck is straining, you must recognize what is causing the strain. The following are possible reasons for neck strain and suggestions to rectify the problem.

Firstly identify if you are breathing correctly. As discussed above, by not breathing correctly the abdominal wall will not work effectively and the rib cage will begin to draw away from the hips, therefore the back is no longer supported and the result will be neck strain.

Once you begin to breathe correctly and restore the rib cage drawing forward you should regain support of the lower spine and the neck strain will disappear. The shoulders may be hunched, draw the shoulder blades to the hip center.

The position of the eyes will have a profound effect on the rest of the body. This is even more relevant considering the strain that will occur in the spine or neck. The reason is that by looking anywhere else but the direction you are travelling will create opposing forces within the spine e.g. whilst curling forward, the abdominal wall is contracting and the spine is supported to the floor.

Should the head and eyes look toward the ceiling; the weight of the head will now attempt to draw the torso toward the floor. This now places stress on the lower back due to the abdominal wall being lengthened against its will and this strain is transferred to the neck.  Reposition the eyes correctly and neck strain should disappear.


If the reason is that the abdominal wall is fatiguing, then you should work toward reducing the exercise in some way. The first way is to bend the knees slightly toward the chest to reduce the intensity of the contraction on the abdominal wall. Secondly, you should support the head off the floor with a cushion.

If a cushion is not available then try interlocking the fingers behind the head and support the head off the ground. This does not mean to pull the head forward, but merely to support it. Be careful where you place the hands and that they are behind the head and not behind the neck. By holding the hands behind the head you will ensure that the head is fully supported.

Remember the definition of a contraction. The idea is to draw the rib cage forward to the hips and not pull the head toward the thighs. If neck strain is still not relieved by these progressive techniques then you must “REST”.

In Summary: To reduce neck strain:

  1. Breathing – draw the rib cage toward the hips.
  2.  Draw the shoulder blades to the hip center.
  3. Support the head off the ground with either a cushion or the hands.
  4. Continue to monitor the position of the eyes.

Happy chest lifting in Pilates.

Sandra Kelly

0409 625131