As a Pilates practitioner you might have experienced neck discomfort in some of the exercises that require lifting up the head, or what we call ‘Chest Lift’. First and foremost, we would like to stress that you should not lift your head or continue to exercise if you feel pain. An experienced teacher will offer modifications that will allow you to continue the exercise without the unwanted discomfort or pain. There are a few possible reasons that might cause you to feel neck discomfort. Let's take a look at them.
In terms of muscles, there are two groups of muscles being activated when doing the 'Chest Lift'. There's the the neck muscles that attach to your head, and there's the abdominal muscles that attach to the rib cage. If you try lifting just your head instead of your entire chest or upper portion of your rib cage, you'll find that those neck muscles are doing some very heavy lifting, maybe even causing discomfort or pain. When lifting the upper portion of your rib cage during the "Chest Lift", you likely find that the neck muscles are getting some much appreciated assistance from the abdominal muscles, making the exercise possible without the pain.
Another reason for neck discomfort during 'Chest Lift' might be because of a strained position of the head during the exercise. A strained position of the head might be because the eyes are looking in the wrong direction. If the eyes are looking up towards the ceiling, the head's position will be too far back making it hard for the head to move forward, resulting in the neck muscles straining to hold the weight of the head. Conversely, if you have your hands behind your head, you might be over-pulling your neck forward which can cause you to shorten the distance between the chest and head, thereupon over contracting the neck muscles, also causing discomfort.
If you're experiencing neck discomfort or pain during 'Chest Lift'', we have a modification called, ‘Assisted Chest Lift with a Hand Towel’. We love this variation because it provides a lot of feed back from the towel.
Spread a hand towel length wise on the mat so when you lay down on your back, the bottom of the rib cage is resting on one end of the hand towel leaving a little extra towel near the top of the mat over head. Lay down on your back with the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the mat. Grab the 2 top corners of the towel with your hands. Inhale to fill your lungs with a fresh breath of air, and as you exhale use your hands to lift the upper back ribs off the mat, letting your head be supported by the towel. Direct your eyes to look straight forward (just below knee level). You can also look down towards your piko (belly button in Hawaiian) but be sure there is room between your chin and the chest. Inhale and return your upper ribs and head back down on the mat.
There are a few things to keep in mind which we think will make a big difference in your 'Chest Lift': Try to lift as much of your rib cage off the mat. I like to challenge myself and see if I can lift my entire ribcage so that the bottom end of the towel slides out from underneath me (FYI it never happens :-).
Also, instead of thinking about pulling the upper body in the forward direction when the upper back is lifted, think about filling the towel with your upper back while trying to move the towel back. Furthermore, instead of pulling the head forward with your hands, think about moving your neck back towards the towel.
We hope you find this modification helpful. We would love to hear about your experience with the ‘Assisted Chest Lift with a Hand Towel’.