The Best Way to Strengthen Your Core Without Hurting Your Neck or Back

Tips with Trainer Sam on Proper Forward Flexion

Do you ever finish a core workout and your neck hurts? It’s common, but doesn’t have to be that way. Studio SWEAT Trainer and Pilates master Sam is here to talk about why, and give you some options for neck pain-free exercises for your abs. 

In your core, you’ve got a few separate abdominal muscles. Your obliques are the side muscles that support rotation and bending to the side. Then there are the rectus abdominis muscles – the ab muscles closest to the skin, giving you the “six-pack” look. They’re important, and they look cool, but the workhorse of your core is the transverse abdominis – the deep core muscles that really strengthen your whole torso and help reduce back issues.

The first ab exercise you probably think of is a crunch or sit-up, right? Movements like that where you’re on the ground lifting your head and shoulders off the ground are using forward flexion – flexing your spine from the top down. Often, you’ll find yourself pulling up on your neck, not using your abs to lift up. Ouch.

We spend so much time in our lives rounded forward – at a steering wheel, on our phones, at desks and dinner tables – that movements lifting from the upper back aren’t always going to be the best (and by that we mean our already suffering posture makes it harder to do the moves with proper form). Your neck muscles are probably already tight, so forward flexion-type exercises are going to cause even more issues.

We want awesome abs AND a healthy neck and spine! Great news – Sam’s got some great ways to work your core without straining your neck. And no surprise, these will target those transverse muscles.

Excellent alternative core exercises:

Leg Lifts/Reverse Crunch:

Any exercises keeping your torso on the ground and moving your legs will work your lower abdominals. While laying on a mat, keeping your torso and lower back on the ground, lift and lower your legs. There are tons of ways to modify these, so try with your legs bent, slow scissors leg drops, or rotation at the hip. 

You don’t have to lift your head and shoulders to work your core. So give that neck a little rest while you put those abs to work!

Quadruped/Bird Dog:

This back-friendly exercise doesn’t feel like core work but trust us, it’s a great one. The work comes when you remove any points of contact from the mat. When you do this, your body wants to sink into the supporting joint, so your whole trunk (core) has to work together to keep you stable, not leaning to one side.

Starting in “tabletop” position (on your hands and knees), lift one arm off the ground, then one leg. Keep your spine neutral, but tighten up your core to keep steady as you lift up (imagine you’re trying to balance a cup of water on your low back). 

You can progress this move by lifting your arm and opposite leg together, then switch. 

Fixing that rounded posture (yes you can!):

If you’re noticing that you do have a rounded posture (hint: most people do), DON’T do exercises where you’re rounding over more. DO incorporate exercises where you’re lifting your chest up. Sam’s got some favorite exercises that stretch your front body muscles and strengthen the opposing (back) muscles to help get out of that hunched-over position. 

Prone torso lifts:

For the basic move, lie down on a mat, face down, keeping your head and spine in line, with arms out to the side like you’re a goalpost. Then lift your upper chest and head slightly off the ground (even just an inch or so).

Variations come with what to do with your arms. You can try stretching out “overhead” like Superman, then pull back putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets. You can “swim” your arms. Try putting your hands under your forehead (elbows bent) and rotate your upper body to look from side to side. 

Sam does a lot of these moves in her Pilates classes, so check those out for more options!

If an exercise feels uncomfortable or limiting to you, it’s often a sign that you need to address that area and the opposing muscles, just like these lifts can do.

And you can find more core and Mat Pilates Classes showing you the proper form to protect your neck, back, and posture at Studio SWEAT onDemand! Download the app, or if you happen to live in southern California, visit us in our San Diego studio.