Six Easy Ways to Reduce Neck Tension during Pilates Exercise with Better Breathing Habits

by | Aug 16, 2010 | Breathing, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 5 comments

I’ve seemed to have a flurry of issues with Pilates clients lately who are dealing with neck pain. And with the Optic Neuritis that I’ve been dealing with for the past 6 months, the tension in my neck has been an issue too!  Whether we end up with increased neck pain from an accident, injury, or just how we use and move our body for work and daily life, chronic neck pain, is no fun and literally a pain in the neck!

Pilates exercises done correctly are excellent for strengthening core muscles for support, which over time helps  to reduce neck tension.  However, sometimes getting started – newer Pilates participants can aggravate a neck problem, by not understanding, or having the strength and flexibility needed to support the body well and keep the stress out of the neck.  If you’re doing any exercise and you begin to feel stress or strain in your neck –Stop!  Better to take a break, then start to use muscles that shouldn’t be doing the work and continue to aggravate neck issues. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of exercises that can be done without neck pain.  The challenge is finding the right exercises for your body to start with, and continue to progress. 

Regardless of the exercise, good breathing habits are critical for opening the joint space in the neck and helping to lengthen the neck muscles to reduce neck strain and improve posture and body alignment. Our head is basically an 8-10 pound bowling ball sitting on a straw.  If the ball is not well-balanced on the straw, the straw will lean or bend and the head will tip to funny angles striving to stay perched at the top of our body.  At this point, some muscles are working too hard, and others are not pulling their weight.  Over time, the body accepts this way of holding the head and neck as correct (whether its good or bad)  and the pattern of muscle use becomes a habit – whether we like it or not!

The good news…It’s never too late to change a habit!

With a little effort, and having some new strategies to play with and practice, you can effectively reduce neck tension and neck strain quickly and easily just by paying attention to where you are holding tension and practicing better breathing habits during  your Pilates exercises.

Here Are Six Tips To Help Reduce Neck Strain During Pilates Exercise
(AND Daily Life Activities!)

1.  Posterio-Lateral Pilates Breathing Technique

Learning how to utilize the Pilates style of posterior-lateral breathing is KEY to helping lift the head up off the neck and lengthen the spine. Emphasis is placed on inhaling to fill the back of the ribcage from the bottom to the top.  In effect, what happens is as you fill the lungs with air, you are increasing the natural curves of the spine.  This should happen from the tailbone to the top of the head.  So your inhale helps to float the head up off the neck.

For more details on a variety of Breathing Exercises to practice your Posterio-Lateral Pilates technique check out my blog post Breathing Basics

2.  Keep the Front of the Neck and Throat Relaxed on Your Inhale

I notice that a lot of people actually inhale through the torso and tense up so much through the front of their neck that the head actually gets closer to the body on the inhale!  When this happens – the neck muscles are pulling the neck bones closer together (when things should be lengthening apart!)  Watch yourself breathe in front of a mirror and see if you notice your neck get longer, or shorter as you inhale. Do you see the muscles in the front of your neck tense up on your inhale?  Or do they stay loose and relaxed? Think about your neck and throat being an open tube that air can easily flow in and out of.

3. Tongue Placement

Where your tongue is placed in your mouth can make a difference!  Lightly touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of your mouth on your inhale, and drop the tongue away from the roof of your mouth on your exhale. This helps facilitate proper use of the diaphragm, and as the tongue drops on the exhale, you may notice that the muscles in the front of the neck soften and relax a bit.

4. On Every Exhale Use a “HA” Sound To Release and Open the Jaw

Using “HAaaaaaa”  and opening the jaw to exhale moves the primary support lower in the torso to help activate core muscles. You might actually make the “HA” sound as you exhale until this becomes a familiar habit to release the neck and open the jaw.

The habit I notice if people aren’t doing a “HA” breath, is exhaling like you’re playing a flute, through a slightly pursed lip.  This creates the look of a sour lemon face.  If you make a sour lemon face, you’ll notice that the front of the throat tenses up, scalene muscles grip, and the head and neck get pulled closer to the body.  Plus,  it is more difficult to feel the activation of core support – support almost gets stuck in the throat instead of dropping lower into the center.   Can you see how this can create or aggravate a neck problem? Strive to make “HA” breathing your new habit!

5. Pelvic Floor

While I’ve got this as #5 on my list….It probably should be #1!  Effective use of the pelvic floor provides the anchoring at the base of the spine which is necessary for lift and lengthening that occurs during breathing.  Without an active, engaged pelvic floor, it’s impossible to get the ribs to lift away from the pelvis, the neck to lift away from the torso, and the head to lift away from the neck! How do you effectively find and use the Pelvic Floor?  If you’re not already familiar with using your Pelvic Floor, check back soon, for a blog post on this very important topic!

6. Shoulder Depression

Our body is a system of levers and pulleys.  Think of a teeter-totter.  Both ends can’t go up!  One goes down and the other goes up.  So for our body, the shoulder blades doing down provide the leverage for our upper spine, neck, and head to lift up. If your shoulders are wrapped around your ears, chances are your head and neck are jammed in too close to your torso.  Pull the shoulders down and you should feel your head shoot up another inch or two closer to the ceiling.

Which Pilates Exercises Should You Apply These Six Tips to Reduce Neck Strain?

ALL of Them!!! Whether it’s a Pilates Matwork Exercise, or Exercises on the Reformer, Cadillac, Chairs, or Barrels.  If you’re walking, running, riding a bike, swimming, lifting weights, dancing, riding a horse, playing golf, tennis or other sports…  You have lots of opportunities to apply these six tips to get your support where you need it and reduce the amount of tension and stress you feel in your neck.

Don’t forget about moments throughout your day too– at work, driving the car, doing things around the house…anytime you remember to take a minute or two and practice utilizing these six important neck lengthening tips – you’ll be changing your habits for better health!

Don’t worry if you can’t make them all happen at once!  Pick one and practice for a few days.  When it gets easier, see if you can add another one, then another – until you’re able to incorporate all 6 into any and every exercise you do!

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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  3. tarun

    thanks for the information. It was helpful.
    The thing with me is that as soon as i start to meditate i used to get severe tension in my neck, however after browsing a bit, i have found the tension due to forcing my breath. And apparently i should just let go and drop my chest when exhaling to prevent any tension is that right.? And lastly I’ve read that when inhaling my shoulders shouldn’t go up and when exhaling my head should remain straight without tilting down.

    So if i allow the breathing to happen naturally, just being aware of it, and drop my chest letting the air rush out when i exhale without forcing i won’t experience any further neck tension right? as well as my head remaining straight without tilting down when exhaling right?

    • Aliesa George

      Hi Tarun!

      Thanks for your questions. YES, when you exhale you should let your chest drop and ribs come together a bit. Inhaling should lengthen the spine, and on your exhale you want things to relax a bit – especially during meditation. With exercises it’s a bit different as we’re trying to use our core muscles to keep the spine from collapsing.

      In regards to your shoulders. They should elevate when you inhale, but not because you physically hiked them up with your Traps and upper deltoids (which does create neck tension!) Instead the shoulders just ride along with the elevation and expansion of the ribcage.

      Last thought: I see a lot of people breathing by lifting the ribcage, but not allowing the neck and head to lift along with the inhale. If your ribs lift up, and you don’t allow the whole spine to go higher too – the neck and head will actually jam down creating more tension and compression on every breath. Watch yourself breathe in a mirror and notice if your posture gets taller on your inhale, or you see your head get closer to your body.

      Hope this helps! Have a Great Day!

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