How To Work Your Abs Without Neck Pain

Posted on by Sirena Bernal

What’s up ya’ll.

Thank you to those who have left comments and feedback about what you’d like to see on the new site.

I already have some great questions on board to answer to help you create a leaner, fitter and healthier body.

To get right into today’s topic, I’m going to take the time to answer a question from one of our readers, Tiffany.

Tiffany asked:

“I have degeneration in my cervical spine so abdominal workouts tend to leave me in pain…I know my neck isn’t suppose to be invited to the party (as Jillian Michael’s says. haha) but I always end up with neck pain doing bicycles or crunches. Anywho, I was wondering if there is anything I can do to prevent the pain while still getting the work out in? Thank you for being awesome!”

Ok, so I could have left out the last sentence and should have left out mentioning Jillian Michaels on this blog.

But I wanted to keep Tiffany’s question as authentic as possible.

This is a great question, and as a pilates instructor one of the most frequent feedback I hear from clients is neck strain while performing abdominal exercises especially during thoracic flexion.

Thoracic flexion is just fancy lingo for moving the upper torso down and forward, or the movement that must of us would consider a “crunch”.

Well, the first thing I would do is try to understand more about Tiffany’s degeneration in her neck: When did it start, how does it feel, when does it hurt, etc.

Before I make a blanket statement to address this question (as I know many of you may have experienced this yourself), it is always wise to get a professional opinion first in person.

Whether that is from a physical therapist, doctor or chiropractor.

Once you’ve done that, we can proceed.

In my experience, I have found several reasons why you may be feel neck strain while performing abdominal exercises (specifically those involving flexion like crunches and bicycles):

1. Improper execution of the exercise. Meaning your form stinks.

2. Weak abdominal muscles. The internal and external obliques and rectus abdominis are responsible for thoracic flexion. When these muscles are weak, lifting the upper body off the ground to perform a “bicycle” or “crunch” can be very difficult. And in an attempt to do complete the exercise, we compensate by jutting the head forward from the body…thus creating strain.

3. Tight back extensors. Looking at the posterior or back side of the body, if the back extensors are tight then the abdominals have to work against this opposition to flex the body. Thus, leading to compensation and neck strain.

4. Weak neck flexors. When you do manage to perform thoracic flexion correctly, another limiting factor is the strength and endurance of the neck flexors (the muscles in the front of your neck) to hold the head up off the ground. Your poor neck flexors don’t want to lose the battle against gravity so they straaaain to keep the head up.

5. Unnecessarily pulling the head forward to make up for lack of movement. Again, in an attempt to lift the upper body higher off the ground during thoracic flexion, we can sometimes pull the head forward with the hands. This is a huge-no-no because you are placing unnecessary strain on the neck.

Since Tiffany mentioned she had degeneration in her cervical spine and since I cannot actually be there next to her to assess her condition, I figured I’d take the neck out of the equation and provide you with some awesome exercises you can do to strengthen your abdominals sans neck pain.

And here they are:

However, before you go on to watch these kick-ass videos, don’t forget to leave a comment below after you’re done watching. It helps me look more popular to Google.  And really, I just want to be one of the cool kids.

Toe Taps

Tummy Vacuums

Plank

(Ooops! The camera cut my head off. First time filming with this camera so I’ll adjust next time.)

Stability Ball Roll-out

(Another oops. Spielberg was off today or he would have been there to film.)

Palloff Press


These are all effective and smart exercises that you can do to strengthen your core without worrying about straining your neck.

I use these frequently with my clients and find that they are super effective if done correctly.

Do these, and you can wipe out your old crunches and bicycles from your training program.

Crunches and bicycles are sooo 1984.

We want smart, effective and innovative exercises because, well, that’s what you are.

And before you head out, I’d love to hear your feedback.

What are your favorite abdominal and core exercises?

Let us know in the comments section below.

Talk soon,

Sirena

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503066378 Amy Blue

    Love these exercises. I had degeneration of my spine and these are all the exercises that my PT taught me to strengthen my transverse abdominals…She also taughtme-

    birddog
    Bridges with alternating leg lifts

    • Anonymous

      Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your comment. And I’m happy to hear that these are exercises you’ve done as part of your rehab. They are great core exercises, and I love the bird dogs and bridges.

      I’m curious, is there any thing I help you with you make your life and fitness better?

      Sirena

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503066378 Amy Blue

        Thanks Sirena. Right now I’m struggling with just trying to strengthen my lower body. It gets fatigued very easily. I should have seen this coming when during part of my rehab, I had trouble standing for 15 minutes without my calves tightening up and causing significant pain. Any chance you could put a video/plan of a good beginner lower body strength workout or other ways that I could build lower body strength without over doing it?

        • Anonymous

          Hey Amy,

          Any chance you could make to the HW Coolidge branch? I’d be happy to see you for a complimentary 30 min session to tackle this one.

          Sirena

    • Mrsoshiro99

      My PT never went over abdominal exercises with me, darn it. We work on neck/back strengthening exercises, for the most part.

      • Anonymous

        Hi Tiffany,

        Thank you for your comment. I loved your question and was very excited to make this post. It was a lot of fun putting the videos together.

        Core strength is the foundation to overall strength, so these are great exercises to start with since they minimize or completely remove any motion in the neck.

        I wish I lived near you too so that I can make a better assessment of your condition and help you even more.

        In the meantime, if there is anything else I can help you with, please let me know!

        Talk soon,

        Sirena

  • Mrsoshiro99

    Thank you, Sirena! You rock! I’ve been told my physical therapists, and my chiropractor, that I need to strengthen my abdominals to relieve my neck pain. It’s always been a circle of madness because abdominal exercises put me in more pain. I’m so excited to try the exercises that you’ve proved! I feel like I have my own personal trainer. If you lived in the area, I would definetely invest in you as my trainer! Thank you again for taking the time to address my health/fitness concern! I’m saying goodbye to my 1984 abdominal exercises, thanks to you. :)

    • Mrsoshiro99

      I meant the exercises you’ve “provided”, not “proved” lol

  • Pingback: Why you need to do the Best Lower Ab Exercises

  • celeryroot

    I tried the Plank – how on Earth does that help somebody with cervical herniated disks? It tightened my neck up completely. How can you do that exercise without engaging your neck muscles? You have to hold your head up…

    • http://www.sirenabernal.com/ Sirena Bernal

      Hey there, thank you for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that you’re neck tightened up. I’ve used the plank with clients with herniated disks in the past, and even have consulted with PT’s that it’s an appropriate exercise to use depending on the client. If you felt pain, it may not be the best exercise for you at the moment. I’d try the tummy vacs, toe taps and Paloff presses instead.

  • Andreacfrank

    Hi! I don’t have a palloff press. I really want to work my obliques. What is the best way without using the press?

    • http://www.sirenabernal.com/ Sirena Bernal

      Rotational exercises like medicine ball throws, side planks, wood chops are all great alternatives. You can also do the Palloff press with a stretch band if you don’t have a cable machine.

  • J.Wade

    Thank you so much. These were exactly what I needed!!

  • Lyndsey

    Thanks Sirena – I have had some bone removed from C6/7 (and have degenration in 4/5) so after being fairly trim I’m now stacking it on around the middle (could me mid-life too – I am 51 :) didn’t realise I could do the toe-taps and will definitely work on vacuum – still have to have minimal head forwrd time though which makes life a bit tricky (I miss cycling :)! Thank you very much for your helpful videos – Lyndsey

  • jan

    Sirena, thanks for sharing your expertise. I have been looking for abdominal exercise that don’t engage/strain my neck. I am glad I happened upon your site.

  • Marie in Sydney, Australia

    Thank you Sirena! i have had a lot of neck pain since the birth of my second child and all of my ‘crunch’ work was certainly not helping – so grateful for your videos to get me on the right track again.