How Not To Strain Your Neck During Core Exercises

Have you ever been doing an exercise—in particular, let’s say a core exercise—and had your neck get overly involved? Or have you hip flexors ever felt like they’re doing too much—again, during core exercises? (Have you possibly even experienced hip clicking?) This mindful approach to how and when you engage your core might be your solution. 

Macro vs Micro: sequencing of muscular engagement makes a difference

In the regular, day-to-day (or training session to training session) practice of fitnessing, it’s easy for us to get caught up in the macro and forget about some of the important micro details. You’re working hard doing each exercise like a superstar while on your way to absolutely rocking your workout…and maybe there are some nuances to exactly how you’re doing each exercise that escape notice.

Let’s use core exercises as an example. In truth, the following applies to any and every exercise you do, but core exercises are perhaps the best way to illustrate this idea:

Ideally, there is an order of operations (which is, admittedly, a bit of a nerdy, math-y way to put it) when it comes to muscle engagement prior to movement. Say you’re doing leg lowers.

Macro idea: Lower your leg with control.

How? Loop a band or strap around one foot. Lie on your back, bring both legs up to about 90 degrees. Take a breath in to prepare and on the exhale, slowly lower the free leg. Only lower the leg as far as you can without allowing your low back to arch up off the floor. Inhale and raise the leg back to the starting position. Exhale on each lower. (If you feel like you can hold the non-moving leg up at about 90 degrees without the strap or band—and you’d like some more challenge—put the strap or band aside).

Micro: How—exactly—do we go about getting your legs up to the start position? 

Here’s the ideal order of operations: starting lying on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, engage your core before you move your legs into the starting position.

And how does one “engage” their “core”?

That question has room for a bit of a deep dive—so, if you’d like to wander down a rabbit hole for a little bit, start here (A Different Take on Developing a Strong Core) and then go here (Pelvic Floor Health: Where to Start). For now, here’s the short version:

  • Begin with deliberate pelvic floor engagement: think of drawing your pelvic floor up. (Deep dive option here)
  • Inhale.
  • On the exhale, imagine that engagement spreading to your side abs (obliques) and kind of corset-ing your abdomen together.
  • Hold this engagement—particularly through your obliques/side-abs—even as you take your next breath in.

From there, you’re ready to exhale and raise your legs to the starting position.

Why this matters:

In just about all things, your body’s first priority is that your spine (and thus, your spinal cord) is safe…which means stabilized. Ideally, it’s your core muscles that will do this. They’re the ones that are best at controlling how much—or how little—your spine moves (in particular, our concern here is mainly your low-back/lumbar spine).

However, for better or for worse, we’re really good at convincing our core muscles that they don’t need to respond very quickly. Also for better or for worse, our neck muscles and hip flexor muscles are really good at jumping in to help. Both of them—our neck muscles and hip flexors—are also pretty convinced that they can act as core stabilizers. (To some extent, they can…they’re just not ideally suited to the task and when they do, it tends to open the door to all sorts of discomfort).

So, the nuance here is that we need to start by mindfully and deliberately training ourselves to go core engagement first, movement second.

This is just the beginning

Now then, if you’re finding that certain core exercises are leading to neck strain or your hips are making funny noises…this may just be the nuanced beginning of your journey. In general, the key here lies in figuring out what range of motion you can manage without causing pain or discomfort (or unwanted inner clicking or popping sounds) because, what is likely the case, is that the size of the movement or degree of effort required for the version of the exercise that was causing the discomfort is currently too much. It’s simply a matter of demand exceeding capacity.

So, start where you’re at and build from there.

I know we used leg lowers as the example exercise, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d recommend trying this one:

Give it a try and let us know how it goes.