Curl Your Chin To Your Chest? No Thank You!
Do you cue: “Curl Your Chin To Your Chest” or “Chin To Chest”?
An e-mail conversation with a colleague in Australia and several conversations with teachers these past couple of weeks have brought me to write about the neck.
It seems there’s a considerable amount of confusion about necks. Many people either think necks are too delicate and don’t move or work to use them or they don’t consider the neck at all and it’s possible limitations. Both are dangerous: one either doesn’t use this great part of the spine and one abuses it.
The neck is comprised of 7 wonderfully interesting vertebrae that serve to support the skull, protect the spinal cord just as it leaves the skull (where it is full of the entire body’s nerves…as opposed to the lumbar spine which only has lower body nerves) and provide the attachment points for many of the muscles and ligaments that are vehicle for movement of the skull so the eyes can a wide field of vision without even moving the torso. Then there are muscles for your shoulder girdle, too. Not to mention blood vessels that run through the neck, your trachea and esophagus. Indeed. There is a lot going on in your neck.
It’s pretty spectacular!
The neck has the ability for remarkable forward flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion (side bending). Again…spectacular.
The first and second vertebrae (C1 and C2) are uniquely designed to support the heavy skull with it’s brain, fluids, eyeballs, tissues and blood vessels and still allow for incredible movement. There’s a lot the neck supports. C3-C7 are more normal-like vertebrae, but if you look, you see that the spinous process start to get quite pronounced as we get closer to C7. Why? To stop cervical extension before it would be dangerous. If the heavy head were to tip back too far, those spinous process will stop it from over-stretching the anterior soft tissue and hurting the trachea and spinal cord.
So, those bony protrusions limit how far the head can tilt backwards. Excellent!
But what about how far the head tilts forward? Do we need to be concerned? The answer: Yes and No. It depends on the position of the rest of the body.
When your client is lying down on a mat or carriage doing an exercise like The Hundred, then we must be concerned about how harshly the neck is in flexion in relationship to how strongly the thoracic spine is in flexion. If your client is really able to bring her head and chest up, flexing in the mid-thoracic, truly engaging in the upper abdominals (you’ll see a crease in the abdomen at the base of the ribs and her upper body will be lifted up to the base of her shoulder blades, her blades remaining on her back)…then she can keep good forward flexion of the neck, keeping her chin off of her chest. This will strengthen the anterior muscles of the neck, chest and thorax.
However…if your client is weak in her upper abdominals and tight in her mid-thoracic back (like most beginner and early intermediate clients) then we have to watch out that our client isn’t just jamming her chin into her chest to get into the position of the exercise. If you see your client straining at the neck and unable to stretch her mid-thoracic with her abdominal strength…then your client will develop neck strain from the exercises.
So, you must work to teach your client to “curl your head and chest up; look toward your abdominals”. Rather than “chin to chest”. If you say “chin to chest”…that’s exactly what she’ll do. Why not. So, I beg of you not to say that. Not even as the start of a more full sentence. You’re simply asking your client to strain.
Put on hand on your client’s upper back and one hand on her upper abdominals and help her into the position…so she can hold it. Cue her again and again here so she doesn’t start to “uncurl” and strain her neck. Before she starts to strain, have her rest her head while she continues the exercise with her outstretched leg(s) higher toward the ceiling if they are not already (this applies to The Hundred and any of The Abdominal Series of Five). We mustn’t let our clients strain their neck muscles because while they are strong…they are also vulnerable to strain. So, please no “chin to chest” when they are lying down.
Another series of exercises where you have to watch out for neck strain is in more intermediate or advanced exercises where the hips come over the head. Whether it be Reformer Short Spine, Overhead, Long Spine; Mat Roll Over, Jackknife, Rolling exercises; Cadillac/Trapeze Table Tower, Rolling Stomach Massage, Shoulder Roll Down, etc…Whenever hips are over head, we must make sure our clients posterior neck is not flattened out and supporting the weight of the body. This is essential! The shoulder blades, upper back and back of skull are strong enough, but the cervical vertebrae and musculature are not. Please, oh, please, start teaching your clients and doing for yourself: “roll your shoulders back to lift your hips…look up and behind you…maintain the curve of the back of your neck”. The Roman Arches within our body are really important! The ones in your feet, hands, lumbar spine and cervical spine are the obvious ones…they are phenomenal support structures. Please do not flatten them out when using them for support. The neck is at true risk during these overhead exercises. Remember, when you change a curve on one side, the opposite side is altered, too. If with force (the weight of your body being pulled down with gravity) the posterior cervical spine is over stretched, then the anterior side is compressed. Really compressed. And the muscles strain. Really strain.
Your client (and you) will not be able to get up as high in the jackknife, overhead, etc. You simply won’t. And…Hallelujah! You will get higher in time…but not that “plumb line” which is too much for the cervical spine. Use shoulders back to support the cervical spine and make sure your client (and you) look up, not toward the hips. Make sure the chin is not lodged into the chest…but rather far away. “Maintain the curve of the back of your neck.” Very important! Don’t you agree?
Now, when is it OK to have your chin into your chest? Well, it’s really important to get a good stretch at the back of the neck and upper back when the neck is not “loaded” with the weight of the torso…meaning when you’re upright: Spine Stretch Forward, The Saw and other seated or standing exercises where the head goes down. Now, you still don’t jam the chin into the chest with forced muscularity, but if the chin touches the chest naturally from this movement, then that is absolutely fine…because there is not force or strain. Very passively, the neck bones can make a 50˚angle of forward flexion…that’s a lot! Healthy necks with passive flexion will likely have a chin touching a chest…just not forcing, pressing, gouging. You’re allowing gravity to aide in the stretch. Does that make sense?
Still, you never ever have to say “chin to chest”. It’s a cue that asks a person to compress. In an exercise like Spine Stretch Forward on the mat, you can simply say “look into your abdominals; aim the top of your head between your inner thighs”. Then you’re not asking for muscular compression…you’re just asking for forward flexion of the neck.
What about an exercise like the Round on the Short Box? THere, you try to keep the cervical spine in the same curve as the rest of the spine when rounding…because people tend to jam their chins into their chests and strain. Same thing in Stomach Massage on the reformer. So you must be wise and take into consideration: Is my client going to strain? Is this a good passive stretch? What is happening here? How is the neck faring in this exercise?
1 – Cueing – You have better choices in neck cueing. None of them include “Chin to Chest”.
2 – Supine Exercises like The Hundred, Abdominal Series of Five, Coordination, we cue “Curl your head and chest up, look towards your abdominals”; make sure the upper abdominals are engaged and mid-thoracic is stretching, rather than the neck straining with the chin into the chest. There must, must be mid-thoracic flexion…otherwise modify.
3 – Exercises that have an over-head component, you must work to maintain your clients’ cervical neck curve. Cue “reach your shoulders back, look to the ceiling, maintain the curve at the back of your neck”. That means your client has to be confident in her shoulder girdle stabilization. (Remember that shoulder blades go back not down…that would be back into the the mat in these cases.)
4 – Exercises that have an upright torso (seated, kneeling, standing), allow for a full, relaxed but supported cervical flexion. Not muscular compression or jamming. Just full stretch.
5 – Be a critical thinker…consider the neck and it’s normal range of function, what strains, what stretches…what is healthy.
Please ask me questions about this. It’s a big question across the world…what to do with necks. I hope this makes it all make a bit more sense.
What do you think? Please comment in the section below. E-mail me, too! Read below for information about how to connect with me for sessions, workshops and more!
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WORKSHOPS – SESSIONS – CONSULTATION
CHICAGO – Body Endeavors/Chicago Pilates Collective
Sessions: Privates and Semi- Private Sessions
$55/person/3 or more people
Contact Liv Berger at Body Endeavors to set up a session and get directions at LBERGER31@CS.COM
or call 312.202.0028
There are many more versions of Mr. Pilates’ exercises than we see today. Variations, modification, combinations of multiple exercises in one! Fascinating, challenging and all the rest! These versions should not just live in the memories of those of us who had access to them years ago. They ought to be living, breathing exercises for those who need the modification or challenge! Experience this material, then teach it so we never lose track of these great exercises!
NYC – Re:AB
Enhance Your Teaching Skills – 2:30-6pm
The more you teach, the more you need. Great Pilates doesn’t come from more and more exercises. Mr. Pilates created a set number of exercises in the classical Pilates Method. We work within those exercises. Great Pilates is about digging deeper and deeper in to the physical understanding of the Pilates Method. In this workshop, Shari will teach you to see more of what you need to cue in your teaching. We cue precision and stabilization in layers. Develop your eye and your understanding. If you do this, you will always be able to challenge your students as well as yourself for a lifetime of Pilates!
To register, contact Emilie at Re:AB at 212.420.9111 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Madison, CT – Pilates Barn
Pilates for Seniors – 11am-1:30pm – $100
Working with an aging population is great, but we must understand their special needs. What are the common conditions of the agin client? How do you drive a workout at his/her level? What are some modifications or new exercises to do? What are some great tools to use. You’ll leave this workshop feeling more confident that you know what to do and what not to do with your senior clients.
Teaching Tower Class: How to Create and Actively Teach
2p-4:30p – $100
2.5 PMA CECs
Apparatus classes are a big part of our growing Pilates world. You teach them, but you were never trained for them. In your tower classes, there are people of all levels, many who have never seen or been on the tower and then there are some who are pretty advanced, as well. How do you create a class that takes care of them all? Let’s take the time to learn how to create really safe, strong and challenging classes on the tower. There are special guidelines and progressions you can follow and great ways to make a fantastic class for everyone…including you as the teacher!
To register, contact Lori at Lori@PilatesBarn.com or 203.214.3213
Sunday, December 4
Albany, NY – Albany Pilates Center
Magic Circle Miracles – 10a-1p – $120
The Magic Circle has become a common tool in Pilates…so small, but so effective! It is Miraculous in it’s ability to transform a clients body and mind! You’ve used it a lot, but truly understanding it will make it your most precious tool in getting your clients to connect with their core/powerhouse, full body and mind. In this workshop you will learn the circle’s history, understand where, why and when to use the Magic Circle, learn solid technique of Magic Circle exercises and learn creative uses, too. It’s miraculous that a little ring can do so much!
Archival Exercises: Beyond the Everyday – 2p-5p – $120
Joseph Pilates created somewhere between 500-600 exercises. You know some of the repertoire…it’s time to learn more. In this workshop, you will learn you rarely seen and immediately useful exercises on multiple apparatus (Mat, Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Standing Arm Springs) all created by Joseph Pilates. You’ll leave feeling confident in the purpose and technique of teach exercise, have time to do exercises, practice teaching and ask questions. You’ll walk away with your own special archive of exercises for your strong intermediate clients…and yourself!
Call Albany Pilates Center www.albanypilatescenter.com to register: 518-435-1156
Boston, MA – Atelier Pilates (Somerville, MA)
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While my vocabulary is classical Pilates, the principles behind my teaching and workshops apply to every style of Pilates.
We have countless topics to play with within technique workshops of classical Pilates and teaching skills workshop that apply to all!
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And I’m Westchester, NY on Thursdays.
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