Florie doing the single leg lift exercise on her floor for her neck pain

Neck pain: “The 6 pilates stretches and exercises that eased my neck aches”

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Pilates stretches are a gentle way to ease and prevent neck and back pain. We asked the experts what stretches to do when you wake up with achy muscles and joints.      

The culprits behind niggling neck and back pains are so varied that it can be hard to pinpoint an exact cause. But, according to Phyllis Woodfine, an osteopath of 30 years, common causes include: “static postures such as sitting at a desk for long periods of time, and repetitive actions such as heavy lifting without stretching, and doing something continually on one side.”

After a year spent slouching over my laptop at various improvised workstations including my bed, sofa and dining table, I’ve grown used to waking up with a sore, stiff neck or a crunchy back that hurts when I stretch. But the familiarity of the telltale aches doesn’t make the discomfort or restricted mobility any less frustrating.

Enter pilates. This discipline isn’t just effective at making you long and lean, Woodfine says, it can also be “a really effective way for managing neck and back pain by enabling you to strengthen, stretch and support the muscles.” This is due to the movements allowing you to “improve your posture and use your own body weight to gain correct control around your shoulders whilst maintaining good alignment of your neck.”

Although you can’t completely avoid slouching on the sofa or slipping into an awkward sleeping position, some pilates moves can help to stop these normal occurrences from leading to an achy upper body. We asked a few experts to share the pilates exercises that’ll ease the discomfort of achy strains in our necks and backs, as well as to help prevent them. 

6 stretches to help ease neck and back pain

Florie doing the single leg lift exercise on her floor for her neck pain
Neck pain: pilates exercises to ease neck pain

Neutral spine with pelvic tilts

Having a strong core has benefits beyond holding long planks and having strong, sculpted abs. A strong core can also support your back and improve your posture. Anna Freeman, head of pilates at BLOK London suggests pelvic tilts performed with a neutral spine are a gentle way “to wake up the deep lower transversus abdominis muscle that plays a huge role in supporting the back.”

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet hip width apart and touching the floor.
  2. Lengthen the back of your neck so you are gently closing the space between your neck and the floor, then relax the shoulders and rest the arms at your side.
  3. Breathe in and as you exhale press, draw your navel to your spine and imprint your spine down into the mat with a small pelvic tilt.
  4. Hold for a breath then release the spine back to neutral and allow the pelvis to return to starting position.
  5. Complete ten reps of the exercise.

Neck roll

I usually launch myself into a standing forward fold at the first sign of upper back or neck strain – letting gravity pull and stretch the tightness out. But a pilates neck roll, as suggested by Freeman, is a great way to extend through the top half of your body while building strength. This move actively engages the chest, back, shoulder and neck muscles to correct posture and keep you upright.

  1. Grab your mat and lie down on your front. Separate the legs to hip width, press the pubic bone down towards the mat and draw the navel into the spine.
  2. Tuck your elbows under your shoulders with palms flat on the mat, and lift off using your chest.
  3. Keep your core engaged and ensure that your shoulder blades are pulled back and down.
  4. Look to the right, roll your head down to look into your navel and then out again to look to your left. The motion should be a fluid semicircle.
  5. From your left, complete another semicircle going in the opposite direction.
  6. Return to centre, looking forwards. Repeat twice in each direction.
Florie lying on her stomach performing the pilates swimmer exercise to help neck pain.
Neck pain: pilates 'swimmer' exercise helped Florie deal with aches.

The swimmer

Pilates instructor Lucy Long says, “Pilates promotes the use of the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles with a focus on improving the strength and flexibility, which in turn support the back.” 

To gently reap the benefits of these strengthening moves and relieve tension in the back, Long suggests a move she calls ‘the swimmer’.

  1. Lie face down on your mat, extending your arms over your head with your palms facing down.
  2. Like a swimmer, lift the opposite arm and leg gently off the floor. To ensure you’re not straining your neck, lift your head so that your ear is in line with the lifted arm.
  3. Match the moves to your breathing. So, inhale as you lift, then exhale as you lower.
  4. Alternate sides until you have completed a total of six to eight reps. 

Lying heel reaches

It’s easy to adopt a slouchy posture when you spend a lot of time hunched over a desk or staring at your phone. Creating some distance between the shoulders and the ears can lessen the tension in your neck muscles, and is a staple practice in not just pilates, but also yoga. Lying reaches are Long’s go-to moves for creating length in a tight neck.

  1. Lie down on your mat with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Relax your arms at your sides and gaze to the ceiling.
  2. Check your feet are hip distance apart and your pelvis is heavy on the mat. Keep your toes in line with your knees, and your knees in line with your hips. Ensure your spine is neutral.
  3. Roll your shoulder down and back, making sure your head is in line with your spine and reach your fingertips actively towards the end of the mat.
  4. Reach as you exhale, drawing the extended arm back as you inhale.
  5. Alternate your arms and do as many reps as you are comfortable with. 

The swan dive

If all you can manage to do is lie down, the swan dive is for you. PT, Aimee Victoria Long  says moves like this help to “increase correct spinal alignment and good posture.”

  1. Grab your mat and lie down on your front with your hands resting under your forehead.
  2. As you breathe out, lift your sternum gently off the floor and allow your head to follow the movement – to keep it in a neutral position imagine holding a tennis ball between your chin and chest.
  3. Hold this for five seconds before lowering gently back to the floor.
  4. Repeat for 60 seconds.

Single leg lifts

Double leg lifts are lower-ab strengthening staples but the single leg version of the gruelling exercise is actually “a very simple move that’s effective for releasing the lower back,” according to Long.

  1. Lie on your mat with your knees bent, feet on floor and rest your arms at your sides with palms facing down.
  2. Ensure your pelvis is in a neutral position. When your pelvis is neutral you should not be able to slide your hand between your mat and your back.
  3. As you breathe out, raise one leg until the knee is above the hip joint. As you inhale, lower the raised leg to the mat and return to the starting position.
  4. Complete five repetitions on one leg before switching to the other leg. 

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Images: Florie Mwanza

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