How often have you done ab work that either hurts your neck, or just doesn’t feel like anything at all? Use this simple image to refine your core work and make your ab curls a thing of beauty! All it takes a little imagination. Picture an old fashioned clock face!

Flexion is the official name for the forward curve we perform in traditional ab work. In an ab curl, the spine should be flexing from around the bottom of the shoulder blades to the base of the skull. The problem is that most of us are really stiff in that area, and it’s hard to get it to move! We end up using the front of the neck to pull the head up away from the floor and not actually getting into the upper thoracic spine and chest movements that really use the upper abdominals.

When we have a regular movement habit, it’s hard to just think our way out of it. Our brains and our tissues are pretty good at doing the same thing over and over, and if you have a bit of a blind spot in the upper part of your back, it’s hard to really FEEL that you have to get that to move in order to access your abs.

So what’s the solution?

A simple clock face. Imagine it sitting right on your back across your shoulder blades.

(If you like words and pictures, read on. If you prefer your instructions out loud, click here for the video: “Don’t Wreck Your Neck with Ab Work!” on YouTube https://youtu.be/ofaYpctnnZc)

Now lie back with a squishy ball under that clock face, hands linked behind your head and pelvis relaxed onto the mat.

A little note about your hands… many of us have been trained to keep the fingers lightly placed beside the head in order to avoid pulling on your neck and to encourage the use of the anterior (front) neck muscles. I would like to do the opposite here. Make a solid link of your fingers and let the weight of your head ease back into the cradle of your hands. You are going to use the strength of your arms to hold your head in place!

Make sure your elbows are high enough to be visible in your peripheral vision. Now reach your arms away from your shoulders just a tiny bit. You want to feel your shoulder blades widen so your spine is on the ball. Feel the circle of arms/ hands/ head/ underarms and ribs all come together. Let your head rest into your hands so you feel your neck soften!

Ok, so now we have all that in place let’s work on your core, shall we?

With your back on the ball and your head supported, your imaginary clock should be on a slight angle relative to the floor, with 12 at the top and 6 at the bottom.

Press your spine down into the 6 o’clock spot, letting your head and neck come with you. Ease back only as far as 12 o’clock. Repeat as many times as you like.

Now roll your ribcage over towards 3 o’clock. Now 9 o’clock. Do you feel how you are moving from your upper abdominals instead of your shoulders or your elbows? One of the most commons challenges in rotation is the urge to just move the neck or the arms instead of actually twisting the upper spine and recruiting the obliques. We love the obliques! They need some attention!

Want to get fancy now? Instead of just going in the most obvious up/ down and left/right shapes, let’s add some different angles,

Roll from 2 o’clock to 8 o’clock. How about 11 0’clock to 5 o’clock?

Fancier still? Add some extra shifts…. 1 o’clock to 8 o’clock. 4 o’clock to 2 0’clock.

Make circles all the way around the clock and see where your body wants to skip a number. Change directions… does that blind spot change? Maybe going clockwise you shave off part of the circle between 4 and 6, but going the other way it is 10-12! It’s different from side to side, folks.

Do you feel how having a picture of the back of your body, and a direction that stops you from moving just your neck or pelvis targets your upper abs? Yes! Amazing! Congratulations. You have successfully isolated and integrated your upper core function!

Need a little rest from your flexion? Use the same strategy to zero in on your extension!

Roll back until your torso is pretty much parallel to the ceiling. Roll back towards 12 and forward towards 6… you know the drill now.

Have fun!

Want to see that in action? Check out how my head and neck don’t lead or strain, they just follow along with the curve of my spine. Also, bonus points for spotting the guest star, Richard the Cat!

As always, if you have questions or comments, let me know!

xo Alison

Alison Crouch

I’m the owner of Boomerang Pilates and creator of the Move SMART program. I teach teachers how to incorporate sustainable movement and authentic teaching in their classes.

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