I don’t just want you to know how to do ab curls, I want you to master them!

First off, what’s an ab curl?

It’s a small, controlled roll up into flexion that works your abs and the muscles in the front of your neck. It articulates the movement of your head relative to your neck and the movement of your spine. For bonus points, it also gives you the chance to play with how to keep your pelvis stable while you roll up.


So where do we start, if we want to really get down and dirty into how to do ab curls?
If you like your teaching in video form, here’s a 15 minute tutorial that covers head position, how your eyes are involved, neck muscles, neck pain and the difference between thinking about your muscles and thinking about your spine. It’s all there!
If you prefer to read things, I got you! There’s an outline below the video on all the things you need to know to do an ab curl that rocks your world.

If you prefer your instructions in words, let’s break it down.

How to do ab curls AND avoid neck pain Part 1

How your head rests on the floor is important. It’s hard to roll smoothly if it’s tipped back. When you lie down, if your neck is uncomfortable, or if your eyes are looking at the ceiling back behind you, pop a little support under your head. A cushion, a half dome, a yoga block, whatever fits for you.

Begin with your eyes

Start with your eyes looking straight up at the ceiling above you, and slowly slide them down towards the wall in front of you. Allow your head to tip and follow your eyes (not lead, but follow) before it actually lifts off the floor.
This creates a very small, almost prepatory movement called cranio-vertebral flexion. Your skull is your cranium, your cervical spine (neck) is made up of vertebrae and your curling forward which is called flexion. Very sensible!

Wait, what? My spine is in my neck?

Yup. Your spine goes all the way up to the very base of your skull! You are spine sequencing from C1 (your first of 7 cervical vertebra) to somewhere in the vicintity of T9 (9th of 12 thoracic or upper and mid-back vertebrae).

How to do ab curls without neck pain Part 2

The next step in how to do ab curls is to get your head off the ground. Ideally, we do this WITH OUR NECK MUSCLES! Yeah, I’m kind of yelling, but with love laughing
We have this sense that we shouldn’t use our neck muscles, but that’s like saying you should never use your biceps, or your legs.
The deal here is to use the muscles at the front of your neck to curl the weight of your skull around, rather than the muscles at the back of your neck to sort of push your head forward (that’s not really what happens, muscles don’t push, they pull. But it’s ok for the image. Let’s move on.)
So follow your eyes and use those front neck muscles to round your head off the floor. If you can only get a little bit off the floor before they tire, that’s ok! Do a few of those little moves, without actually rolling your shoulders off the floor and take a break. You’ll build the strength and totally rock how to do an ab curl in no time!

How to do ab curls with your brain

Let’s do an experiment. Get yourself all set up, and think about how to do the ab curl with your stomach muscles. Your abs connect to your ribs and your pelvis, and as they contract, they’re going to roll you up (with the assistance of your neck muscles to move your head, of course). Don’t forget to breathe, but don’t fuss too much at this point about how you breathe.

Scan your eyes down the ceiling and let your head start to curl around while still on the floor. Float your head up and use your stomach muscles to roll up to the base of your shoulder blades (or maybe the bottoms of your ribs).

How does that feel? And what did your pelvis do?

If you’re anything like me, your pelvis tipped up so your pubic bones are closer to the ceiling. That totally makes sense, because as your abs contract, they shorten and pull both the parts they attach to (ribs and pelvis) closer together.

But what if you want to keep your pelvis still? So you can move it later? Or have it as a stable base for moving your legs? Or because you’re working on individuating your body parts for a more refined movement experience? Or so you can work your abs in a new and different way becuase variety, diversity and novelty are amazing for your brain and your body?

Ok, so here’s how to do ab curls that challenge not only your muscles but your brain and your sense of how your parts relate to each other.

This time, think about your spine. From the base of your skull down to the base of your ribs.

Scan your eyes down the ceiling and let your head start to curl around while still on the floor. Curve your neck spine around, starting right up at the base of your skull and travelling down to the bottom of your neck. Curve each vertebra of your upper spine off the mat until you get to the bottom of your shoulder blades or maybe the bottom of your ribs.

How did that feel? Different? Same? Keep playing with the different versions and see how they change. If the words didn’t quite do it for you after all, hop on over to the video for the visuals as well.
So there you go. How to do ab curls that work? Set yourself up effectively, use your eyes, use your neck muscles and think about your spine!
Are you a Pilates teacher thinking about cueing and ways to communicate all this more effectively to your clients, especially online? Download my free cuing guide! ❤

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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