How to Do a Head Nod in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Also Known As: Cranio-vertebral flexion

Targets: Neck

Level: Beginner

Head nod is a fundamental Pilates exercise. You can use it as part of your warmup and as a stress reliever throughout your day. Head nod is easy, but it's not just a beginner Pilates exercise. It is the first obvious move (after breath and abdominals) in many of the most advanced exercises. Head nod is part of many Pilates mat and equipment exercises. Do some of the following mat exercises, experiencing head nod as an extension of the curve of the spine: wall roll down, the hundred, rolling like a ball, roll up, and single leg stretch.

Benefits

Head nod protects the neck and is an essential part of the spinal curve in all rolling type of exercises—up, down, and over. You will find that getting exercises started right makes a huge difference. You don't use the head tilted back a lot in Pilates but it is important to train yourself to recognize how you are using your head and neck. Having the head tilted back in a compressed way is a habit for many as they accumulate stress through the day. As well, more and more daily tasks such as checking your cell phone involve moving your head forward and down, leading to chronic poor positioning of the head and neck. Head nods help retrain you to supporting your head while maintaining neutral neck posture.

Young man relaxing on exercise mat, side view
Scott Kleinman/Photodisc/Getty Images

Step-by-Step Instructions

You can practice head nod standing or sitting but it is best to practice it lying down, as you would at the beginning of a Pilates session.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Your legs should be parallel with your hips, knees, and feet in one line. Your arms rest along your sides, palms down. Your spine is in a neutral position—all three natural curves are present. Make sure your face is flat to the ceiling so you don't start tipped up or down. Mentally scan your body, letting go of unnecessary tension. Take a few deep breaths in this position. 

Pilates Neck Exercise
Head Nods Down. (c)2009, Marguerite Ogle
  1. Inhale: Use your breath to enhance a feeling of length in your spine so that the space at the ​back of the neck—just under the base of the skull—opens up, releasing the chin downward. Feel this as a lengthening and opening move rather than pulling the chin down from the front. Be sure to avoid jamming your chin down. This is the actual head nod position.
  2. Exhale: Return to the neutral position.
  3. Inhale: Tilt your head back. This is just a small move. Again, keep length in your neck. You want the back of the neck to feel supported. The breath can help with that if you think of it traveling the length of your spine and filling up the area behind your neck.
  4. Exhale: Return to the neutral position.
  5. Repeat the exercise several times, moving with the breath.
Pilates Exercise
Head Tilt Back. (c)2009, Marguerite Ogle

Common Mistakes

To get the most from this exercise, avoid these errors.

Not Understanding Cue

If you are new to Pilates and get cued to do a head nod, be sure to ask the instructor exactly how to perform it. Getting feedback will ensure you are protecting your neck correctly.

Not Performing a Head Nod When Needed

Because it is so simple, people forget to do head nod properly. Don't skip this cue in any exercise where it is made.

Modifications and Variations

The head nod is a basic move and you should be coached to do it correctly. If you have any restrictions that keep you from performing it, discuss these with your instructor.

Safety and Precautions

The head nod should be safe for most people to perform. If you have any neck injury, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about what is appropriate. In pregnancy, avoid lying on your back after the first trimester.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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