How to Do the Neck Pull in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Abdominals, back

Level: Advanced

Neck pull is an intense, challenging classical Pilates mat exercise that builds on the roll up. It's important to note that its name can be misleading. In fact, you should avoid pulling on your neck with your hands in this exercise.


Neck pull strengthens the abdominal muscles and the back. It stretches the hamstrings and requires articulation of the spine, which builds flexibility. This strength and flexibility can help prevent back pain.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Begin on your back with your hands behind your head. Take a moment to release tension in your hip flexors and feel the whole back of your body against the floor. Let the back of your lower ribs release toward the floor.

Legs can be shoulder distance apart or together; see what works best for you. Even if your legs are apart, engage the inner thighs and inner hamstrings and connect to your midline.

If your legs are apart, your feet should be flexed. This is the way Joseph Pilates shows the exercise in "Return to Life." Some people like to work with legs together, feet softly pointed. This position can help you work your midline.

  1. Inhale: Leave your shoulders down as you lengthen along your spine and out the top of your head and curl your head and shoulders off the mat. Let your chest be wide, but also soften the back as you go. Gently tuck your chin, and imagine pulling your ribs together as you engage your abs to come up.
  2. Continue the curl up. Exhale and pull your abs in deeply. Do not pull on your neck. Think of your head reaching through your shoulders and leading the movement. Your legs are engaged and so is your whole powerhouse. Press the backs of your legs down to the mat with energy through the heels.
  3. Arc over your legs. Continue the exhale to take your curved spine and lifted abs all the way over your legs. Make sure your chest has stayed open and your elbows are back.
  4. Inhale and bring your pelvis back to upright. Then begin stacking your spine from the bottom up until you are sitting straight up on your sit bones with your head floating easily on top. Shoulders should stay down away from your ears the whole time.
  5. Exhale and roll your spine down to the floor. Keep your low abs engaged and continue lengthening your spine as you slowly unfurl along the mat.
  6. Inhale and repeat the exercise 3 more times. You can also take a breath cycle or two to collect yourself, find your scapular stability, re-engage with your midline and then repeat the exercise.

Common Mistakes

Pulling the Neck

There should be no neck-pulling going on—at least not by the hands. Think of your head reaching through your shoulders and leading the movement. It's all abs allowing the length through the spine and neck.

Lifting the Shoulders

Keep the shoulders down and elbows back. Remember, you should be lifting from your abs, not from your upper body.

Lifting the Legs

Legs should stay glued to the mat for the whole exercise. If they come up, momentum is helping your upper body rise, and the hamstrings are not getting the same stretch.

Forgetting Pilates Principles

At this level, the Pilates principles have to be working for you. When you get the flow of the exercise going with the breath, it will feel a lot better.

Modifications and Variations

This is a challenging exercise, so you may need to work up to it.

Need a Modification?

If you have trouble getting up into a seated position, work on roll-ups with bent knees, feet on the floor and hands assisting behind the thighs. The neck pull builds on the skills you are working on in the roll-up.

Up for a Challenge?

If you feel strong and comfortable with the neck pull, incorporate a lean back after you have rolled up into the seated position. Instead of rolling back down, continue the inhale and tip back with a flat back, increasing the angle between your thighs and torso beyond 90 degrees. Don't go too far. Control the move and be sure your legs don't fly up.

The point is to lengthen your spine in both directions. Connect to the floor and use that to get an amazing lift through the back of the body to take you up and back. Don't just lean the upper body back so that your ribs pop open. Keep the connection down the back of the legs and through the heels. From the lean back,​ go into the roll down outlined in step 5 above.

Safety and Precautions

If you have a back or neck injury or condition, avoid this exercise unless a doctor or physical therapist recommends it for you. Even if you do not have an injury, if you feel any pain in your back or neck, stop. Reassess your form and review these tips to overcoming neck pain in Pilates. If you are unable to perform the exercise without pain, get help from a Pilates instructor.

Try It Out

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

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.