Many of the people I train can not relax there necks when doing abdominal exercises. I have tried everything including crossing their arms over their chests, using two fingers behind the neck for slight support, doing abs first thing in the workout so their bodies are more relaxed and even stretching before the ab workout. I realize they are tensing up their necks due lack of ab strength but do you have any suggestions to alleviate some of the tension?
There's no point in focusing on increasing the strength of "lumbar flexors" when your clients are virtually screaming out to you that it's their deep cervical flexors that are weak.
The TV ab gadgets have led us to believe that it's okay to ignore weak neck muscles while we spend countless hours and reps working our abs.
I would start with Paul Chek's famous tip of putting the tongue on the roof of the mouth. This increases the lever arm of the small supra- and infrahyoid muscles that aid in cervical flexion. This simple act will make abdominal exercises far more comfortable for many of your clients.
Also, Vladimir Janda's research indicates that you may need to stretch their cervical extensors (overactive antagonists) and sternocleidomastoids (dominant synergists) before any neck strengthening exercise and before any ab exercise that involves the neck.
Here's an exercise I've found effective for strengthening the deep cervical flexors. With your client lying supine, place a loosely rolled up a blood pressure cuff in the natural gap between their neck and the floor - in other words, fill the gap of the cervical lordotic curve.
Pump up the cuff just enough for your client to feel slight pressure against their neck. Then ask your client to gently and slightly flatten their neck into the blood pressure cuff.
I don't like to give trainers a specific number they should expect the sphygmomanometer reading to rise. Just make sure that your client is fairly comfortable, keeps breathing naturally and doesn't over-recruit other easily facilitated muscles such as the pectoralis minor and upper trapezius.
The standard progression is to gradually build up to 8-10 ten second isometric holds.
Another beneficial exercise is the "neck up." It's like a crunch for your cervical spine. With the client supine, ask her to gently tuck her chin then lift her head off the floor just enough to be able to slide a sheet of paper underneath. Lifting too high over-recruits the SCM.
Again, building up to 8-10 ten second holds should be adequate.