Low back pain and injury can often be due to weakness in the core stabilising muscles. These are the muscles that should hold the pelvis and spine in correct alignment. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that they are weak and fail to do their job properly.
If the pelvis is not held in its “neutral” position, then this will cause stress to the structures of the low back. Eventually this will lead to chronic pain and/or injury.
Pilates is an exercise system that focuses very strongly on core strength and correct body alignment. It can therefore be helpful in avoiding or improving low back problems.
The drawback is that it’s essential to perform the exercises correctly, or they could do more harm than good. If Pilates exercises are done without sufficient core stabilisation, they will simply put strain on the low back.
The key to getting it right
- You must understand neutral pelvis before you do any of the exercises
- Be patient. There’s no point trying to do advanced exercises when your core muscles are weak. You’ll end up doing the exercises with poor alignment and straining your back.
- Make sure you fully understand how the exercise should be done
- Always move in a smooth and controlled way
- Stop immediately if you feel any strain in your low back
Beginner Pilates routine
If you are currently suffering from back pain or any other joint/muscle pain, please take advice from a health care professional before doing this routine.
The first step is to understand where your neutral position is. Once you can find your neutral, you don’t need to go through the “finding neutral” exercise each time you do the routine. Just make sure you keep your pelvis in the correct position for all the exercises. Ideally, do this routine 3 times a week. You can download a printable PDF of the routine at the end of the post.
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Now carefully arch your back a little – this is a forward tilting position.
- Now press your lower back gently into the floor – this is a backward tilting position.
- Halfway between these two is the neutral position.
Exercise #1 – arm & leg raise | 5 each side
Your core muscles work in this one by keeping your back flat and keeping your whole body stable. If they aren’t engaged, your back will dip instead of being flat and you’ll wobble.
- The starting position is all-4 kneeling. Make sure your back isn’t arching.
- Keeping your abdominal muscles pulled in, lift your right arm and left leg until they are parallel with the floor. Keep your back flat and your body steady.
- Hold for 3 seconds.
- Lower and repeat with your left arm and right leg. Keep going until you’ve done 5 on each side.
Exercise #2 ab hollowing | 5 x 5 seconds
Abdominal hollowing is just sucking the core muscles in. You can do it in any position – standing, sitting, lying, kneeling .. but doing it in the all-4s kneeling position is good because you are working directly against gravity.
- Get into the all 4s position as above, then suck your tummy in as much as you can without your back moving.
- Hold for 5 seconds, release and repeat for a total of 5.
Exercise #3 spine twists | 3 to each side
- Sit with your back straight and straighten your legs out in front. (If you find it difficult to straighten your legs while keeping your back straight, then have them slightly bent.)
- Raise your arms up to shoulder height, so that they are parallel with the floor.
- Keeping your back straight and your arms lifted, engage your abdominal muscles and rotate your upper body to the right. Make sure the movement is coming from your upper back – there should be no movement below your waist.
- Come back to the centre and keep turning to repeat the movement to the left.
- Keep rotating until you’ve done 3 to each side.
Exercise #4 roll downs | 5 times
This is a modification of the Pilates roll up. The roll up is an advanced exercise which can put a lot of strain on the lower back if you don’t have the core strength to do it correctly. To build up strength and control without compromising the lower back, this modification starts from the vertical and rolls down a third of the way before coming back up to vertical again.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight and heels pressed into the floor. Your back should be straight, with your shoulders relaxed down. As with the spine twist, if keeping your back and your legs straight is difficult, then bend your knees slightly.
- Exhale as you engage your core muscles and start to roll backwards. Stop when your back is at about 30 degrees to the vertical, as shown in the picture above. Take a breath and then exhale as you reverse the movement.
- Make sure your heels stay touching the floor.
- Repeat for a total of 5.
Exercise #5 the Hundred | 100 pulses
The 100 is one of the best known classic Pilates exercises. This is a modified version of the exercise that is suitable for beginners.
- Lay on the floor and raise your legs, as for the heel taps.
- Breathe in and then pulse your arms up and down by your side 5 times as you breathe out. Keep the arm movement as you breathe in for 5 pulses and then out again.
- Keep going with this for 10 breaths – that is, a total of 100 pulses.
Exercise #6 toe taps | 10 each leg
In this exercise, the core muscles need to hold on to the neutral pelvis position, while you lower one leg at a time to the floor.
- Find neutral as described, then take both feet off the floor and hold your legs as shown above.
- Making sure you keep your pelvis in the neutral position, lower one leg to the floor. Your core muscles will have to work to hold on to neutral.
- Bring your leg back up to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
- Complete a total of 20 taps
Exercise #7 single leg stretch | 10 each leg
Again, in this exercise your core needs to work to keep your pelvis stable as your legs move.
- Lie on the floor with your arms by your side, your legs about hip distance apart and your pelvis in neutral.
- Bring both knees in towards your chest, then extend one leg as shown. Your core muscles should be working to hold onto neutral (ie stopping your back from arching).
- Now reverse the movement and extend the other leg.
- Keep going for a total of 20.
Exercise #8 shoulder bridge | 5 times
The shoulder bridge also improves spine mobility and works your core muscles. It differs from the glute bridge exercise (which is not a Pilates exercise) in that with the shoulder bridge it’s a curling movement rather than a straightforward lift. The idea is to curl your spine off the floor gradually, one vertebra at a time.
- Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent and your feet about hip distance. Your pelvis should be in neutral. Now press your lower back into the floor, tilting your pelvis backwards slightly.
- Follow this movement through so that your lower back starts to curl off the floor, as shown above. Concentrate on lifting one vertebra at a time. You will probably find this difficult at first as parts of your spine will be less flexible.
- Stop when your whole spine is lifted and your weight is resting on your shoulders. Now reverse the movement, lowering back down one vertebra at a time. Make sure that you work through each joint in the spine, rather than just dropping back down.
- Finish back in the neutral position and start again.
- Keep going for a total of 5 times.
Download a printable PDF of the exercises
Click here to open and download the printable.
How massage can help to ease or prevent back pain
There are many causes of back pain, some requiring medical intervention. Often, though, back pain is caused by poor pelvic alignment and/or any of the following:
- Regularly sitting for long periods
- Muscle strain
- Shortened muscles of the back, pelvis and legs
- Repetitive movements
- Wearing heels
All of the above can cause muscle tension that leads to pain. Massage releases tension in muscles by helping them to relax and by breaking down “knots”. It can also help to prevent injury by keeping the muscles tension free, thereby improving range and ease of movement.
You can contact me to find out more or book an appointment using any of the following:
Phone: 07835 346476