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A Pilates workout – either on the mat or on the studio equipment – is one of the best known healing disciplines for the back. Sure, a Pilates workout focuses intently on the use of the abdominal center. The deep “scoop,” “lifting in and up” of the abdominals is crucial to moving the body effortlessly through all the exercises of Pilates.
However, the true student of Pilates and the healing effects it has on lifting, elongating and strengthening the body learns very quickly the importance of strengthening the other muscles of the body in opposition or stabilized resistance to the core abdominals.
That is the beauty of Pilates.
By first maintaining a resisted, stabilized core center, one can learn to move through the spine, “vertebra by vertebra at a time” to open and free the spaces between the discs and relieve tightness, restriction and compression so often found in the lumbar, thorax and cervical spine.
Absolutely, this work will take time. It will take effort, dedication and quality, supportive training and instruction. Finding a qualified, experienced instructor to support your efforts is a pre-requisite.
A good teacher will know and “see” the areas of weakness within your body and your movements. A trained eye will be able to help you work through the process of building abdominal strength from the front through to the back of the body. A qualified instructor will begin with a basic and or modified exercise routine(s) to support learning, feeling and internalization of the exercises.
As your body begins to consistently respond to the work, you will be progressed through another layer of exercises and challenges that ultimately lead to a full functioning torso, inclusive of the abdominals, spine, arms and legs.
The tail end of the spine is the sacrum, a triangular bone that generally doesn’t move and lies in the center of the pelvis. The scoop of the abdominals, as one lies down on the mat, begins by tucking the pelvis under the body to lay the sacrum down on the mat. One area of restriction, compression and thus pain for many people, lies just north of the sacrum - the lower back – or lumbar spine. The lumbar spine is made up of the lower five vertebrae and often referred to as L1 to L5.
Traveling further north is the thoracic spine, referred to as T1 to T12, as there are twelve vertebras, basically providing the spinal structure for the ribcage. Further north of this area is the cervical spine, consisting of seven vertebra, C1 to C7. Suffice to say, without any more lessons in anatomy, moving the body through each of the 24 vertebras within the spinal column with daily ease is the ultimate goal of a Pilates workout.
In addition to primary abdominal strengthening, control and awareness, the Pilates Mat exercises for the back will ultimately involve basic mat exercises, such as a) stability exercises and drills (planks and pushups; inclusive of single leg stability) and b) extension exercises (swan prep, single leg kicks, double leg kicks, side lying exercises). Pilates apparatus exercises, on the Reformer specifically, make use of loaded spring resistance to train and support all exercises that strengthen the spine and core. A few of the back extension exercises one may expect to use in progressive training for the lumbar and thoracic spine are a) pulling straps and rowing on the reformer, b) swan on the ladder barrel.
First and foremost, awareness, control and precise use and movement of the abdominals are key to the health and strength of the spine. Every movement comes back to resistance from the stabilized core center and a beginner would always start with The Hundred:
- Lying flat on your back, bend your knees into your chest and then extend the legs to the ceiling at a 90-degree angle (keeping the lower back flat and connected to the mat) and bring the head up (chin into chest).
- With arms beside the body, reaching long at hip level, vigorously pump the arms (not the hands) up and down, taking a deep breath (inhale 5 pumps, exhale 5 pumps).
- Continue for 9 more to complete the set at 10 full breaths of controlled engagement of the abdominal and stability of the spine.
This article was written by Gina Jackson, MBA, CPT, who holds an Advanced PFT recognition as a member of the International Association of Fitness Professionals (IDEA); maintains affiliate membership in the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) and is certified as a Power Pilates Teacher and a proud Business Member of the Pilates Method Alliance.
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