Similar to yoga, Pilates is a series of controlled exercises and movements that target core areas like the abdomen and obliques, lower back, buttock, and inner and outer thighs. These same muscle groups either directly or indirectly support the spine. For this reason, Pilates can be an effective way to relieve, manage, and prevent back pain. Unlike gym routines that sometimes place too much pressure on certain parts of the spine, Pilates has many variations and exercises that carefully target specific muscle groups without excessive stress.
1. Forearm Plank
A core body exercise, the forearm plank is the one Pilates exercise you should do if you’re limited on time and want to get a full core stretch. It works all the muscles that support the spine in some way, including the midsection and deeper core muscles. Place your knees on the ground if you need extra support. A forearm plank is done by:
- Lying on a mat or the floor with the elbows under the shoulders
- Tucking the toes in and pressing against the back of the heels and legs
- Tightening the core while rising off the ground
- Forming a straight head-to-toe line
Do forearm planks in time increments. Start with 10 seconds. Once you can hold it for that long without letting your back sag, add another 10 seconds.
2. Pelvic Bridge
In addition to targeting paraspinal muscles (small muscles that control movements between vertebrae and other bones), pelvic bridging works quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and abs. Keep your abs engaged as you do this Pilates exercise to prevent lower back strain. Do a pelvic bridge by:
- Lying on a flat surface and bending your knees with your hands alongside your body
- Squeezing your pelvic floor muscles while relaxing your upper body and back
- Exhaling as you press your palms into the floor to lift your pelvis upward
- Inhaling as you lower yourself back to your starting position
Strive to work up to about 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest for about 30-60 seconds between sets. For intermediate bridging, extend your “up” time to work your glutes more. Advanced bridging is more challenging since it involves using one leg at a time instead of both, which can increase stability through the back and hips. Pay attention to how high you’re lifting your pelvis to avoid putting too much pressure on your upper spine and neck.
3. Half Chest Curl
Sit-ups are among the types of exercises you’ll want to avoid if you have a history of back pain. A better alternative in Pilates is a half chest curl, which works the spine and abdominal muscles at the same time. To do this exercise:
- Bend your knees while lying with your feet flat on the ground
- Put your hands behind your neck or cross your arms over your chest (whichever is more comfortable)
- Keep your feet, tailbone, and lower spine on the floor or mat at all times to maintain proper form and minimize lower back stress
- Tighten your abs and lift your shoulders as you exhale and lift your shoulders a bit higher
Avoid pulling on your neck or leading with your elbows. Hold for a few seconds when you get your shoulders up before lowering yourself down to do another half chest curl.
4. Dry Swimming
With this Pilates exercise, you’ll be going through basic swimming motions to strengthen all areas of your spine. Engage your abs and keep your back straight to maintain your posture. You can “swim” on either the floor or an exercise mat by:
- Resting on your stomach with your legs together and straight and your shoulders back away from your head
- Reaching your arms in front of you as if doing a breaststroke with your abs pulled in
- Raising and extending your legs and arms from the floor while keeping your head in line with your spine (your head should naturally come off the mat when you do this, but keep your eyes downward to avoid overstressing your neck muscles)
- Alternating legs and arms (lift the right leg and the left arm and vice-versa)
- Moving legs and arms up and down in small, rapid pulses in a swimming motion for about a minute
5. Child’s Pose
As is the case when this is used as a yoga pose, the purpose of a child’s pose in Pilates is to align the spine correctly in a relaxing way. It’s also a good way to wrap up a session that included other exercises. The child’s pose is done by bringing the hips back and sitting as close to the heels as possible while kneeling.
Stretch your arms forward with your palms on the ground as you relax your forehead on the floor while breathing deeply. Keep your knees close together for more of a lower back stretch. Spread your knees far apart to get more of a hip stretch. Come out of the child’s pose by moving your hands back toward your legs, then slowly sit back up. Your head will be the last thing you lift.
With any Pilates exercises, do what’s comfortable for you, which may mean doing fewer repetitions and reducing time spent on each exercise until you build up core strength.
If you’re used to “feeling the burn” when you exercise, get out of this habit with Pilates. The main emphasis with the moves associated with this discipline is correct form, not working your muscles to the point where you have lingering soreness. Paying attention to form can also enhance your posture, which is another good thing for your spine. If you’re new to Pilates, consider starting with a beginner’s class to learn the basic moves and proper form. Check with your doctor or a Santa Monica spine surgeon first if you have existing issues with back pain.
Get in touch with the expert surgeons at The Spine Institute if you’re seeking effective relief for your chronic back pain. We specialize in a variety of procedures, including spinal fusion, cervical artificial disc replacement, and Coflex surgery. Santa Monica patients should call 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.