Four Pilates Exercises for a Healthy Spine
**Adapted from a featured article in Appleton Monthly Magazine April 2018 “Healthy You” Edition.
Joseph Pilates, creator of the Pilates Method of fitness once said, “a man is as young as his spinal column. If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” We spend most of our days sitting, slouching forward, and rarely moving our spines at all, and it’s taking a toll on our bodies—and our posture.
Pilates helps to move the spine in all directions which creates resiliency and flexibility that will keep your body feeling young through your years.
Try these four Pilates exercises to increase your spinal mobility and eliminate stiffness after a long period of sitting. Each one of these exercises moves the spine in a different direction: flexion, roation, side bending, and extension.
As always, make sure you consult your doctor or primary care provider before starting a new exercise program to ensure you are cleared for movement.
Spine Stretch Forward
Set-up: Sit up tall on your hips with the legs straight and shoulder-width apart. Flex your ankles and reach your arms forward at shoulder height.
Exercise: Inhale, and pull your abs in as you slide the shoulder blades forward. Reach and round through the spine as if you were bending over a fitness ball. Exhale, draw the shoulder blades back down your back as you roll to sit up tall on your hips. Repeat 6-8 times. In order to feel the stretch through your back, you must engage your core through the front. Really feel the abdominal wall pulling in and back to maximize the stretch through the backline of your body.
*Pro Tips: Think about elongating the spine forward, rather than “crunching” it forward. How much reach can you feel through the crown of your head? This exercise stretches the mid and upper back, so keep your hips anchored throughout the exercise (the pressure on the base of the pelvis should not change at all as you perform the movement).
Modification: If you are unable to sit-up all on your hips, place a soft bend in the knees so you can sit perpendicular to the ground, or prop yourself up on a pillow or book.
Set-up: Lay on your back with arms at your side, and extend your legs up to the ceiling at hip-height. Point through your ankles and actively hold your legs together.
Exercise: Inhale, swing both legs to the right, allowing the left hip to lift up and off the mat. Continue circling the legs down towards the ground while stabilizing both sides of the pelvic. Exhale, lift the legs back up towards the ceiling allowing the right hip to leave the mat, and return the legs to the starting position. Reverse the exercise by beginning to the left. Repeat 3-6 times each direction.
*Pro tips: Only let the legs lower toward the ground as much as you can without arching the low back. Feel for the subtle rotation of the low back as the hip lifts off the mat, keeping the hips level, the hip is lifting, but not hiking towards the ribcage.
Modification: For more support, allow the arms to be out in a “T” with the palms facing down, or keep the legs bent at a 90 degree angle while performing the exercise.
Side Leg Bananas
Set-up: Lay on your side with your head, shoulders, hips, and heels all in one straight line. Rest your head on your bicep with your palm facing towards the ceiling. Place your opposite hand palm facing down in front of your chest.
Exercise: Take an inhale to prepare for the movement. On the exhale, engage your core and lift both legs up and off of the mat. Feel your top hip move towards your ribcage. Inhale to lower back down, and on the next exhale, keep your legs down and lift your upper body off the mat all the way to the bottom of the shoulder blade using your waistline. Lower back down and try lifting both upper and lower together on your next exhale. Repeat the whole sequence (lower, upper, both) 2-3 times, then switch to lie on the other side and repeat.
*Pro tips: Keep the body in one long line from fingers to toes. Think about pressing your waistline down into the mat to help you stabilize as you lift.
Modification: Turn the palm of the arm overhead to face the ground and press into it while lifting just the head and legs off of the mat.
Set-up: Lay on your stomach with the palms facing down right below your shoulders, elbows pointing up. Legs long behind you in parallel as close together as is comfortable for your low back, kneecaps facing the ground.
Exercise: Inhale and engage the abs and press into your palms. Exhale, and slowly begin peeling the spine up and off the mat one vertebra at a time. Keep the shoulders gliding down your back, and lift only as high as you comfortably can. Try to feel for even extension through the spine, head is in line with the spine. Inhale at the top, and exhale to slowly lower the spine back down to the mat with control. Repeat 4-6 times.
*Pro tips: Keep the low back long and feel for a stretch through the front of your hips. As you lower back down to the mat, imagine the spine is pressing through the chest to stretch it longer as you lower down. Try to maintain the shoulders neutral and wide across your back throughout the exercise.
Modification: Place your hands level with your ears, and only rise as up to your elbows. Focus on anchoring the pubic bone into the mat the keep the pressure off of your low back.