I have talked before about my particular spinal issues and how Pilates helped me, but the reality is most people will have back pain at some point in their life, especially as we age. A young spine is very often a healthy spine, but pain and immobility do not have to be inevitabilities as we age.
FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO BACK TENSION AND PAIN
Genetics and injuries. I fall into this category. I was born with this curve in my spine, the uneven hips, the uneven shoulders. I work on it, but the curve is here to stay. There are plenty of other spinal issues that people must contend with. For me, I know that scoliosis can degenerate as one ages, and I have seen women in their 60s and 70s that are hunched and crooked. I am determined to not let that be me, so I am working NOW to keep my back healthy. If you are working with an issue that you were born with or that was caused by an injury, you may have limitations, but all the more reason to make what you are working with as healthy as possible!
Gravity. We all live on Earth, and we all spend our days either sitting or standing with gravity pressing down on us every day of our lives for as long as we live. Most animals with vertebrae are not upright, their spines are parallel to the force of gravity, so one could argue that perhaps we should have stayed on all fours, but now is not the moment for that conversation. Upright we are.
Poor fitness. People who are sedentary and spend their days slumped in chairs, sofas, car seats and beds, I am sorry to say, are in for a rude awakening as they get older. There are a few factors that contribute to poor health as a result of weak body overall. First of all, lack of strength in your core: abdomen, chest, back and glutes means there is nothing fighting back against the gravity pushing down, so as the years go on, the pressure mounts. Think about what happens if you push down on something maleable, like a green tree branch. It doesn’t snap with gentle pressure, it bows. That’s what the spine does. It begins to curve and to round with the pressure from gravity and the weight of the head pulling it down. The internal organs begin to be compressed because there is less space and this especially detrimental to the lungs. As the torso collapses, the lungs have less space, and it becomes harder to take deep breaths. As it becomes harder to take deep breaths, our blood is less oxygenated and our cells get deprived. This leaves us more vulnerable to illnesses, particularly respiratory ones. There are many reasons why the elderly more commonly succumb to pneumonia, the flu and now COVID, but I am going to boldly say, poor lung health is a factor, and poor lung health can be one symptom of a weak core, as I have said. Sorry to be so dark and dreary! I have one more downer paragraph, but read on for the hope!
Excellent fitness, but poor spinal health. There are other folks who are very fit. They run, they cross fit, they weight train, they boot camp, they cycle. They are super healthy, but strong biceps does not necessarily equal a strong back. In fact, some people over strengthen their abs to get that six pack, but neglect the low back and end up in loads of pain. Doing weight bearing and cardio work is very important, but often stretching is neglected and poor spinal flexibility leads to stiffness and immobility as we age. Running, walking, biking and swimming are all great for your heart and lung health, but they do not build core strength.
My point in all this doom and gloom is to tell you that EVERYONE…well, every human who lives on Earth, anyway…needs to work on keeping their spine healthy. For me, that means two things primarily:
- A strong core (abdominals, back, chest, gluteals)
- A supple spine
There are other factors. Tight hips and hamstrings lead to back pain. Hips and shoulders both need to be strengthened and opened. Bad shoes, uneven gait, improper desk set up, pelvis issues, etc. can all cause pain.That is not to say that you should not be looking at the other factors too! The body is holistic, and everything is connected, but getting into the very complicated hips, pelvis, and shoulders right now was too much. I am just going to focus on just those core strength and spinal movement today.
WHY YOU NEED AND HOW TO DEVELOP A STRONG CORE
Some people refer to the core as just your six-pack, but that is only the very beginning. I like to think of an extended core that includes your entire torso front and back and your gluteal muscles.
If you think about it, your upper, mid and low back support your spine from the back. Your chest and abdomen from the front. And in both cases, the muscles are actually wrapping around your body, so the sides are included. Supporting all of this are the very strong, sturdy and important gluteal group, which also brings the hip adducters.
This was the best image I could find on line that really shows all of the muscles that I am taking about.
It is super important to work ALL of these muscle groups, so that you are balanced. Abdominal work should always be paired with back work. None of this needs weights; your own body is enough!
Years ago when I was running and practicing Pilate regularly, my knee, which has always been problematic, was causing me pain. I went to a physical therapist and she said my glutes were weak. I didn’t understand how my glutes were weak since I was running. I was very surprised to learn that we don’t build gluteal strength running. On top of that, my abdomen and low back were very strong, so I was bracing that part of my core and relieving my glutes from any work. Since then, I have had to really focus on squats, lunges and standing yoga postures that build gluteal strength.
We take the gluteals for granted, but without them, you cannot stand up out of a chair. Think about people in your life who are older. Do you know anyone who struggles to sit without dropping into the chair and struggles to get up? This can be for any number of reasons, but gluteal strength is often a culprit.
Building a strong core means that your spine is healthily supported, and your body won’t start to collapse on itself. Your posture will be better and you will be able to breathe more easily. Ensuring that you work ALL parts of your core, means you will be balanced and not end up in pain as one muscle group compensates for another.
Pilates is excellent for the back and abdomen, but it sometimes neglects the muscles of the glutes and hips. These muscle groups can be targeted in yoga, but you must be intentional about it. Holding postures for longer or moving in those postures is necessary to really build that strength. I think that is why Pilates and yoga really resonated with me. I got the spinal flexibility and core strength I needed to help, not just my back, but my entire body. Then, I actually started getting into barre because it did such a great job building strength in the low body and its incorporation of weight is good for bone density. For me, yoga, Pilates and barre are complimentary practices and I do all of them each week.
If you have a fitness routine, I PROMISE incorporating some Pilates and yoga will only help. I am going to give you some basic postures to start with. Additionally, if you are interested in getting that flat tummy, there are some other tips and changes you can make in addition to abdominal exercises.
SOME EXERCISES TO BUILD CORE STRENGTH
Locust variations. Contract the muscles of the abdomen and gluteals. BREATHE! In locust, legs can be together or apart…you will feel a difference, so work in both. If it is too much, legs can stay planted. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and contract the gluteals. The closer the arms are to the body, the easier it is. Extended, harder.
Pilates leg stretch series. Single-leg stretch, double-leg stretch, single straight-leg stretch, double straight-leg stretch and criss-cross. I do these in all my Pilates videos. These can be held for a stretch or done dynamically for an abdominal workout. The do double duty as the stretch the back and legs while building abdominal strength!
Bird-dog and knee to elbow. Arm and leg at shoulder and hip height. Keep the spine in neutral by pulling in the belly. If you keep the spin in a neutral position when you bring the knee and leg in, it is more of an ab challenge. If you round up, it stretches the back more. Both are good, just different.
Goddess pose (feet wide and turned out) try to keep the torso upright (I STRUGGLE with goddess!)
Squats (feet parallel and just wider than hips).
Chair pose (feet together).
Keep knees over ankles and the weight in the heels for all of these. These can be static or you can add movement in and out of the posture.
Lunges and lunge dips. You can hold the lunge, or bend the back knee towards the floor and then press back up. Be careful not to track forward. I talk a lot about knee health in another post.
Bridge pose. I am using blocks here to engage the inner thighs. There are deeper variations, bringing the arms under the body.
Low boat, boat pose and Pilates teaser. Pull the belly button to the spine and don’t let the back arch or the chest drop. These can be modified by bending the knees, planting the feet, and/or holding the backs of the thighs.
Modified plank and plank. Keep the neck in line with the spine and support the low back with an engaged plank. In neither option do the hips drop.
Modified side plank and side plank. This can be done from knee or feet and on forearm or hand.
Triangle. This is a deceptively hard posture. The idea is that there is no bend of curve in the spine. This is VERY hard for me. Try to lengthen the bottom ribs while pulling in the top ribs. Avoid putting your hand on your shin, as this puts pressure on your knee. Hold your hand in space, or you can use a block as you gain strength. This works your front and back body.
ANY variation of any of those postures and many more will build core strength. These are just a few of the many possibilities to give you an idea or to start you off.
If you practice Pilates, you will get excellent upper core work, although not as much low core. The breath is very important. As you exhale sharply through your mouth, you contract your abdomen, and build strength in your multifidi, which connect directly to the spine; your transversus abdnominus, which wrap around your body and tighten your torso; and your pelvic floor muscles, which support your base. My first teacher used to say that if you weren’t doing the Pilates breath, you were missing 90% of the exercise. It is just that important. The breath in yoga is not a forceful breath and it serves a different purpose, so they are BOTH important to practice.
I offer three Pilates videos: beginner, intermediate and advanced, and all of my practices incorporate some core work.
WHY YOU NEED AND HOW TO DEVELOP A SUPPLE SPINE
The other factor at stake is the malleability and moveability of your spine. I see people all the time who are very strong and very active, but lack flexibility throughout their body. Tight hamstrings and hips will lead to a tight back and pain. I believe it is important to keep all muscles in the body flexible, but I want to focus very specifically right now on the movement of the actual spinal column.
Your spine has the ability to move in four directions:
- Laterally (each side)
- A neutral position is where it is in its optimal, natural shape
That suppleness is vital as we age. As the body ages and gravity presses down, our joints all become less lubricated, more rigid and less mobile. At the same time, we may lose bone density and muscle strength. This is not inevitable! We can fight this. If you have ever heard of someone who has…of if you have… “thrown out your back,” it is usually because of moving the body in a way that it is not used to doing, and a muscle rejects that movement and strains. It is caused by too many years of not moving or bending the spine. Your spine was designed to move, but if we don’t move it, that suppleness goes away.
Unfortunately, developing big strong muscles often means creating short, contracted muscles, and those muscles don’t tend to move to easily. Yoga and Pilates both work to create long, strong, supple muscles. Most good teachers of both disciplines will include spinal movement in all of those directions in every practice.
If you don’t like to exercise, you would do yourself a huge favor in the long run if you just did spinal stretches. If you do like to exercise, be sure that with your strength building and conditioning you are working on your total body flexibility, especially your spine! Here are just a few of the MANY options for each of the directions of the spinal movement.
Supported Standing back bend (gentle). Contract the legs and butt and then draw the elbows towards one another. Think about opening the chest up and pressing the hips forward and the back bend will happen.
Cow (gentle). Press the pelvis down and open the chest forward. Head and neck neutral.
Camel (gentle to intense). With camel you want hips over ankles, so that your thighs are vertical. It is really easy to hinge back, but that takes the curve out of the back we are going for. This can be done with hands on the waist, hands landing on blocks, or for the super bendy, head landing on the floor! I don’t like to let my head drop back. In this position, it is supported. A good way to practice this is to press your hips and pelvis against a wall. As you bend into it, don’t lose contact with the wall. This will make you engage your thighs and butt and curve, rather than hinge. Think about opening the ches up rather than bending back.
Baby cobra (gentle), cobra (more intense), up dog (most intense). Be aware of dropping into the hips and low back in up dog. For most, cobra is enough. I breakdown up dog and down dog in another post. Note that my neck is in neutral.
Crescent pose (more intense). Here the knee may pass the ankle as we stretch into the hip flexor, but with no real weight on the knee, it is okay.
Wheel (intense). Feet and knees parallel. Hands parallel. Mine are a little further away from my shoulders here than they could be.
Bow (intense). You can practice this one arm and leg at a time with the opposite arm and leg out stretched to support. You can also practice this without reaching your ankles. Once you reach your ankles, kick against your hands and keep pulling your knees together. Press the pelvis into the floor.
These should be done as counter poses to your back bends. After a back bend, do a forward bend and/or a twist.
Forward fold. Knees bent rounds the spine more, legs straight stretches the hamstrings more. Do both!
Seated forward fold. Think about extending out of your hips end lengthening the spine before rounding over.
Child’s Pose. Toes and feet together.
Cat. Pull the belly button up and press into the hands. Let the head drop.
Be sure to do both sides, but if, like me, you have a curve, work more against the curve than into it.
Standing side bends. This can be done with both arms extended too.
Gate pose. I put my hand on a block to avoid too much pressure on the knee.
Seated side bend. The opposite leg could be bent or straight. Think about rotating the top shoulder back, so your chest is open and you are bending sideways, not forward.
Puppy pose side variation.
Side angle bend. As with gate, I use the block here. My knee could be bent more, but never past 90 degrees. Reaching the arm overhead stretches the side body. Arm can also rest on the thigh instead of the block.
Reverse warrior, reverse triangle, exalted warrior. These combine a back bend with a lateral bend, and, in the case of exalted warrior, a twist.
These are great to do at the end of a practice or in the middle of the day to release tension.
Seated half-spinal twist. Try not to lean into the supporting hand. The bottom leg can be extended if that is more comfortable.
Supine twist variations. This is less intense with both knees bent and stacked. If that is easy, straightening the bottom leg intensifies it. It can also be done with legs crossed
Revolved chair pose. It is important to get really low and sit back, so you are twisting, rather than bending. Keep knees in line with one another, rather than letting one shift forward. Keep hands at heart center.
Down dog twist
Revolved low lunge, revolved high lunge. In both cases, knee is over ankle. Both arm options are fine. The difference is the back leg.
Thread the needle. This one is a twist, but then a neutral spine with an upper body stretch, so it really didn’t belong anywhere. I put it here. Square your hips and reach both arms away from the body.
And then equally, we want to elongate the spine and fine the healthy place to live normally.
Puppy pose. Toes are pressed into the ground and we are sitting back towards the hips and reaching forward, creating traction.
Down dog. Press heels towards the earth and roll shoulders away from the ears. DO NOT press your chest towards your legs. That puts pressure on your shoulders. Think about extending up from the sit bones while driving down with the heels to create traction. Much more on this in a previous post.
Chair pose. Hands at heart center will be easier. Avoid a curve in the low back and keep the weight in the heels. Knees over ankles.
Table top. This is a good alternative to down dog in Vinyasa, if inversions are not appropriate for you (pregnancy, high/low blood pressure, vertigo, etc.).
Resting warrior. In resting warrior, toes are together, knees apart.
Forward fold with neutral spine. This will not be as deep. We keep the spine long and extend forward from the hips. Chest lifted.
Mountain pose. Working to keep the hips and pelvis neutral, shoulders open, chest listed, but not sticking out. Abdominals and gluteals engaged. Chin pulled back to keep the neck in line.
There are tens of thousands of yoga postures, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Some people hate yoga, that’s fine. That’s why I used the English names. Don’t think of this as yoga. Think of this as stretching for a healthy spine.
If you don’t like Pilates, think of it as ab work.
Whatever you need to do to motivate to get your back and spine healthy for today and for always, do it. You may not think you need it now, but you may be surprised at how great you feel if you are less stiff and you will really be happy when you are 85 and still dancing for joy!
Check out my You Tube channel for yoga and Pilates practices ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. They will all bend your spine and many are core-focuses. There are other posts in this section to learn more about the holistic practice of yoga.
I have a series of Pilates videos:
Otherwise, most of the videos are a fusion of yoga and Pilates. The description will tell you the style and the level. Level 1 is beginner and level 2 is intermediate.
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