My top tips for a happy back

Feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders? Suffering from a painful back and not sure what to do to make it better? In this blog post, you’ll learn why you’re experiencing back pain, that movement is key for alleviating back pain, and I’ll also share my top tips and favourite exercises for a happy back!

Why do I have back pain?

There are many reasons why you may experience back pain: scoliosis, ageing, or more serious conditions such as herniated discs, sciatica… Having said that, a common reason for all cases of back pain is the lack of abdominal tone (aka weak abs) that directly affects your posture.

In other words, you can be in good health and experience back pain simply because of some bad habits. 

The good news is that it’s not too late! Let’s dive a little deeper into the root causes of back pain and what you can do to make your back happy and pain free again.

Behind every back pain there is a reason

Upper back pain

If at the end of the day you notice a pain in your upper back, it’s probably due to hunched shoulders, excessive use of your smartphone, or a bad sitting posture when you’re working from home…

Morning back pain

If you tend to have a stiff back in the morning, let me reassure you, that is normal! As you age, whether you are sedentary or sporty, the body becomes stiffer. It is therefore essential to keep your body flexible, starting with your spine. Joseph Pilates said: “You are as young as your spine is flexible” and he was right. To achieve this, roll-up and roll-down exercises are a gentle and effective way to wake up the spine.

Lower back pain

If you experience lower back pain (often the case in people with a pronounced lumbar curve), this often boils down to bad posture and a relatively weak core.

Pain after a long day standing, walking or sitting

Finally, if you experience pain at the end of a long day spent standing, walking, or working from home where you’ve arched your back while sitting down, the best way to counter this is to regularly bring your navel close to your spine (aka sucking in your belly), and ground your sitting bones. In other words, you’re looking to lengthen the lower back.

The magic of Pilates lies in the fact that as you gradually become more aware of these unconscious bad habits, you can learn exercises that will correct these bad habits and improve your back pain.

What is the centre or Power House?

Before I go into the exercises you can do to relieve your back pain, I’d like to remind you of a central notion in Pilates: the core aka The Power House. 

Pilates is one of the best workouts you can do to work on the deep strengthening of :

  • your abdominal muscles
  • transverse muscles
  • the perineum
  • the back muscles

All of these muscles are linked and make up your core aka the “Power House”  in Pilates jargon.

Now let’s dive into the exercises!

Beginner Pilates exercises for a happy back

The hundreds

A classic warm-up exercise that works the core, coordination, breath and endurance to wake up the body and get your heart rate up.

Instructions

  • Lie on your back with your arms by your sides off the mat at hip height. Your shoulders and hips should be aligned.
  • Start with your knees against your chest, then stretch your legs towards the ceiling, more or less high, your lower back should not be arched off the mat. 
  • Pump your arms up and down dynamically, breathing in and out deeply (5 counts on each inhale and exhale). 
  • Lift your head and shoulders off the floor and draw your navel in. 
  • Rest your head back on the mat if your neck is sore. 
  • Soften the knees and raise the legs if you feel you are arching in the lower back.

Do 10 x 10 repetitions.

Roll up and roll down

In these exercises, you’ll work your spine and engage your core to roll up and down. If you have a herniated disc, lumbago or sciatica do not do these exercises.

Roll down

  • Sitting with your legs bent and your feet on the mat, press your legs together.
  • With your hands under your thighs and your elbows open to the sides, breathe in and roll back onto the mat without letting the head touch the mat, keep your back rounded.
  • Come back up holding the back of the thighs to help you, and exhale above the knees. Keep your belly drawn in.

Do 3 to 5 repetitions.

Roll up

  • Lie down on your back with your legs straight and heels pressing against each other, your arms straight up to the ceiling and aligned with your ears, palms facing forward.
  • Bring your arms parallel to the floor, lift your head and bring your chest up towards the legs as you exhale, keeping the arms parallel to the floor, shoulders relaxed.
  • To start again, draw the belly in, keep the back round and roll back, keeping your heels flexed and controlling the descent with your core, arms parallel to the mat.

Do 3 to 5 repetitions.

One leg circle

This exercise strengthens and stabilises the pelvis.

  • Lie down, shoulders in line with your hips, extend one leg to 90° and pull it towards you while breathing (keep the leg straight).
  • With your arms by your sides, hands on the mat, press your triceps into the mat and keep your shoulders open. Start drawing a circle with your leg.
  • Only your leg should be moving. If the rest of your body starts to move, make a smaller circle.
  • Inhale to start the circle and exhale to finish the circle.

Do 5 repetitions in each direction.

Rolling like a ball

This exercise stretches your back and helps you develop control. Do not do this exercise  if you have a herniated disc, sciatica or lumbago.

  • Sit down, bring your knees to your chest and place your hands on your ankles.
  • Take your feet off the floor and maintain your balance, keep the lower back rounded. 
  • Roll back until your buttocks lift towards the ceiling (without rolling onto the back of your neck) and return to a seated position, don’t let the feet touch the mat.

Repeat up to 6 times.

Single leg stretch

This exercise strengthens the abs, helps you coordinate the breath with the movement and stretches the lower back. 

  • Draw your belly in and place your shoulders above the low ribs to do this exercise correctly. 
  • Lie on your back, bring both knees to your chest, place your right hand on your right ankle, and your left hand on your right knee.
  • Pull your right knee towards the middle of your shoulder. Lift your head and shoulders, and extend one leg after the other without arching the lower back.
  • Change the placement of your hands as you move the legs, keeping the outside hand on the ankle.
  • Inhale on one leg, exhale on the other. 
  • Then inhale on two leg movements, exhale on the next two.

Up to 10 repetitions on each leg.

Double leg stretch

Same objectives as the previous exercise. Make sure you keep your back nice and rounded and your belly is drawn in. 

  • Lying down on your back with both knees towards your chest, your hands on your ankles, pull your legs towards you to get very compact. 
  • Lift your head and shoulders, looking towards your navel to protect your neck and activate the core.
  • Extend your arms and legs at 90° (legs in line with hips, arms in line with shoulders), then bring your arms back and out to the sides, bend your legs and pull them back towards your chest with your arms on an exhale.

Do up to 10 repetitions.

Spine stretch forward

This exercise stretches and opens the lower back.

  • Sit with your legs stretched wide apart, heels flexed. Lightly bend the knees if your chest is not in line with your hips. 
  • Lengthen your spine, and keep your shoulders away from your ears. 
  • Your arms are extended in front of you shoulder-width apart as if resting on a table, parallel to the floor.
  • Tuck your head between your arms, and curl forward as you bring your forehead towards the floor between your knees, exhaling.
  • Roll up one vertebra at a time as you inhale.

Up to 5 repetitions.

And my personal favourite at-home back exercise

This exercise will help bring flexibility to your spine.

  • Stand with your back to a wall. Position yourself fairly close but not against the wall. 
  • Raise the arms up towards the sky, then curl yourself forward keeping your back round and bring your hands to your toes, come back up squeezing your buttocks very tightly.
  • Try not to touch the wall either on the way down or on the way up.
  • Soften your knees. 

Up to 3 repetitions.

This exercise is particularly challenging for stiff lower backs, but it will do you the world of good! Tried, tested and approved!

So, tell me, how is your back feeling?

Did these exercises help? Please leave your questions and feedback in the comments below. And if you need help with your back, you can book a class with me here….

Yours in Pilates,

Kelly

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