Lower back pain is one of the most common workout pain complaints, explains Amanda Christodoulou, certified Pilates instructor and owner of Pilates Body at Anatomy at 1220 in Miami. That’s because we spend more and more time sitting in front of screens, and that seated position doesn’t require any core strength or stability, she says. Combine that with the little things we do throughout the day that lead to muscular imbalances such as always wearing a heavy purse on the same shoulder or carrying way too many grocery bags to prevent multiple trips. “These small things add to misalignments and overuse.”
But if you want to train efficiently at the gym or studio, your body needs to be ready for the work you’re about to do. “Clients are experiencing the consequences of a weak core and tight lower back and hamstrings. If you want to train hard, you have to know how to control the muscles you are working on,” Christodoulou adds.
Strengthening your core is the most obvious answer to relieving back pain, explains Christodoulou. (The caveat being that it’s not the only solution, and if you’re experiencing pain you should always check in with your doctor.) Think of your abs and back as complementary body parts. When you have a strong core you’ll move through life and your workout with better posture—and this helps alleviate pressure on your lower back.
And, your back is technically part of your core, which includes your abs, hips, glutes, and back muscles. In Pilates, they call this area your “powerhouse.” And a strong powerhouse makes exercise safer and more effective, Christodoulou explains. While Pilates exercises are excellent at strengthening your core, they’re also great at helping you identify the cause of these pain and imbalances.
Here are four core-strengthening Pilates exercises she recommends for helping to reduce lower back pain.
1. Pilates 100
This is a great exercise to include during a warm-up, explains Christodoulou. “It will connect you to your core while generating heat in your body. With your core completely engaged you will set your body up with a neutral spine.” That will help reducing arching that can lead to pressure in your lower back.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Point your toes, squeeze your heels together, and extend your legs out to about a 65-degree angle, or lower to the ground for more of a challenge.
- Lift your head and shoulders off the mat and extend your arms by your side.
- Pump your arms up and down using your triceps, inhaling through the nose for five pumps and exhaling out of the mouth for five pumps.
- Continue and repeat the set of 5 inhales and 5 exhales a total of 10 times to complete 1 set of 100.
2. Pilates Scissors
“Once you’ve gained control over your core, you are challenged to move your limbs without losing that connection, as you do in this exercise,” explains Christodoulou “This leads to the body being able to rely solely on the abs for movement and prevents the lower back from taking over.”
- Start on your back with your legs straight and arms reaching overhead.
- Extend the right leg toward the sky as you curl up off the shoulder blades and reach for the calf or thigh, grabbing behind your leg gently with both hands. Hover your left leg above the ground.
- Keeping your torso lifted, switch legs, so your right leg is hovering over the ground and your left leg is pointing upwards.
3. Hip Bridge
“Lower back pain can come from a combination of weakness and tightness. When we strengthen our posterior chain (the backside of your body) it lessens the load on our delicate lower backs,” Christodoulou adds. “Not only are we targeting the hamstrings and glutes in a bridge, but we are pressing through the triceps and back of the head which elongates the cervical spine.”
- Start on your back with your knees bent and arms in low V by your hips. Your feet should be about hip-distance apart with your heels a few inches away from your butt.
- Push through your heels to lift your hips up while squeezing your glutes. Try to create one diagonal line from your shoulders to your knees.
- Pause for 1-2 seconds, then lower back down.
4. Bird Dog
“In order to find your balance here you must engage your core. This exercise helps you do that in a different orientation, other than lying on your back. It will also give you a good idea if you have a weaker or tighter side of the body,” explains Christodoulou. “Notice if one arm goes wider, or if one leg is higher than the other. That can be a sign of imbalance that is causing you pain.”
- Start on your hands and knees in tabletop position with your wrists above your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
- Extend your right arm forward and left leg back, maintaining a flat back and square hips.
- For a more advanced version, add the crunch (as demonstrated in the GIF above) by drawing your right elbow and left knee to meet under your torso.
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