How To Heal Back Pain With Pilates

Ali Handley from BodyLove Pilates returns to share how to release, stretch and strengthen your back to relieve pain and tension, offering top moves and tips.
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Ali Handley from BodyLove Pilates returns to share how to release, stretch and strengthen your back to relieve pain and tension, offering top moves and tips.
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In the fitness space, there seems to be so much emphasis on getting flat abs, sculpted arms and toned tushies, but what we really should be focused on is strengthening the muscles that support the spine. We spend too much time targeting the contraction of our muscles, and not enough time lengthening and releasing them to relieve tension that causes pain in the body, particularly in our backs. 

In today's world of technology and corporate culture, so many of us hunch over computer screens and look down at our phones for the majority of the day, resulting in poor posture and persistent back pain. This five-step program of simple stretches, release work and a short series of back extension exercises will help to correct spinal alignment, relieve tension and strengthen the crucial muscles of the back.

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STRETCH: Chest Stretching

Before you target the muscles of the back, the crucial first step is to stretch the muscles of the chest and open up the front line of the body. By releasing the tight pec muscles, you will be putting the mid- and upper spine in a more neutral position that is ideal before you begin extension exercises. You can do the stretch shown above using a resistance band, a yoga strap or even a belt from your closet. 

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RELEASE: IT Band Release With A Foam Roller

Your IT (iliotibia) band is the ligament that runs down the outside of the upper thigh from the pelvis to the tibia bone in the lower leg. It is very common for this structure to be over-used and to become tight and inflamed. When the IT band is tight, it pulls on the pelvis, causing low back pain. Rolling out the IT band with the foam roller is a wonderful way to lengthen the ligament and, in doing so, release tightness in the low back. It can feel uncomfortable, but you have to remember that there is a difference between "bad" pain and therapeutic pain – this is the latter, and it will feel so good afterwards. Here's how to do it properly: turn on your side, starting with the roller at the top of the ligament, and roll very slowly up and down for maximum results. Be careful not to get too close to the knee.

STRENGTHEN

The best position to strengthen your back is in on your tummy – this position is called "prone." Here are the five best prone exercises to strengthen the back.

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Half Swan

To set up, lie on your tummy, with your feet slightly turned out and a little wider than your hips, your two hip bones and pubic bone resting on the mat, your nose and forehead down, and your hands down, just in front of the shoulders.

Inhale through your nose, as you begin to feel your shoulders melt down your back.

Exhale out your mouth as you first pull your belly button to your spine, then imagine you roll a marble with the tip of your nose and watch it go off the end of the mat as your head and shoulders float up.

Inhale again and maintain the position.

Exhale again and lengthen back down to the mat.

Do 8 reps. For an extra challenge, hold the back extension and float the hands up to be in line with the shoulders. Hold this position for four breaths. Remember to keep the belly in, and don't sink between the shoulders.

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Airplane

To set up, lie on your tummy, with your feet slightly turned out and a little wider than your hips, your two hip bones and pubic bone resting on the mat, your nose and forehead down, and your arms reaching out to the sides (in line with your shoulders). Your pinky fingers should press down into the mat and the palm of the hands should face forward.

Inhale through your nose, as you begin to feel your shoulders melt down your back. Press down and out with your pinky fingers.

Exhale out your mouth as you first pull your belly button to your spine, then imagine you roll a marble with the tip of your nose and watch it go off the end of the mat as your head and shoulders float up.

Inhale again and maintain the position.

Exhale again, maintaining the spinal position, and reach the arms out and up to be in line with the body.

Inhale again, maintaining the spinal position as you lower the arms.

Exhale again and lengthen back down to the mat. 

Do 8 reps. For an extra challenge, hold the position and lift and lower the arms 8 times before lowering the whole body back down to the mat.

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Superman

To set up, lie on your tummy, with your feet slightly turned out and a little wider than your hips, your two hip bones and pubic bone resting on the mat, your nose and forehead down, your arms down by your sides, your shoulders rolled forward toward the mat and your palms facing up.

Inhale through your nose, roll your shoulders back and feel them melt away from your ears as your palms rotate to be against your thighs. Slide them down the side of your body, reaching for your feet.

Exhale out your mouth as you first pull your belly button to your spine, then imagine you roll a marble with the tip of your nose and watch it go off the end of the mat as your head and shoulders float up and your arms lift and lengthen down the side of you body.

Inhale again and maintain the position.

Exhale again and slowly lengthen back to the start position.

Do 8 reps. Remember that we want the extension to be focused in your mid-back – the thoracic spine. As you float up, try not to lift the chin too much, and instead lift from your mid-back. 

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Swimming

To set up, lie on your tummy, with your feet slightly turned out and a little wider than your hips, your two hip bones and pubic bone resting on the mat, your nose and forehead down, your arms reaching out in front of you and your palms down. Imagine you are making a small X with your body.

Inhale through your nose, roll your shoulders back and feel them melt down away from your ears.

Exhale out your mouth as you first pull your belly button to your spine, then imagine you roll a marble with the tip of your nose and watch it go off the end of the mat as your head, shoulders, arms and legs float up.

Continue to breathe normally as you swim your arms and legs.

"Swim" for 10 breaths. For an extra challenge, hold the float position for 4 breaths. Imagine reaching energy through the fingers and toes, and focus on length, not how high everything is lifted.

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Plank To Downward Dog Flow

To set up your plank, make sure your wrists are placed under your shoulders and spine is long and in a flat, neutral position. Hold the plank for 30 seconds. 

Inhale through your nose and pike the hips into the air, shoulders melting down your back as you come into downward dog. 

Exhale out your mouth, lower the heels and stretch the calves and hamstrings. 

Inhale again and come up on to the balls of your feet. 

Exhale again as you slide your shoulders down your back, lower the body back to the plank position and hold.

Do 4 reps. For correct spinal alignment when holding the plank, here are few visuals to think about. Imagine there is a Spanx-like corset wrapped around your mid-section, cinching and lengthening your waistline; imagine that your heart is floating up toward your back ribs; and/or imagine pulling your pubic bone up toward your sternum. 

Ali Handley is a New York based Pilates instructor, mother of two young children, and the founder of BodyLove Pilates, a dedicated online studio with 200+ video workouts for pregnant and postnatal women to ensure they work out smarter, safer and more effectively during this important time in their lives.

p.s. Have you tried Ali's pilates exercises for prenatal and postpartum strength and recovery?