11 Pilates Instructors Reveal The Best Core Exercises For Back Pain
Are you someone who often struggles with back pain? Whether it’s on a consistent basis, been a one-off or you just want to prevent any back problems for the future, it’s all about developing your core strength and providing your back with a support system to prevent any problems and to keep your body in the best condition possible.
In developing core strength, it’s difficult to know where to start especially if you’re new to the idea of Pilates and unaware of the many benefits it can have on both your physical and mental health. So we’ve gone and put together a roundup of the best core exercises for back pain.
Check out our experts guide below and discover some of the leading Pilates instructors out there and what advice they have when it comes to core exercises for back pain. When collating our responses, we asked the below Pilates instructors one simple question:
What would be your top tip/exercise to help someone with back pain?
“Stretch your hamstrings – often clients at my studio experience low level, constant lower back pain that is associated with tight hamstrings that pull on their pelvis and compress the lumbar spine. A brief but regular hamstring stretch each day can do wonders and relieve the back of a muscular imbalance that is so common.Try lying on your back with your feet hooked into a yoga strap/fitness circle or belt and press your feet up towards the ceiling (turning your body into an L shape). This way your spine is supported by the floor and you can also target one hamstring at a time. “
“If you have back pain, my best advice is to strengthen your ‘Powerhouse’ with Pilates. Think of a tree, when your trunk is strong and supple, the limbs are supported.The best exercises for general back pain are the first 7 in the Pilates mat series on Pilatesology.”
“Strengthening your core against gravity is one of the most important ways to help strengthen your back. The more support you have from the front the more space you have in the back. When doing these exercises please make sure you keep length in your lower back and focus on the extension being in the upper back. The legs should remain heavy on the floor until you are doing the full swan dive.”
“If you suffer with back pain, chances are you need more spine extension and pelvic stability in your life. In the Pilates studio, we call this ‘length without compression’. Now, I know this may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain.First comes extension. Our back muscles work together with our abdominal muscles to hold our torsos stable and keep us upright. When everything is working well, it is easy for us to stand up tall and straight with a lifted lower back (spine extension), as well as to move into spinal hyperextension (bending back), flexion (bending forward), side bending, and rotation.Without good extension, especially in the lower back, all spinal movements are compromised. This is often why abdominal exercises can feel like they are hurting more than helping!Second comes pelvic stability. Once we find good spine extension, it is good to be able to maintain it. The easiest way to do that is to keep your pelvis stable, which will allow for a long spine and clearer movement at the hip joints. Remember the old adage that we should lift heavy objects with our legs and not our backs? That requires pelvic stability!A Pre-Pilates Fundamental exercise that works on both of these is Flight.Lay prone on your stomach and place arms by your sides with palms down and forehead resting on the mat or a folded towel. Set up your pelvis as you exhale, contracting your abs and pressing your hips and pubic bones into the mat. This time as you inhale lift and lengthen your head & chest off the mat while at the same time reaching your hands towards your feet. Exhale, contract your abs deeply and lift your hands/arms. Don’t overarch your lower back or your neck! Stay long – picture your lower back reaching forward and up. Keep chest open & feet down. Repeat 5-10 times.”
“So often when in pain we stop moving — but I’m a big fan of mobilizing the body to help heal itself.Loosen up! Pelvic Clock: lay flat on the floor and imagine your navel is 12 o’clock, left hip 3 o’clock, pubic bone is 6 o’clock and right hip is 9. Knees are bent and feet are flat on the ground. Roll around your “clock” slowly 4x in both directions. This will loosen up the low back and engage deep abdominals for spinal support.Stand up! To take pressure off the low back when standing or upright in exercise imagine your pubic bone being drawn up towards your low back at a diagonal. This engages your deep abdominals to help stabilize the pelvis and take weight off of the low back.Don’t say the C Word! To get deep abdominal connection for a core that supports a healthy spine — here’s how to do an abdominal curl for your back.”
“One of the most overlooked exercises to help with back pain is hanging (either from the hands or from the feet). In both, the spine is gently decompressed. This traction can help create space between the vertebrae, and stretch tight back, shoulder, and hip muscles, all of which can be contributors to back pain.”
“In my 13 years of teaching experience, I haven’t met one client who didn’t experience back pain in one way or another. I’ve seen post-operative patients, clients who were trying to avoid back surgery, mom’s who experienced uncategorized back aches, and men who had disc-related pain. More often than not, what all of these equal up to is weak abdominals. When our abdominals are weak, our spine takes the brunt of everything. Let’s give our back a break by getting in touch with our deep abdominal muscles. It’s going to take more than just a ‘crunch.’ That’s where Pilates comes in!When I first begin working with a client, whether they’ve tried Pilates or not, my go-to exercise is ‘Breathing’ to engage the deep abdominals. A Pilates ‘shush’ breath seems basic and simple but it’s so, so effective. Just a few rounds (a few times a week) of ‘shushing’ alone will strengthen the abdominals. My clients are always amazed at how effective it is.”
“We have found both amongst our clients and ourselves that while OF COURSE strengthening the core musculature is essential in any back pain prevention program, so too is RELEASING muscles that are tight and could be pulling on the spine, the pelvis and the thoracolumbar fascia. Our top tip for clients (and ourselves ha ha ha), is to always stretch the psoas, the glute medius and the glute max/ piriformis.All four of these muscles, when tight, can contribute to and aggravate any back pain….. BUT! Always stabilize first, then stretch! Too much stretching is bad too!”
“There can be a lot of different reasons for back pain, and because of this, many different muscles/exercises to work/stretch for lasting relief. There isn’t one simple “magic” cure or exercise, but a key underlying factor with all back pain problems is POSTURE. If you want to help your back feel better, start improving your posture – which means paying attention to how you’re standing on your feet, how you’re using your legs, pelvic placement, spine alignment, core support, breathing, and shoulder placement on the ribcage, all the way up to the neck and head. Regardless of where the back pain is (low, mid-back, upper-back, or neck) the fix has got to start from the ground up. Targeting the specific spot that hurts will not be as effective as working below first and then above it.The stronger foundation for support you have below, the better aligned everything else will be above. And this can be the fastest way to alleviate pain. It takes effort to practice good posture. By using your muscles to support how you stand, sit, and move you can gain confidence that with every exercise and daily life activity you do you are helping yourself maintain a healthy back.
Also a very important part of good posture is BREATHING. Learning to breath in a way that helps decompress the spine, and improves length with strength. Maintaining good seated and standing posture, is in effect lifting the body up out of gravity. More space between the bones, means freer movement and less pain. One of my favorite go-to breathing exercises to help clients work on this is:CENTERWORKS® TOTAL TORSO BREATHING
1. Start your Inhale by sending a little bit of air down into your tailbone. (starts to lengthen the low back and release tension)
2. Continue your Inhale up the spine and ribcage (to lift the ribcage up off the hips)
3. Exhale to pull the low abs up, in, and back (into the free space between the hips & bottom ribs, supporting the lower back)
4. Continue to exhale and relax/pull the shoulder blades down. (helping to elongate the upper back, neck, and head)
Continue using this Total Torso Breath Pattern for 5-10 breaths. Practice seated, practice standing. Incorporate into exercises when appropriate.I typically see clients get relief from back pain problems within a couple of sessions, by better understanding their current posture and breathing habits, and beginning to learn, and reinforce better habits. Consciously focusing on paying attention to posture and breathing and improving these vital health habits will be required, not just during a “workout” but throughout the day to help alleviate back pain.”
“The best way to alleviate lower back pain in my experience is to learn to stabilize your core.
Often, movement from our arms or legs will pull on our back, causing it to move out of
alignment. This repeated misalignment over and over will cause certain muscles of the back to
tighten and others to weaken, making the misalignment happen over and over again. The more
frequently the back is in an unstable position, the more healthy movement will become
compromised.So how can you strengthen your core stabilizers? First you need to lean to scoop: Lie on your back, knees bent hip-width apart, with your hip bones and pubic bone on the same plane. Place your hands like a diamond on your pelvis with the thumbs toward your navel and your fingers toward your pubic bone. Inhale, let your abdominals rise up, then exhale and press the
diamond not only toward the spine but lift it up toward your rib cage. This will be a small
movement and the bones in your pelvis will not change, only the activation in your abdominals
will. It is very important that you not only just press your abdominals back, but scoop them in
and up. When you add the lifting of the abdominals toward the rib cage, you start to engage the transverse abdominis, a major stabilizer of the core.Once you have mastered the scoop, start to challenge your trunk stabilization by moving your legs in different planes – forward by straightening the leg, to the side by opening your knees bilaterally or unilaterally, or from a table top position toward the floor. Make sure you keep your trunk stable and your core engaged in a scoop. Avoid any movement that hurts. You many need to make the movement very small so you stay controlled and active in your core. Make your goal of this exercise pelvis stabilization, not range of motion. Consistent practice of this exercise will help increase your core activation all the time so eventually your pelvis will hold a more aligned position consistently and correctly using the deep core stabilizers of the back.”
“If you have back pain, my #1 tip would be to learn how to engage your transverse abdominus. Many people think they know how to engage and use their core muscles, but are often not doing it. It it well worth seeing a professional Pilates instructor or Physical therapist to learn how to engage properly from your center.You will learn not only how to engage the transverse abdominus but also how to do a variety of movements in a range that strengthens the transverse abdominus and the other core muscles. This knowledge will keep your movements in a safe range so you don’t find yourself hurting during exercise while strengthening your core muscles! “