Does Pilates Help Low Back Pain?

by Paul Meripol

I originally came to Pilates hoping for a solution for chronic low back pain. And it has helped immensely.

Yet for a long time, despite good instruction, some exercises – especially certain back extension movements – made the pain worse and not better. The problem was not the exercises, it was how I was doing them.

The key to safe and successful back extension, especially for sufferers of lower back pain, is in the abdominals!

Proper abdominal engagement while performing back extension protects the low back, and helps put the work where we want it - in the mid back.

Once I learned this lesson, I was able to perform virtually any back extension exercise safely.

Here’s a simple back extension exercise example with principles that can be applied to any others you perform:

  • Lie on your stomach on a mat or carpet. Your nose is resting lightly on the mat, the back of your neck is long, and your arms are along your sides with your palms against your hips and your fingers reaching down towards your knees.
  • Stretch your legs away from you. I like to lightly engage my glutes and hamstrings as I do this.
  • Here’s the key to the exercise: along with that engagement of your glutes and hamstrings, lift your belly button up off the floor toward your spine. By doing this you engage your deep abdominals.
  • You should feel your pubic bone pressing into the floor.
  • Now keep that tummy pulled up tight as you lift your head and chest off the mat. Don’t overextend your neck.
  • Keep looking down at the floor. Think of a turtle reaching its head and neck out of its shell.
  • Your goal here is to strive for length from top of head to toes. Don’t worry about how high you lift. That is definitely secondary.
  • You want to feel your back is hinging in the middle, behind the ribs.
  • If you feel you are hinging in the low back, or you feel any discomfort in the low back then come back down and recommit to your abdominal engagement before you try it again.

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Taking a Little Piece of Viva Pilates to South Africa

by Kathryn Russell     

Last week Samantha Wood, the director of BASI education came by the studio. In addition to her work for BASI, Samantha is a Pilates certified Physical Therapist with a clinic in Pacific Palisades.  She was getting ready to leave for South Africa where she will be teaching a course that includes a section on Pilates for Chronic Pain. We spent some time going over modifications designed to assist those suffering with fibromyalgia to successfully perform Pilates exercises and discussing the application of those modifications to other chronic pain syndromes. I am so excited about this topic and so  strongly believe in it that I am afraid I talked her ear off. Please come back Sam, I promise to be quieter!! 

When I began researching fibromyalgia I found exercise to be listed as the central component in the management of this syndrome. But my experience told me that people suffering from chronic pain often don’t feel they have the energy for it or are afraid that the movement might trigger a new pain. The fear of more discomfort often outweighs the recommendation to exercise. The challenge was to develop modifications of fundamental Pilates movements that would develop confidence and strength so that Pilates exercises could then be performed. Pilates exercises are designed to balance the muscles, easing tension and tightness and promoting more efficient movement. This increased ease of movement along with the confidence and sense of well being that Pilates develops goes a long way in the management of fibromyalgia.

My interest in fibromyalgia led me to look into other chronic pain syndromes as well and again I found exercise listed as an important management tool. The types of exercises mentioned were core strengthening, range of motion, balance, joint stabilization and improvement of posture – all things specifically addressed in Pilates exercises. People with chronic pain live with pain and stiffness every day. I know Pilates can make a positive difference in their lives and I am thrilled to know that Sam is spreading the word at her conference in South Africa.  

My Passion for Pilates

by Kathryn Russell

I hadn’t taken very many Pilates classes when I began to notice how differently I moved and how strong I felt.  I simply wore my body differently and that feeling made me feel confident and powerful.  The longer I took classes the more I loved Pilates with a thoroughly unexpected passion.  After a couple of years, my husband began to encourage me to quit my job and get certified to teach Pilates.  In spite of the fact that I had been talking aboutPilates for two years, I was thunderstruck at the idea that this passion could become my JOB. Suddenly there was a silly grin on my face that I couldn’t seem to wipe off. It’s still there.

So much has happened since then. I worked at a studio in Huntington Harbour for two years and then moved to another part of the Harbour to open my own. But those are just the business details. The amazing part of this story is the people I have met along the way. And the privilege of watching them discover how Pilates changes their bodies. And watching the silly grin appear on their faces.

People come to Pilates studios for a lot of reasons – flexibility, toning, core strength…the list is a long one. But I was surprised by the large number of people who come specifically for pain relief. Many come to help rehab an injured or painful low back, knee, hip…  But in addition I found people coming to find relief from syndromes that cannot be exercised away. These people came with chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. This was very different than the work that I did to help people out of low back pain, or to improve movement in a knee or hip after surgery. These clients responded well to the Pilates method and report feeling better, but I wanted to be sure that I was doing all I could to help them in the management of their pain.   

To better understand fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes Marilyn Koval, an instructor at the studio, and I turned to my husband who is a chiropractor in a pain management clinic. He shared his experience and his wealth of knowledge on this subject and helped us more fully understand chronic pain. He armed us with a great deal of research and for the past year we have been working together to develop a system to work with this population based on the research and our experience with our own clients.  

Chronic pain is a terrible burden that sabotages sleep, makes movement feel risky and chips away at a person’s sense of power and strength. When working with this population I am constantly reminded of the sense of power Pilates gave me when it taught me to wear my body differently. That is my goal for all of my clients with chronic pain.