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6 Components to building a strong back- PART 1

1) Improve your core and deep stabilisers of the spine

The deepest layer of your core unit serves to truly protect your spine. This deep layer of muscle that wraps around the torso is organized horizontally around your abdomen and attaches onto your ribcage, the fascia of your lower back and your pelvis. It works in tandem with the deep segmental stabilizers of your spine, the multifidus. It is absolutely crucial for post-natal recovery to adequately strengthen this inner unit in coordination with the different layers of the pelvic floor and I can tell you that for the first 3 to 9 months of that journey, there won’t be an Ab crunch in sight. The more superficially lying muscles of the abdomen will then help us create healthy movement of the spine, the ability to rotate and bend the torso to the sides and to the front, in coordination with the muscles of your back.

A study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, December 2014, on “Efficacy of of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients”, found that ‘’core muscle strengthening exercise along with lumbar flexibility and gluteus maximus strengthening is an effective rehabilitation technique for all chronic low back pain patients irrespective of duration (chronicity) of their pain.” [1] Pilates offers an extensive repertoire of movements on and off equipment to target the muscle groups needed to support your back and get you moving pain free. This study also highlighted the most common areas that are affected, which is not surprising with the impact our modern lives have on our bodies. The lumbar spine accounted for 70% of issues in relation to pain followed by cervical pain (40%) and thoracic pain (15%). The statistics on recovery were 80-90% within 6 weeks. 5-15 % of people however typically end up being in chronic pain lasting longer than a couple of weeks. What struck me was that the research proofs that you have to be consistent as these back issues show an 80% recurrence rate. It has to be emphasized that the improvements the researchers noticed were reported after a 6 Week program of 3 weekly Sessions.

In another study by Kloubec, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research [3], researchers found that participants in the Pilates group when compared to the control group were shown to have ‘’greater abdominal endurance and pelvic control’’. Following this 12 Week study of 50 active and healthy volunteers who performed Pilates exercises twice per week, participants were able to maintain the neutral alignment of the spine and had greater abdominal strength and range of motion during double leg lifts/lowers. It was also concluded that Pilates holds up to what it promises when it comes to the ability to perform push-ups. Tremendous muscular control and the ability to effectively recruit your core musculature and maintain spinal control is what gives us Pilates practitioners the edge when it comes to the set up of a push up. Essentially, you will learn how your spine, hip and shoulders stabilize the body in movement. These exercises are performed extensively in Level 1 Pilates Classes and you may be familiar with arm & leg reaches in an all fours or quadruped position on the mat, just to give you one example. You will also be taught how to sequentially move the spine through flexion and extension such as in the Cat/Cow exercise on the mat. [2, p. 136 - 146]

Q: Does all the core work also give Pilates practitioners a flat stomach?

Over the course of a decade, I have had many clients inquiring about how many abdominal crunches they would need to do in order to get a flat stomach. My answer most often delves much deeper than a quick fire answer to a quick fire question. Without first fully exploring and analyzing dietary habits and making the correct and precise adjustments, assessing body fat and lean body mass levels, testing for nutrient deficiencies, hormone balance and ensuring adequate hydration we would be missing the key elements.Performing hundreds of ab crunches a day to work on your core strength is just not a great approach and it might not even help you achieve what you would like to see in the mirror.

For the purpose of building a strong core we need to look much deeper than that. Pilates establishes coordinated muscles firing through re-training the core muscles so we are prepared to sit upright or stand with correct postural alignment for long periods of time. It is no secret that modern day life places incredible demands on our posture. While we may have found fantastic ergonomic solutions while working at home or from your office desk, most of us still spend lots of time on mobile phones or in cars.

2) Focus on increasing the mobility and flexibility of your Spine

Many of us are not very flexible through our backs. This lack of mobility affects everything, from how we walk, the ability to look behind us to check traffic when driving, neck and lower back pain, posture. The ability to move the spine in the directions it is designed to move should be a focus for everyone in our modern society. This also includes rotational exercises of your spine. Our spine is designed to flex the trunk forward, to extend it, to bend it laterally to the side and to rotate it. Joseph Pilates said, “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” One of my favorite exercises is the Mermaid on the Reformer, as it stretches the muscles of your back, your mid back and the sides of your torso, teaches you how to stabilize your shoulder girdle, increases the rotation of your spine and most of all teaches you how to breathe efficiently. Spinal rotation exercises on the reformer help to de-rotate possible spinal imbalances and realign the core muscles.

I believe people do Pilates, so they can live their best lives. According to a Study on The effect of a three month, low-load- high-repetitions group-based exercise program versus pilates on physical fitness and body composition in inactive women”. that involved 2 Groups of inactive women who followed either a Pilates or a high reps, group based exercise program, Pilates came up trumps for improving participants flexibility when they were tested for grip strength, aerobic capacity and flexibility. People don’t come to Pilates to get aerobically fit, however if you engage in aerobic activity, then flexibility should be an important aspect of your recovery program. If you want to get fit, you need to exert yourself, if you want to get strong, you will need to consistently add load to improve your body's ability to handle more each time and if you want to become more flexible in order to do the former then Pilates might be your missing link. [6]

3) Increase the strength of your back muscles

In our daily lives, we are constantly fighting a tremendous force, called gravity. It is a constant fight to resist this pull forward, whether it is sitting in front of a computer typing up a blog or preparing dinner at your kitchen counter. As I sit here typing up this blog for my readers I am being instantly reminded of how important it is to train our bodies in opposition to where gravity is telling it to go. As I feel my shoulders rounding forward, my head sinking towards the screen, yet my gaze fixed on the screen and it is in one of those moments that we realize how much of what Pilates teaches us quickly finds meaning. We must remind ourselves to take these lessons home and apply them wherever we can. Most of our daily movements require us to perform in this posture.

As a result I see so many tight shoulders, chests, tightness in the upper back, poor alignment of the cervical spine, that our upper back muscles become inhibited, too stretched and too weak over time. We are fighting gravity, let’s fight it together by strengthening our back muscles.

Keep an eye out for the second part and final three of my ‘6 Components to building a strong back’.


  1. Suraj Kumar, Tarun Kumar, Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, December 2014, on “Efficacy of of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients”

  2. Jane Paterson, Teaching Pilates for Postural Faults, Illness & Injury,, 2009,Elsevier Ltd

  3. June A. Kloubec, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:, March 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 661-667

  4. Wolters Kluwer, ACSM Resources for the Personal Trainer, 2010, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Third Edition

  5. Pilates for Improvement of Muscle Endurance, Flexibility, Balance, and Posture, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 661-667

  6. Study on “The effect of a three month, low-load- high-repetitions group-based exercise program versus pilates on physical fitness and body composition in inactive women”.

  7. The effects of Pilates and yoga participant’s on engagement in functional movement and individual health level, Eun Ju Lim1 and Jeong Eon Park2,*, Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, Published online 2019 Aug

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