7 daily pilates exercises for loosening up stiff backs

A daily pilates practice doesn’t have to take hours and hours – you can make huge improvements to back mobility with just a few stretches.  

Who doesn’t have a stiff back these days? Hours of sitting bent over our laptops has left many of us with hunched-up shoulders, sore lower backs and tight necks. And while a stand-up desk or changing careers would probably sort most of your issues out, the most practical and overall beneficial medication is probably pilates.

Pilates is increasingly becoming the go-to exercise for muscle imbalances, body aches and injury prevention – and with good reason. There are so many scientifically backed benefits to doing pilates, and back mobility is just one. But you don’t have to commit to spending hours on the mat to reap the benefits.

“To paraphrase Joseph Pilates: ‘You are as young as your spinal column – a stiff spine at 30, you are old; but a flexible spine at 60, you are young,’” says Robin Kendall, pilates instructor at East of Eden. 

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She explains that our bodies are meant to move in all planes of motion: forward-and-back (sagittal), side-to-side (coronal) and rotational (transverse). “In day-to-day life, we tend to move only in the sagittal plane, neglecting the other two ranges of motion, which can result in our spines becoming inflexible and stiff.”

The key to a healthier-feeling back, Kendall believes, is moving the body through these other planes of motion. To do that, she’s come up with seven go-to exercises for balancing, strengthening and stretching the back muscles to encourage better flexibility.

How to nail ‘pilates breath’ ahead of stretching

“Get the best out of these exercises by using the pilates breath,” Kendall says. 

Breathing deeply and consciously allows you to better connect with:

  1. Deep core muscles: abdominals, pelvic floor, psoas – located in the lower lumbar region of the spine, extending through the pelvis to the femur
  2. Multifidus: a series of muscles attached to the spine
  3. Transversus abdominis: the deepest of the six abdominal muscles extending between the ribs and the pelvis, wrapping around your waist from front to back

Pilates breath is the key to nailing these moves and reaping all the benefits

So, what is ‘pilates breath’, and how does it differ from any other form of breathing? Kendall explains that it’s a ‘lateral’ breath: “It’s a deep inhale through the nose, [breathing] into the sides and back of the ribcage and an exhale out through the mouth – as if blowing out candles on a birthday cake.” 

While you’re doing that, you want to think about pulling the front abdominal wall back to the spine, and the pelvic floor muscles up. 

7 pilates exercises for stiff backs

Roll down

Objective: To stretch the back extensor muscles and increase range of motion of the spine in forward flexion.

  1. Stand in an upright position. Imagine a brick wall behind the back of your head, ribcage, pelvis and heels, with your legs in parallel and hip-width apart
  2. Keep your arms in line with your body, palms facing inwards
  3. Inhale, pause
  4. Exhale, allowing your chin to lower to your chest and leading with the head start to peel your spine away from the wall articulating down towards the floor one vertebra at a time. Your head and arms are heavy – they should hang from your neck and shoulders
  5. Inhale, pause
  6. Exhale as you reverse the move rebuilding your spine back up against the wall to the start position
  7. Go for three reps

Important note: knees are soft or bent.  

Side bend

Objective: To lengthen and mobilise the spine in side flexion.

  1. Stand in an upright position as you did in the roll down (or go onto your knees)
  2. Place one hand behind your head, elbow bent out to the side and the other arm alongside the body, palm facing inward
  3. Inhale, pause
  4. Exhale as you gradually arch your spine to one side – think of holding  a massive beach ball so you lengthen your spine upwards and over, rather than compressing or shortening any area of the torso
  5. Inhale, pause
  6. Exhale to reverse the move returning to the start position. 
  7. Go for three reps each side

Important note: your weight is evenly placed through both feet and the pelvis doesn’t move.

Supine spine twist

Objective: To lengthen and mobilise the spine in rotation.

  1. Lie on your back with your arms extended out in a T position, palms facing upward
  2. Your legs should be together in tabletop – hips and knees at 90°
  3. Inhale to move legs and pelvis as one unit to one side
  4. Exhale to return to the start position
  5. Go for five reps on each side

Important note: initiate the move from the abdominals and obliques. Make sure your shoulder blades remain on the mat.

Back extension

Objective: To lengthen and mobilise the spine in extension.

  1. Lie with your face down with the head aligned with the spine, arms straight alongside the body, palms pressing against the legs and legs together
  2. Inhale to lift the upper trunk away from the floor
  3. Exhale to lower upper trunk without touching the nose to the floor
  4. Go for five-to-10 reps

Important note: keep your head aligned with your spine, abdominals engaged and pelvis still. 

Pelvic curl

Objective: To lengthen and mobilise the spine through articulation.

  1. Lie on your back in a neutral spine position, legs in parallel with knees bent, feet placed on the floor and arms alongside the body palms down
  2. Inhale, pause
  3. Exhale to tilt the pelvis towards you – imprinting your lower back on the mat – and roll the pelvis and spine up towards the ceiling one vertebra at a time
  4. Inhale, pause
  5. Exhale to reverse the move, rolling the spine and pelvis back down onto the mat one vertebra at a time returning the spine and pelvis to the start position

Important note: your hips stay level as you articulate up and down and maintain your legs in parallel.

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The chest lift

Objective: To lengthen and mobilise the spine in forward flexion.

  1. Lie on your back in a neutral spine and neutral pelvis position with legs parallel, knees are bent, feet hip width apart
  2. Interlace your fingers behind your head, elbows out to the side
  3. Exhale to lift head and chest – allowing the lower back to soften down into the mat but maintain a neutral pelvis
  4. Inhale, pause
  5. Exhale to lower chest and head returning to the start position
  6. Go for five-to-10 reps

Important note: keep your head aligned with your spine when lifting into flexion, rest the weight of your head in your hands and maintain your legs in parallel 

Rest position

Objective: To stretch the lower back and aid relaxation.

  1. Kneel with the legs together, sitting on the heels, chest resting on thighs and arms reaching forward on the floor shoulder width apart and palms down
  2. Breath freely relaxing the back, neck and shoulders

Images: Getty

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