“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
This is probably my favorite Joseph Pilates’ quote. For many of us, the majority of our day is spent sitting at work, walking forward, sitting in the car, sitting on the couch, and lying in bed. If we’re being good we might run, use the elliptical or stair master, or go to a spinning class. All great options but there’s something missing. All the aforementioned activities are in what’s called the “sagittal plane”, where everything is moving forwards and backwards. There is very little side bending or rotation in the spine- or even the extremities.
A healthy spine is able to move in all directions with an appropriate distribution of movement throughout the entire spine. When we focus on only one direction of movement, usually flexion, we lose both flexibility and stability in all other directions. Spinal range of motion in all directions also helps to hydrate the discs that act as cushions between each vertebrae of the spine. Also, when some parts of the spine become stiff, the segments above and below compensate for this lack of movement and become hypermobile. This can put your spine at risk for injury. So what exercise can we do to keep our spine healthy? Pilates of course!
One of the reasons I love Pilates is because it incorporates spine flexion, extension, side-bending, and rotation. Pilates also focuses a lot on spinal articulation, which simply means moving each vertebrae of the spine one at a time. For example, in the exercise bridging you roll the spine off and on the mat from the coccyx up to the sacrum to the lumbar spine and thoracic spine. As each individual vertebrae along the spine moves, the small local stabilizing muscles (multifidi) are activated. This is so important with back pain because research shows that very often with low back pain the multifidi are dormant and the global stabilizers (erector spinae muscles) become overactive. When this happens you start to feel those long erector spinae muscles becoming tight, overdeveloped, and eventually painful. Once you reawaken the small multifidi, you allow those long, bigger erector spinae muscles to relax.
Another muscle that often becomes dormant or slow to respond is the transverse abdominus, the bottom layer of your abdominals. The most superficial layer and what is commonly known as the “six pack muscle” is your rectus abdominus, then your external obliques, internal obliques, and finally the transverse abdominus is the deepest layer. This muscle originates all the way around the back- the lumbar fascia- and anterior iliac crest (or hip bones) and wraps around the front to act like a corset. When engaged it pulls the belly in and provides support to the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF). When the TLF is supported it allows all the many muscles that connect to it to function better. These include: glut max, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, psoas, transverse abdominus, and internal obliques.
Of course there are many other causes of low back pain that sometimes require physical therapy intervention but Pilates can help prevent the onset of back pain by keeping the spine healthy. If physical therapy is indicated, a skilled therapist can help realign the spine and pelvis, release fascial restrictions and address any muscle imbalances. Afterwards, a regular Pilates practice can help maintain a healthy, flexible spine so that you will stay, and feel, forever young.
To your spinal health!
Sabina Gempel, DPT