I had chronic low back pain for ten years. It resolved two years ago, when I started training to be a Pilates teacher, because I was doing hours and hours of Pilates every day, and building strength in my muscles that I’d never had before. Now, because I’ve had to take time off from exercising because of my ankle injury, the pain has flared again. This is a clear sign to me that I haven’t been exercising enough and I need to find a way to get back on track as my ankle heals. Just the way you can forget a language you’ve learned when you don’t use it enough, when you aren’t consistent with exercise, old pain and previous injuries can resurface.
This time, I know what to do. I use the same prescription for clients every day, as low back pain is one of the most common issues I treat as a Pilates teacher.
For years and years, before I started my teacher training, other health professionals had different explanations as to why my back hurt: one of my legs was shorter than the other (this is true) and my pelvis was torqued a certain way. The actual issue was that, because I had weak obliques and glutes, my back was taking all the responsibility that my abs and bum should have been taking. The pain vanished instantaneously once I learned to properly engage my obliques and my glutes, and I gave my back a reprieve from stabilizing my whole body. The strength in my abs and bum also drastically improved my balance, coordination, reflexes, and body awareness. I can actually catch myself if I stumble or slip.
If you have low back pain, use Pilates to strengthen your abs (not to be confused with core), hips, and bum. Place a support under your back, whether it’s a thin pad or a larger prop, so that you leave your back out of the equation and strengthen the muscles that are meant to help you balance and stabilize your body. When you have weak muscles, other muscles that are not meant to work will compensate. That’s why you see so many people at the gym injure themselves when they use weights that are too heavy for them. The muscles they want to work can’t handle the load, so different muscles step in to support the weight.
My least-favourite Pilates exercise is The Hundred, which is one of the best exercises for abs. The reason I hated it (and I still don’t like it, even though my abs are better) is that I always felt it all in my neck and couldn’t breathe my way through it. Because I had no abs, my neck took the brunt of the exercise. Now, it doesn’t hurt as much (though I still find it a pain in the ass), and I have enough ab strength that I can actually see my ab definition when I look in the mirror.
Here are three ways you can build those ab, hip, and glute muscles to resolve back pain:
When you do mat work, which builds your strength fast, use a prop. If you struggle to engage your abs or to get enough forward flexion, a prop like a barrel or an edge will support you. It’s not cheating. It helps your body relax so that you aren’t tensioning the wrong muscles. Eventually, when you’re strong enough, you might not need the prop anymore, or you might be able to use a smaller prop.
Do mat Pilates
When lockdown first happened in March 2020, I pivoted to online classes and taught at least three mat Pilates classes a day. I had to do the exercises with everyone else in order to demonstrate them, and it made my abs and bum tighter and stronger right away. I also used a prop, the Merrithew Edge, and I wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate exercises like Scissors if I hadn’t had the prop.
Take the stairs
Taking the stairs is one of the simplest habits to build into your daily routine, and it’s good for your muscles and your endurance. Stairs are my biggest indicator that I’m out of shape: if I feel winded doing the stairs, I know I need more cardio. Then, when I commit to taking the stairs regularly, I notice a difference in my ability to handle them.
Back pain can be discouraging and frustrating, but regular Pilates can help build muscle, use the muscles correctly, and manage pain.