Pilates Anatomy

Chapter 9

Extensions for a Strong Back

This chapter focuses on improving the strength, muscular endurance, and skilled activation of the spinal extensors. Prior chapters emphasized use of the abdominals primarily to produce spinal flexion or use of the abdominals with assistance from the spinal extensors to produce lateral flexion or rotation. This chapter emphasizes use of the spinal extensors to produce or maintain spinal hyperextension, while the abdominals function as stabilizers to reduce the potentially injurious forces borne by the lower back. This use of spinal extension is vital for maintaining muscle balance because so many Pilates exercises emphasize spinal flexion. In addition, adequate strength and endurance of the spinal extensors may reduce the risk of osteoporosis and lower back injury. However, spinal hyperextension is also a common mechanism for producing injury to the lower back. Optimal technique and careful progression from less demanding to more demanding exercises are essential to enhance potential benefits and reduce the risks of these exercises.

The first exercise will help you work on technique. Cat Stretch (page 176) is a relatively simple and well-supported way to practice using the spinal extensors to create hyperextension with greater emphasis on the upper back, while the abdominals cocontract to limit excessive hyperextension in the lower back. One-Leg Kick (page 178) uses this cocontraction to keep the upper trunk totally still in hyperextension while one leg moves at a time. The challenge is to maintain core stability with the spine in hyperextension. Double Kick (page 181) uses this skilled abdominal cocontraction while the spinal extensors act as prime movers, producing substantial movement of the spine instead of primarily acting to stabilize the spine. Swimming (page 184) requires that the spine be maintained in slight hyperextension while the opposite arm and leg repetitively lift and lower. This represents a novel exercise for maintaining stability in that the limbs are moving in opposition.

The last two exercises require maintenance of the spine and hips in hyperextension while the trunk rocks forward and backward in space. In the first of these exercises, Rocking (page 187), the hands hold the feet, which is helpful for maintaining the almost fixed arch of the spine as the body moves. In contrast, in Swan Dive (page 190) the arms and legs are free, and the spinal extensors are even more critical in maintaining the desired arch of the back. Both exercises are very advanced. If you improperly execute the exercises or have a preexisting back condition, it could result in injury to your back. These exercises should be attempted only after you have achieved proficiency with related preparatory exercises, if you experience no back discomfort, and if they are not contraindicated for your back.

Cat Stretch

Execution

1. Start position. Start on the hands and knees, with the arms directly under the shoulders and the knees directly under the hip joints. The pelvis and spine are in a neutral position.

2. Exhale. Posteriorly tilt the pelvis and round the spine as shown.

3. Inhale. Return to the start position.

4. Exhale. Extend the upper spine. See the main muscle illustration.

5. Inhale. Return to the start position. Repeat the entire sequence five times.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Spinal flexors: rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizer: transversus abdominis

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings

Shoulder flexors: anterior deltoid, pectoralis major (clavicular)

Shoulder extensors: latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major (sternal)

Scapular abductors: serratus anterior

Elbow extensors: triceps brachii

Technique Cues

• In the start position, pull up the lower attachment of the abdominals onto the pelvis while drawing the abdominal wall slightly toward the spine, just enough to create a neutral position of the pelvis and spine.

• In step 2, draw in the abdominals farther as they are used to flex the spine. At the same time, gently pull the tailbone (coccyx) under as you use the hip extensors and abdominals to posteriorly tilt the pelvis.

• Press your hands into the mat, using the shoulder flexors to lift the upper trunk slightly toward the ceiling as the scapular abductors allow the scapulae to separate.

• In step 3, smoothly return to the start position, emphasizing eccentric use of the abdominal muscles.

• In step 4, use the spinal extensors as you reach the head and upper back out and up toward the ceiling. The abdominals simultaneously limit anterior tilting of the pelvis and excessive arching in the lumbar region of the spine. Press your hands into the mat, using the scapular abductors to keep the scapulae wide and the shoulder extensors to help raise the upper trunk into the arched position.

• Imagine. Imagine a hand placed on your lower back. Focus on rounding the lower spine to press into the hand to emphasize flexing the lumbar spine in step 2, and then focus on reaching the upper spine away from the hand in step 4.

Exercise Notes

Although Cat Stretch is not included in Return to Life Through Contrology, it is an excellent exercise for practicing the skills needed for the more demanding exercises that follow. The benefit of this exercise is not so much strengthening of the spinal extensors but detailed activation of the spinal extensors with appropriate cocontraction of the abdominals. The trunk has four-point support. From this position, the spinal extensors are activated in step 4 to arch the back, emphasizing extension of the thoracic spine, while cocontraction of the abdominals limits the magnitude of anteriorly tilting the pelvis. This use of the abdominals is essential for protecting the lower back in exercises that are more complex and involve greater forces. Moving the spine in the opposite direction in step 2 is an opportunity to further practice activating the abdominals to emphasize rounding the lower back (flexion). This position provides a dynamic stretch for the spinal extensors and offers a valuable interlude between exercises that focus on using the back extensors.

One-Leg Kick (Single-Leg Kick)

Execution

1. Start position. Lie prone, resting on the forearms with the upper trunk lifted off the mat. Position the forearms so the upper arms form an approximately 90-degree angle with the trunk. Hands are on the mat next to each other, fists clenched. Legs rest on the mat straight to the back and together, feet gently pointed.

2. Inhale. Lift both legs about 2 inches (5 cm) off the mat. Bend one knee so that the heel comes toward the buttocks with a brisk dynamic. See the main muscle illustration.

3. Exhale. With the same brisk dynamic, straighten the bent knee as you bend the opposite knee so that the opposite heel comes toward the buttocks as shown. Repeat the sequence 10 times on each leg, 20 times in total.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris)

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizers: transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, rectus abdominis

Knee flexors: hamstrings

Knee extensors: quadriceps femoris

Ankle–foot plantar flexors: gastrocnemius, soleus

Shoulder extensors: latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major (sternal)

Scapular depressors: lower trapezius, serratus anterior (lower fibers)

Scapular abductors: serratus anterior

Technique Cues

• Throughout the exercise, firmly contract the abdominals. Focus on pulling the lower abdominals up to limit the anterior tilt of the pelvis. (This is described more fully in Back Extension Prone, page 66.)

• Press the forearms into the mat as you lift your upper back toward the ceiling to encourage use of the shoulder extensors and upper spinal extensors. Use the scapular depressors to pull the scapulae down slightly while using the scapular abductors to keep them wide.

• In step 2, use the hip extensors to lift the legs only to a height at which an anterior tilt of the pelvis can be avoided. Throughout the exercise, maintain this height while keeping the legs close together. Use the ankle–foot plantar flexors to keep the feet pointed.

• In the later part of step 2, use the knee flexors to bend one knee briskly, but keep the force and range of motion small enough to avoid any knee discomfort.

• In step 3, the knee extensors are used briefly to begin straightening the bent knee, followed by an eccentric contraction of the knee flexors to control the straightening of the knee produced primarily by gravity. The knee flexors of the opposite knee bend that knee.

• Imagine. Isolate the movement of the lower legs to the knee joints. The rest of the body remains stable, with the trunk held in a smooth arc like that of a sea lion pressing up from its flippers.

Exercise Notes

One-Leg Kick is a valuable core stability exercise that emphasizes the spinal extensors keeping the spine off the mat with additional support provided by the arms. The leg movements challenge this stability. The action of the legs also potentially provides hip extensor muscle tone and endurance benefits, particularly for the hamstring muscles that keep the legs lifted off the mat and bend the knees. Full flexion of the knee can provide a dynamic stretch for the quadriceps femoris muscle group, which is often tight. The abdominal muscles play a vital stabilizing role by limiting the anterior tilt of the pelvis and preventing excessive hyperextension in the lowest portion of the back, a stabilizing skill used with increasingly demanding exercises in this chapter.

Modification

If you experience back discomfort, limit the amount of spinal extension by putting the elbows farther forward or resting the forehead on the hands.

Variation

Perform the exercise with the elbows directly under the shoulders to increase spinal extension and further challenge the spinal extensors and abdominal stabilizers.

Double Kick (Double-Leg Kick)

Execution

1. Start position. Lie prone, chin resting on the mat. Bend the elbows, with the fingers of one hand grasping the opposite hand and the backs of the hands resting on the sacrum. Lift both legs about 1 inch (2 cm) off the mat, knees remaining straight and feet gently pointed.

2. Exhale. Gently bend both knees, bringing the heels toward the buttocks as shown with a brisk dynamic.

3. Inhale. Raise the chest off the mat, straighten the elbows, and reach the hands back toward the feet as you straighten the knees and reach the heels back and up toward the ceiling as shown. See the main muscle illustration. Return to the start position. Repeat the sequence six times.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris)

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizers: transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, rectus abdominis

Hip adductors: adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, gracilis

Knee flexors: hamstrings

Knee extensors: quadriceps femoris

Ankle–foot plantar flexors: gastrocnemius, soleus

Shoulder extensors: latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid

Scapular depressors: lower trapezius, serratus anterior (lower fibers)

Elbow flexors: biceps brachii, brachialis

Elbow extensors: triceps brachii

Technique Cues

• Throughout the exercise, focus on pulling the lower abdominals up and in to limit the anterior tilt of the pelvis.

• In the start position, use the hip extensors to lift the legs slightly off the mat and the ankle–foot plantar flexors to point the feet.

• In step 2, keep the knees off the mat as the knee flexors gently bend the knees. Keep the ankles together and feet pointed, but allow the knees to separate slightly if needed. This will allow the natural inward motion of the lower leg that accompanies knee flexion to occur without producing undue stress on the knees.

• After the knee extensors begin to straighten the legs in step 3, focus on using the hip adductors to pull the legs slightly together, and emphasize pointing the feet as the legs reach out in space to create a long line.

• As the legs straighten in step 3, smoothly raise the chest off the mat, using the spinal extensors to arch the spine sequentially from top to bottom. Simultaneously use the scapular depressors to pull the scapulae down slightly as the shoulder extensors raise the arms back and the elbow extensors straighten the elbows.

• As you return to the start position, use an eccentric contraction of the spinal extensors to smoothly control the upper trunk as it lowers, and bend the elbows with the elbow flexors.

• Imagine. Imagine the trunk and legs are a bow, with the arms acting like the bowstring. Pulling the string (arms) back results in a greater arc of the bow without disrupting its integrity.

Exercise Notes

Double Kick is closely related to One-Leg Kick (page 178). However, because the arms are not used for support and the back and legs are raised repetitively, Double Kick provides a more effective stimulus for improving strength and endurance of the spinal extensors. Lifting both legs also increases the difficulty for the abdominal muscles to maintain trunk stability. This exercise offers a dynamic stretch for the knee extensors for some people and shoulder flexors for many people. Shoulder flexor tightness is common and can contribute to the postural problem of rolled shoulders.

Variation

Start the exercise with one side of your face resting on the mat to avoid the neck hyperextension that comes from having the chin on the mat. As the spine arches, rotate the head to center, keeping the head in line with the arc of the trunk. As the chest lowers, bring the other side of the face to rest on the mat.

Swimming

Execution

1. Start position. Lie prone with the arms straight overhead and the palms facing down. Raise the chest, both arms, and both legs slightly off the mat. Knees are straight, feet gently pointed.

2. Raise the right arm and left leg as shown in the main muscle illustration.

3. Raise the left arm and right leg as the opposite limbs return to their start position. Continue for 10 breath cycles, alternating sides in a brisk but smooth manner. This exercise is presented in Return to Life Through Contrology without a set breath pattern and with instructions to breathe naturally.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors and rotators: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris)

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizers: transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, rectus abdominis

Hip flexors: iliopsoas, rectus femoris

Knee extensors: quadriceps femoris

Ankle–foot plantar flexors: gastrocnemius, soleus

Shoulder flexors: anterior deltoid, pectoralis major (clavicular)

Shoulder extensors: latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major (sternal)

Scapular depressors: lower trapezius, serratus anterior (lower fibers)

Elbow extensors: triceps brachii

Technique Cues

• Throughout the entire exercise, pull the lower abdominals up and in to limit the anterior tilt of the pelvis.

• In step 1, use the spinal extensors to lift the upper back as you raise the chest off the mat and the hip extensors to raise the legs. Simultaneously, use the scapular depressors to pull the scapulae down slightly to avoid excessive elevation while the shoulder flexors keep the arms off the mat.

• In steps 2 and 3, think of reaching the limbs out long and in opposite directions. The elbow extensors keep the elbow straight, while the knee extensors keep the knee straight, and the ankle–foot plantar flexors keep the foot pointed. While maintaining this reach, carefully coordinated actions between the shoulder flexors and shoulder extensors and the hip extensors and hip flexors produce the small but quick up and down movements of opposite limbs.

• Imagine. As the name of the exercise suggests, the action of the limbs can be likened to the flutter kick used when swimming. Imagine that your pelvis and lower back are supported by a kickboard, remaining lifted and stable as both the legs and arms perform a movement similar to the flutter kick.

Exercise Notes

Swimming is a valuable stability exercise that emphasizes the spinal extensors but with a different approach. While the spinal extensors actively contract to hold the spine off the mat, movement of one leg and one arm on opposite sides of the body occurs in the same direction. This type of limb movement is an important aspect of motor development and is used in many essential movements, such as walking and running.

Spinal rotation with opposite limb movement. As the left leg lifts higher, it will tend to make the lower trunk rotate to the left; when the right arm lifts higher, it will tend to make the upper trunk rotate to the right. To keep the trunk in the desired stationary position, you must call into play the rotational actions of the spinal extensors such as the left lumbar multifidus, with its action of right lumbar rotation, and the right semispinalis, with its action of left thoracic rotation. (See the illustration.) Both counter the spinal rotation that tends to accompany the movements of the limbs. Since the erector spinae produces rotation to the same side, opposite the direction of rotation produced by the multifidus and semispinalis, components of the erector spinae also work on the opposite side. Therefore, Swimming can develop trunk rotational stability. For some people, the action of the legs also provides potential benefits in terms of hip extensor muscle tone and endurance.

Variation

This exercise can also be performed using an inhale for five changes and an exhale for the next five changes. This is reminiscent of the breath pattern used in Hundred.

Rocking

Execution

1. Start position. Lie prone with the knees bent and close together, each hand grasping the foot on the same side of the body as shown. Raise the head, chest, and knees off the mat as shown.

2. Inhale. Rock the body forward as shown.

3. Exhale. Rock the body back as shown in the main muscle illustration. Repeat the sequence 10 times.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris)

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizers: transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, rectus abdominis

Knee extensors: quadriceps femoris

Shoulder extensors: latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid

Scapular depressors: lower trapezius, serratus anterior (lower fibers)

Elbow flexors: biceps brachii, brachialis

Technique Cues

• Throughout the exercise, maintain abdominal support, and limit the anterior tilt of the pelvis to a pain-free range.

• In the late start position, use the spinal extensors to arch the back as you lift the chest off the mat and the hip extensors raise the knees off the mat. Use the knee extensors to press the feet away from the buttocks and into the hands so the arms act to raise the upper trunk slightly higher off the mat.

• To begin forward rocking in step 2, use the hip extensors to lift the knees a little higher off the mat and the shoulder extensors to pull the feet up and forward. The elbow flexors assist with this pulling motion, but ideally the knee extensors prevent visible bending of the elbows.

• In step 3, think of the opposite motion. The feet go down and back as the spinal extensors work with greater intensity to lift the upper trunk against gravity.

• Imagine. Imagine that the head, trunk, and thighs form an arc, like the base of a rocking chair. As the chair rocks forward, the weight transfers onto the front of the arc (represented by the upper chest) while the back of the arc (represented by the thighs) rises farther off the mat. Conversely, when the chair rocks back, the weight shifts onto the back of the arc (thighs) while the front of the arc (upper chest) lifts higher off the ground.

Exercise Notes

Rocking shares the goal of exercises such as Rolling Back (page 100)—maintain the trunk in the same shape while it rolls through space. However, unlike Rolling Back, in Rocking the spine is maintained in a position of extension rather than flexion. Maintaining an arched position of the trunk requires highly skilled use of many muscles, including the spinal extensors and hip extensors. It also requires skilled use of the abdominals to reduce stress on the lower back. This exercise should be done only after proficiency has been gained in the exercises described earlier in this chapter. Even if proper technique is used, because of the high level of spinal hyperextension inherent in this exercise, it is not appropriate for many people. Although it provides strong benefits for back extensor endurance and core stability for appropriate people, it should not be performed if you experience back discomfort or if this degree of extension is contraindicated for your back. The extreme position used in this exercise also provides dynamic flexibility benefits for the shoulder flexors, hip flexors, and spinal flexors.

Swan Dive

Execution

1. Start position. Lie prone, resting on the forearms with the upper trunk lifted off the mat. Place the elbows wider than and in front of the shoulders. Hands are next to each other. Legs rest on the mat straight to the back and close together, feet gently pointed.

2. Inhale. Lift the chest higher off the mat as you straighten the elbows and raise the arms out to the sides at shoulder height. At the same time, raise both legs off the mat. See the main muscle illustration.

3. Exhale. Rock the body forward as shown.

4. Inhale. Rock the body back to the lifted position of step 2. Repeat the sequence five times, rocking forward on the exhale and back on the inhale.

Targeted Muscles

Spinal extensors: erector spinae (spinalis, longissimus, iliocostalis), semispinalis, deep posterior spinal group

Hip extensors: gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris)

Accompanying Muscles

Anterior spinal stabilizers: transversus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, rectus abdominis

Knee flexors: hamstrings

Ankle–foot plantar flexors: gastrocnemius, soleus

Shoulder horizontal abductors: infraspinatus, teres minor, posterior deltoid, middle deltoid

Scapular adductors: trapezius, rhomboids

Elbow extensors: triceps brachii

Technique Cues

• Throughout the exercise, maintain abdominal support, and limit the degree of the anterior tilt of the pelvis to a pain-free range.

• In step 2, use the spinal extensors to lift the upper back as you raise the chest off the mat and the hip extensors raise the legs.

• Use the shoulder horizontal abductors to lift the upper arms toward the ceiling and then back while the scapular adductors pull the scapulae together slightly as the elbow extensors straighten the elbows in step 2.

• In step 3, use the hip extensors to lift the legs higher off the mat, shifting the body weight farther forward so that the chest lowers closer to the mat.

• In step 4, think of the opposite motion—lifting the back higher off the mat with the back extensors as the legs lower closer to the mat but do not touch the mat.

• Imagine. As in Rocking (page 187), imagine that the head, trunk, and thighs form an arc like the base of a rocking chair, which rocks forward and back without flattening out. In Swan Dive, also imagine that your feet are being pulled toward the ceiling with a strong pulley in step 3 and that you are about to dive backward as the back comes up in step 4.

Exercise Notes

Swan Dive increases muscle tone and endurance in the spinal extensors and, secondarily, in the hip extensors. Swan Dive shares with Rocking (page 187) the goal of maintaining the trunk in a position of extension as the body rocks forward and backward in space, but it offers a greater challenge because the arms do not help maintain this desired shape. Maintaining an arched position of the trunk requires highly skilled use of many core muscles, including appropriate activation of the spinal extensors in conjunction with the abdominals to reduce stress on the lower back while allowing hyperextension to occur. This exercise should be done only after proficiency has been gained in easier exercises. Even if proper technique is used, because of the high level of spinal hyperextension inherent in this exercise, it is not appropriate for many people. This exercise should not be done if contraindicated for your back. Even if it is deemed appropriate for your back, start with the modification, or use a small range of motion to reduce the risk of injury. The extreme position used in this exercise can also provide dynamic flexibility benefits for the hip flexors and spinal flexors.

Modification

To modify this exercise, keep the hands on the mat, extend the elbows partway or fully in step 2 to help lift the chest off the mat, and then bend the elbows in step 3 to help lower the chest.

Variation

This exercise can also be performed with the arms reaching overhead in step 2 instead of to the side and then remaining overhead as the body rocks, as shown in the illustrations. Maintaining this overhead position increases the challenge to the back extensors and may help you maintain a long arch as the body rocks forward and back.