How well do you know your spine? It’s uses, strengths and weaknesses. Although the primary focus of Pilates is to strengthen the core, the reasons for this and the benefits are primarily related to the spine. The spine is your centre, the foundation of your skeleton, the basis of your posture and the protection for your spinal chord. A flexible spine is a must for your health.
So what happens when your spine is injured or becomes inflexible? Your range of movement is reduced, your posture becomes poor and then there are aches, twinges and pain. If the injury or stiffness is severe enough it may even lead to disabling conditions or paralysis.
1 in 3 people will suffer from some form a back pain/ache in their lifetime and the reasons for this are mainly to do with two things. The way we live today and the incorrect use of our bodies, and spines in particular.
The design of the human body is a magnificent thing but when it comes to the spine there is an inherent error. If you look at the way a dogs or cats head sits on the spine you will notice that it aligns perfectly with the spine and that the positioning of the eyes ensures the direction of the spine and head are the same. Now think about your own spine and head. Head sits on the spine. Fine. But our eyes look forward, at a 90 degree angle to the direction of the spine.
This means unlike cats and dogs we have to move our spines in two directions to use it most effectively and prevent spinal problems. When we don’t use it correctly or are unaware of how we use it this can lead to one of the most common problems today, rounded shoulders or an over curvature of the upper sine. When one part of the spine is out of alignment, all of the spine is out of alignment. Flexibility is reduced and pain is the result.
So how do we use our spines effectively?
The main thing to consider is how to move in two directions at once. We need to elongate the spine from the tail-bone to the top of the head. All without straightening the spine, there are very few straight areas of the body and the natural curves of the spine are there for a reason. The head sitting atop the spine should face forward not tilted up or down, forward or back, or left or right. Now to move, in any direction, means moving the spine, to move well means moving while keeping the length of the spine. To do this we move not from the top of the spine, where the head is, but from the base. The pelvis, lower spine and yes, the core.
So now we see why strengthening the core is important, the strength of the core is directly transmitted to the spine anytime we are not lying down, and sometimes when we are. When you move from the base of the spine, or your centre, you maintain your centre of gravity which is good for your posture, which is good for your muscles and bones, you can keep your spine long and your height, and maintain better balance and efficiency of movement. Most martial arts are based on this principle.
Now what makes a Good Spine?
Clearly the spine itself is simply bone and cartilage, when we talk of a good spine we refer to the muscles and sinews that make up and move the spine. With this in mind, what do we need from our spine. First and foremost we want flexibility. The more rigid a spine becomes the more it restricts movement, the more it alters posture and the more it effects the muscles of the rest of the body. But flexibility alone leaves the spine wide open to injury, as it does every part of the body. Flexibility without strength is a recipe for disaster.
Imagine that you can get your thigh to touch your chest while your leg is straight. Apart from the fact you’ve now overstretched and ruined the ligament that holds your thigh in the hip socket, if your muscles aren’t strong in the hip area when in this stretched position the slightest overstretch or slip could cause major injury.
So the next thing we want from our spine is strength. Not just in the core area but all the way up the spine, right up to the head. It doesn’t matter if you can twist, bend and turn your spine, if you don’t have the strength to support the spine, injury is on the cards. When we speak of strength we also mean a specific type of strength, stamina. When muscles are weak they tire easily and then become tight to compensate. If you’ve ever had a creak or pain in your neck you know what this feels like.
See the muscles that maintain the spine are known as postural muscles. This means they work to maintain your posture, and this means they work whenever you’re not lying down and sometimes when you are. So they need to maintain strength from the time you rise to the time you go to sleep, day in, day out, all year round. So yes stamina is important.
This means the way we train the spine, or muscles of the spine, is not the way we train our bicep or thighs. In Pilates the spine and particularly the core is being worked throughout all the movements, continuously. Training in Pilates can last for 15mins to an hour and a half, depending on what level you are at and your own schedule. The important thing with it is that it is performed regularly from 2-3 times a week to everyday.
So our spine should be strong, flexible and have stamina, it should be able to move freely and comfortably forward, back, left, right and twist, without pain. If we look at the previous example of Martial Arts, we see how these movements are incorporated while focus is placed on the centre or core. Pilates works under the same principles but the focus of Pilates is to balance the body, free up the spine, strengthen the core and improve the posture.
How to improve the flexibility of the spine:
Here are some exercises you can try to check and improve the flexibility of your spine.
The Cat Stretch
Get on all fours, into a box position, on the floor. Ensure your hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees are directly under your hips. Make sure your back is flat and your head is in line with your spine (so you’re looking at the floor).
Curve your spine, sticking your bottom out keeping your hands and knees where they are. Now arch your back up as high as it will comfortably go. Repeat this 10 to 15 times, then find the mid-point, your neutral spine.
Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor hip distance apart. Spine in a neutral position. Flatten the spine into the floor and then lift the tail-bone off the floor. Return to the floor and neutral. Flatten again and this time as you lift try to get another vertebrae or two off the floor. Return to start. Continue like this trying to lift more vertebrae off the floor each time. The main thing is to lift and return each vertebrae one at a time. Aim to lift the hips until they are on a straight line between your knees and your shoulders. Repeat the exercise 10-15 times.
Lie on the floor as before. Put your right leg over the left and allow the legs to fall to the right. Return to the start. Repeat the exercise 20-25 times, then switch to the opposite leg and repeat on this side.
The Roll Down
Sitting on a chair; with your feet shoulder width, or further, apart; head drawn up; shoulders relaxed back and down; weight even in your sit bones and feet. Place your hands on your thighs for support but keep your arms relaxed.
Breathe in to prepare and as you exhale allow your head to drop forward, don’t let your chin touch your chest. Roll the spine down, trying to let each vertebrae go one at a time. Look toward your bellybutton and keep your neck relaxed. Allow the head to continue past the chair toward the floor, breathing in as you go, but only as far as is comfortable.
Breathing out begin to roll back up, again breathing in as you pass the pelvis, stacking each vertebrae one on top of the other, until you are sitting upright again.