Tutorial #3750

Weak Back Modifications

30 min - Tutorial


If you have a weak back and were advised to start Pilates, then this tutorial by Monica Wilson is great for you. She starts with an assessment so you can check to see if you have any range limitations, then moves onto a demonstration of exercises you should omit as well as modifications you can incorporate into your practice. She encourages you to focus on what you can do so that you can safely strengthen your powerhouse.
What You'll Need: Mat

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Apr 14, 2019
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Hi, today we are going to focus on how we can approach the Let's Get Started Program on Pilates Anytime if you have a weak back. So let's talk about, what is a weak back? Weak back is not in its acute stage. You didn't just injure yourself, and you're going to the doctor and you need help. This is maybe a past injury, an old injury, definitely about six months out.

You're not in the inflamed stage, but you realize that it's weak, it needs strengthening, and you've been advised by a medical professional that you should strengthen your core or your powerhouse, and that stretching would be a good idea. All of these would make you an incredible candidate to do the Let's Get Started Pilates with these modifications in mind. First, we'll start with an assessment and learn how to move our body safely. So we're gonna gingerly lower ourselves down to the mat. And you might need to roll onto your side, so when you get up out of bed, you might wanna think about, how do I do that?

Do I roll onto my side and then sit up? Do I just pop right up? Usually, lying down on your side and then rolling onto your back is the most comfortable for your bad back. Alright, so let's talk about an assessment. We know that we have a weak lower back, and that we need to strengthen our powerhouse, and we're going to just see, maybe another injury might pop up that would aggravate our back.

So we're going to lie flat with our knees bent, feet flat, correct? And our head is down. If you find yourself that you are, can't lie down with your head flat 'cause you're looking behind you, then add a pillow or fold up a bath towel and put it under your head because this is more of the alignment you would like to have. Also, my ribs are okay right now, but if they're like way up here, then you also wanna lift up, put a pillow under your head so that it can be more comfortable and more flat behind your back. So hopefully this is a safe and comfortable position for your back starting that's your first clue.

Let's just check out our arms. So everything we do in Pilates, you're gonna learn in this beginner series, is within our box. I'm not gonna go over all the details, 'cause that's what the Let's Get Started program is for, but we're gonna move our joints and limbs within that box. So if I lift up my arm, it's still within that box, I wanna know, is that comfortable on your shoulder? If you take it back behind you, does it start to strain your back or is it okay?

And then bring it back up to the ceiling and back down and you wanna just feel, how does that feel on your back? How about if we lift it up, and instead of going back, we go out to the side, and then circle back down to our hip, and then reverse that out to the side, up to the ceiling, and back down. Did that affect your back at all? Let's try the other arm. Did it hurt your shoulder lifting it up here?

Maybe that's okay, but not taking it back behind you. We're gonna bring it back up to the ceiling. Bring it down to your side. Really kind of easy motions, but you never know what's gonna trigger. So up to the ceiling.

Let's go out to the side. Maybe that hurts your neck or shoulders down to your hip. And we're gonna reverse that. Opening to the side, up to the ceiling, and then down to the mat. Did that feel okay?

Everything okay on your back? Let's try your leg, see if moving your hips hurts your lower back maybe. So let's bend the right knee into your chest. Maybe you feel it tight right here in your hip flexor. Maybe you can't pull it in too much.

Maybe that hurts your back, it should stretch it. But if you're part of the small percentage that it hurts to round, and you prefer to arch, this might not feel good. So you'll wanna keep that in mind. How about straightening that leg? Is it really easy?

Are you super flexible in the legs just like, on your chest? That's not me. Or is it really hard to straighten it even to here and it's lower than a 90 degree angle? You wanna check your range of motion, you wanna see how flexible you are here 'cause that'll affect how you approach the exercises. Good, so does that hurt your body?

And if not, we wanna then press your arms down by your side, making sure that your hips are square and your lower back is down on the mat, not lifted. Does it feel okay to circle that leg? And what about going the other way? The goal on that was not move anything on our body, just to circle the actual leg, not the whole lower back. So if you did just circle it, probably doesn't hurt your back, but you wanna get some feedback.

So let's try the left leg. We're gonna pull our belly in always and hug in this left knee. So this assessment is to be done with me, but more of a tutorial on how to approach your beginner series, right? So we're gonna put our hands down now. And if that left leg felt okay, what about if we drew a little circle on the ceiling?

Did that hurt the hip? Let's go the other way, which then hurts your lower back. We wanna just consider all of these things when I bend the knee back into my chest. Maybe that hurts your knee, you're gonna wanna think about that too. And then finally, how about lifting your head?

Let's go ahead and put your hands behind your head, one over the other. Does that hurt your shoulder? Does that hurt your upper back? Talk to yourself, try to give yourself some really good tips on what to lookout for when you're doing your class. And now we're gonna pull your belly in and lift your head up to look at your chest.

Pulling in and maybe exhale. And did that send any pain down your back? Did you feel that at all? And then going down. If not, what if we had to lift our head without our arms?

Pulling your belly in. Does it hurt to lift up your head and look at it? Maybe not for the first second, maybe after like five seconds it starts to strain. That's a good indicator that you're gonna wanna lower your head down and not hold your head up for too much during this series. Okay, let's sit up gingerly again, going onto your side.

And just sitting up. And let's just take a moment, giving our back a little bit of a break even though it shouldn't hurt you to lie down on your back flat. It's nice to just give a tiny little break. So, I love focusing on the positive and that's what are Hope series is about. So let's talk about what you can do.

If you have a weak back, every time I talk about your powerhouse, you are gonna wanna really hone in on that and make sure you're initiating every exercise and movement with your powerhouse. It's wonderful if you can move from, I think I'm pulling my stomach in, to I really know I'm pulling my stomach in. And even though you're gonna have to omit certain exercises and maybe modify certain exercises, if you're pulling in your stomach and using your powerhouse, it's gonna get stronger and then before you know it, you are gonna be able to do those exercises that you had to omit and you might not have to modify anymore 'cause there's definitely hope on doing that. So you definitely wanna pull your powerhouse in, learn from all the cues I give you on how to strengthen your powerhouse. You also wanna use your bottom.

Your glutes are a major support muscle group for your lower back. So if you don't have much strength in your bottom or your hamstrings, then your back is gonna hurt you. So, we talk always of strengthen your core and strengthen your powerhouse. But again, if your bottom or your glutes are not strong, you are not gonna have the complete package. So when you are straightening your legs, I'll talk a lot about Barbershop Pulls.

You're gonna wanna really think about that and try to feel those too. Try to really feel your bottom engage in the exercises to help strengthen your back. Now to keep you safe, we should talk about the exercises you should omit or modify. Absolutely no rolling, no twisting, and no arching. So, we are gonna do in the Let's Get Started series, we're gonna start from I have no idea what Pilates is and then learn all the intermediate mat exercises and we'll finish with that in class 10.

As you progress, you're gonna come and be introduced to more exercises. And the rolling exercises will be rolling like a ball, Open Leg Rocker, and The Seal, which is the last exercise. Those exercises most likely will jar your back and they will not feel comfortable or good, so I suggest omitting those. The same goes with twisting. As we progress through the intermediate series, you're gonna come across some exercises that are gonna aggravate your back if you do them.

So the first one is the Corkscrew. It's the 5th exercise in the series of five. And it might not be that hard for you or dangerous, and you might be able to do it without any pain, but just to be on the safe side, it could aggravate your back so keep out the criss-cross. After a few more exercises, you'll come to The Saw, and you'll be twisting your upper body and it is, my advice to you, to leave that one out as well. And then finally, you'll do Corkscrew which is kind of in the middle of the intermediate series, but there's a lot of strain because you're lying on your back and your legs are straight up, and you're called to twist from the waist as you rotate your legs.

Well that just seems like it would be kind of pulling on your back and twisting in the spine and just might not feel good at all. So let's have a positive experience and leave all of those out. Finally, we get to arching. The exercises that I want you to be careful on are when you're on your stomach. So, when we come to flipping over and learning about our belly, it might be okay for you to lie on your stomach and learn what muscles should you be using to strengthen to come up into a backbend.

But, when you do come up into backbend, that probably is gonna hurt your back because our muscles aren't going to be strong enough to get there yet. They will one day and it will be okay. But right now, that might not be the best choice for you. So the first one that you come to after being on your stomach is the Neck Roll. Try to leave that one out.

Following the Neck Roll, the next two exercises on your belly, same thing. Until you feel like your stomach, you powerhouse, can support you like a corset and you're not taking it in your lower back, Single Leg Kick and Double Leg Kick you probably want to omit. So we are gonna get back to what you can do, but before we do that, I wanna just show you what do those exercises look like so you know what to omit. So the fist one that I mentioned was the three rolling exercises. So we have rolling like a ball.

So please keep watching. This is more of a tutorial, do not attempt to do these exercises. So the first exercise, you'll be at the front of your mat and we'll learn how to roll like a ball. So when you see us get into this position, you're gonna say not for me. And then after a few, we would get to Open Leg Rocker.

And so that exercise will look like this, where both legs are up. And you're probably thinking, no way. So let's keep this one out until we feel very confident. And then, finally Seal. Your hands will be underneath the ankles and you're gonna be pulled back in a C curve, balancing in this position.

So again, all of them are rolling. So rolling. And we wanna make sure our back is really feeling good before we do any of those rolling. Next we have twisting. So the first twisting exercise I want you to avoid is criss-cross.

It's the last one of the series of five. And the last two exercises of the series of five, you do with your hands behind your head. So I'm gonna put my hands there just to show you what it looks like. And your knees are into your chest and your head is up. And this is fine for you.

We're square, we're flat. But then the Criss-cross makes you twist an elbow to a knee and that's twisting and I don't want you to do that quite yet. So we're gonna leave out the Criss-cross. The next exercise you'll wanna leave out is The Saw. So it's a sitting exercise.

And the feet are extended a little wider than your shoulders. I'm gonna go over all these details in the Let's Get Started series. And when we're introducing the exercises, it's great foundation work for you, great building strength. But don't actually do the exercise. So, The Saw.

Your arms are extended out to the side, your powerhouse is lifted in and up, and you would twist which is a no no for you. And then you would reach, okay? So this exercise, The Saw, looks like this. And maybe one day we can safely do it and it'll feel good, but we wanna make sure it does feel good. And the last one that I want you to omit that's twisting is the Corkscrew.

So we're gonna just show you what that looks like. Your legs will be extended straight up to the ceiling and the back will remain where it is, but your legs are supposed to draw a circle on the ceiling and go the other way. And this is twisting of the lower back and it takes a long time to have enough strength and flexibility to do it correctly and safely. So let's leave that one out as well. Okay, let's get to the arching exercises.

So I'm gonna sit up and I'm gonna turn around. And like I mentioned, when you're getting into position and I'm talking about details, the foundation work before you actually execute the exercise, those might be really helpful for you to develop strength. But when you are called to do the exercise, you might need to leave these out. So the first one's the Neck Roll. You'd be on your belly and the hands would be here.

And it's called the Neck Roll because you would roll your neck one way and the other way. So this is what the exercise looks like. And I'm just giving you a quick glimpse of what to omit. So Neck Roll we're taking out. And then following those is Single Leg Kick, which is this one.

Kicking one leg at a time. It's called Single Leg Kick. So helping you spot these in the line up to omit. Last exercise to omit will be the Double Leg Kick. Hands here, both legs kicking.

One, two, three, and then it's followed by a Back Extension, and again. And the Back Extension. So, those are the exercises that you need to omit when doing the Let's Get Started series until you feel really confident. Let's talk now about a few things to keep in mind or to look out for. So I'm gonna lie down gingerly with you again, onto my back.

And we're gonna talk a little bit about our pelvis, okay? So, I would love for you to be able to pull your belly into your lower back. Again, I'm gonna go over exactly how to feel this and in such details in the beginner series and you are gonna be able to lie safely like this. But let's keep in mind certain things that someone with a weak back might have to focus on. So, if I have the heels of my hands on my hip bones, and pointing my fingers towards my pubic bone, ideally we would have them at the same level when doing our exercises, okay?

That means they're flat. Good. If they are tilted towards you, I'm okay with that right now in the beginner series. As you advance, we're gonna wanna make sure again, that they're just straight. But ideally, you're not using your hip flexors to do that but you're using your stomach to support your back and have it nice and anchored or flat into the mat, okay?

So that is really important. And I want you to now go the other way and stop when it bothers you or if it hurts, okay? So it'd be dropping your tailbone and the lower back would arch off the mat and your fingertips would be a little lower than the heels of your hand. If it started hurting you, just return to a flat back. And I'm gonna stay like this just so that you can see what I'm talking about.

When we are strengthening our stomach, if our back is locked in this position, it's not gonna allow you to use the part of your stomach muscle that you need to to strengthen your powerhouse. It's not gonna let you use your transversus. So we wanna make sure that we never have the points of our fingers lower than the heels of our hands, okay? You don't want in this beginner series to have a tunnel under your back where a little mouse could crawl through. And even right now, I have a good back, but it's starting to hurt by forcing it to stay in this position.

So be very careful whether you're doing the Hundred or any of the exercises that you are flat and in the beginner series, I'll even allow you to tilt your pelvis a little bit while you're getting stronger. I hope that's pretty clear. Another thing that happens is our hamstrings, the back of our legs, are usually a little tight. When you assessed yourself, were you able to straighten your leg easily or was it bent and down here? You wanna really check that out because there will be exercises where both legs will be up and if you have them both up at a 90 degree angle, right here, it's gonna be very hard on your back which is what we wanna avoid.

We don't wanna strain it. We wanna support it, okay? So a lot of the exercises like the Hundred, your head's gonna be up, but you don't actually wanna have your legs straight up to the ceiling even though that encourages all this center gravity and energy to go in and support your back. If your hamstrings are tight, you're gonna want your legs just shy of that 90 degree angle, okay? Super important.

Not straight up, but just shy so that you're not pulling here and you can keep strengthening your stomach, okay? And then when you're progressing and learning all the stomach exercises of the series of five, you're gonna be tempted to have the leg really low like everybody else in class and looking cool, but that's not good for you. You wanna have the leg just shy of 90 degrees. So, the rule of thumb is, every time you extend your leg, you're gonna have it just shy of straight up to the ceiling or if it's both legs, okay? You're not gonna go out here, okay?

And finally, just to really drive that home, if your legs go lower than this level, then your backs gonna start arching and you can probably see that on me, if you didn't have a strong powerhouse. So that's why they have to stay just here and we will slowly work our way lower, okay? Slowly and safely. Alright. I'm gonna just sit up another moment and you can join me as well.

So let's review those things and then I'm gonna go over the first five exercises that you're gonna do in the Let's Get Started series. So you're gonna omit any rolling exercise, any twisting, and any arching, ok? You wanna be aware of your pelvis that you don't have a little tunnel under your lower back and that a mouse can crawl under it. You could even tilt it a little bit towards you just to make sure it's safe and secure. When you lift the legs up, make sure they're just a little bit shy of straight up to the ceiling and definitely not lower.

When I teach someone with a weak back, I usually stand right where they are so they can't lower their legs at all. So picture me standing there like a big block, not allowing you to lower your legs so you're moving safely. And then finally, your neck is gonna get tired if you have a weak back. You're not gonna be able to keep it up the whole time and so listen to my cues. I will often ask you, go ahead and lower down your head, lower your neck.

And that is okay for you to do. And before you know it, it'll be strong enough to be supported by your powerhouse. So, in conclusion, let's go over these exercises. We're still on a tutorial. I'm not trying to teach you the exercises right now, but just give you an idea of how do I work these modifications into our Let's Get Started series, okay?

So, the first exercise would be the Hundred and I talked a little bit about it. The Hundred. How would you modify this? Well, I might do it with bent knees and pumping until I just really get comfortable with my belly pulling in and it's actually kinda hard when your head's down to feel your stomach. So try to pull in and lift your head up and try to do it like this.

And then when your neck gets tired, everything keeps pumping, everything keeps working. You lower your head for like a couple counts and then you join the class again by pulling your belly into the mat and lifting up. Good. So the Hundred is gonna be done like that until you feel safe enough to extend not straight up, but a little lower. And again, you might have to lower your neck and the you pull in, and then you'd keep going.

And little by little, maybe in a couple months, you'll start lowering your legs, okay? But we're not gonna do that for awhile. So that's the first exercise that you'll learn is the Hundred. The next one is the Roll Back which is really great for you. So you're gonna roll to your side and gingerly sit up.

And what you're gonna focus on, what you can do, right? Is pretending that your hips are in a vice and squeezing them together, squeezing your inner thighs. And you're gonna pull your belly in to round your lower back. And you're gonna really focus on opening up and stretching this part of our back. So the hands are super important.

You're gonna pull your belly away from your legs, against your hands. And then pull your belly against your hands that are pulling you forward. So opposition is huge in Pilates. And you wanna use your arms because you don't have me as an instructor to pull you. So you're gonna, hands are here, and you're gonna pull your belly against your arms that are holding you.

And you're gonna pull your belly again, against them as they pull you back. So that's gonna be the Roll Back and you're gonna stay in that range of motion for awhile. You might see the class advancing, but stay there until you're bored with it Once you're bored with it, then you can pull back and roll down to the bottom of your shoulder blades, and then come up. What that should look like is your waistband does not come up at the same time, it stays, it stays, and then finally, it comes forward. That's when you know you're ready to advance to that level.

And the you're gonna be able to advance to rolling all the way down through your shoulder blades, neck and head, and you'll lift the head up and then you'll come up again, until you're really bored with rolling up one bone at a time. Then you'll get to straighten your legs and do it with straight legs, hands still offering assistance, hands still offering opposition, okay? And then finally, you'll take away that help and your arms will be doing the full version. But this is all building blocks in what our goal is. We don't wanna skip too fast.

We wanna keep working within our safe range of motion. Okay, the next exercise will be the Single Leg Circles. You're gonna be told how to keep your box square, how not to move the line of your hips. You'll get to stretch your leg and it'll be in a turned out position, which will be huge when we talk about Barbershop Pull muscles because you'll learn how to develop strength in your outer thigh and your bottom, okay? And you'll draw a circle with your leg, not your whole body.

Just the leg. We'll do five one way and five the other. And you're gonna keep this knee bent for a long time. After you get really flexible, you're gonna be able to straighten that leg and your range of motion is still gonna be here. And as you get even more flexible, your range of motion will be the full range of motion.

But you wanna make sure that you're really developing that powerhouse and you're also being able to stretch your back. The two have to work hand in hand to strengthen your weak back. So then you do rolling like a ball. We're gonna omit that. And then you're gonna do the series of five.

But in the first class we just do Single Leg Stretch and Double Leg Stretch. We'll talk a lot about how to pull in that leg and then just pulling in really easily. And then you're gonna end up lifting your head, but you know what? Maybe you don't wanna lift your head. If it's okay to do it like this, then you can.

If you can only do a couple with your head up and then you have to do your head down, that's great. Listen, use your intuition, k? And then you're gonna be talked about opposition again. So the head will be up and then the leg will go out. So that'll be a red flag.

Is my leg here or is my leg gonna go here? If I have a weak back, remember, just shy of the ceiling. So every time, ok? Just shy of the ceiling. And then next, you're gonna go into the Double Leg Stretch.

This is one where the pelvis really comes into play. So you can keep your head down and just do it like this in the beginning, okay? So this is what the exercise will look like. And you can keep your head up if it feels okay and do the same thing. So I'm doing it correctly within your range of motion.

Not in your range of motion is here. One day we'll get there. Even maybe a little lower. What we don't wanna do is arch our lower back. Let me see if I can figure that one out.

So this is our safe range, right there. As my legs go down, I arch my back. Terrible for you. Big owies. Let's stay within our safe zone and feel good.

Okay the last exercise you'll do in the first class is called Spine Stretch Forward. We're gonna roll gingerly to your side, always, to lift up. To sit up, we're gonna put the feet out three inches wider than your shoulders. And we learn it with your arms up and really working on your posture. If you had tight hamstrings, I will cue you to go ahead and soften your knees, or bend your knees, because you're probably back here.

And so that hopefully will take out pressure out of your back. If you don't have tight hamstrings, you can keep your legs straight. For this exercise and weak back, I honestly would advise you to have your hands here. And feel how you stretch forward and your belly pulls back 'cause I feel like it gives you really good feedback. Maybe you can even grab onto the inside of your arch.

Maybe you can keep your waist where it is and bend the elbows and bring your head lower. These are little things that can help build flexibility for your back and build strength. So sliding your hands as you peel off this roll and spin stretch forward until you get to your arches. And sliding back up as you simultaneously roll up, gives you a lot of great feedback. So those are the first exercises you're going to see in the Let's Get Started series and now you have all the information, tips, and tools that you need to do to progress safely and to gain strength.

And I sure hope you feel great doing it.


2 people like this.
You are an amazing teacher Monica; never hesitating to share your great knowledge of pilates with a simple and specific language  and understandable quiet easily for those who have no idea about pilates or still trying to understand more about it like me...thank you a lot...great class
1 person likes this.
Thank you Monica for sharing your knowledge
Luisa Z
1 person likes this.
Thanks Monica for sharing with us lots of very valuable informations. Your videos are clear, precise and very helpful. 
2 people like this.
Excellent. Thank you, Monica.  Your advices are invaluable !
Sandra G
1 person likes this.
Thank you so much for demonstrating on exercises not to do as a total beginner with back issues i feel i can start.
1 person likes this.
Thank you for your tutorial. I really appreciated it.
Rosemary F
Excellent tutorial, thank you !
Paula B
Hi Monica, thank you so much for your videos. I'm working through your starter series now and really enjoying it. I'd like to know what type of mat you are using in this video. I have tailbone issues and that looks like it might be helpful for me! Thank you.
1 person likes this.
Excellent class
Monica Wilson
Hi Paula, The mat is called the “high mat” and it’s made by Gratz. I would advise adding one of their black non slip pads to add extra cushion where you’re sitting on your tail bone.
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