The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back Part 2

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back. Part 2

Thanks for joining me to further explore components and strategies for finding length in the low back.

Welcome new subscribers!

It's lovely to have you.

In the first installment of this series we looked at 2 major skills which create a long, open and strong low back: the engagement of the ribs (a gateway to the opening of the middle back) and the crucial use of the seat.

This week we'll look at the first of the oppositional forces – and everyone's Pilates nemesis – the ribs.

Courage, friends…

The Center of the Pilates Universe

One of the most frequently heard Pilates corrections from now until the end of time surely has to be “Ribs in!”

We've all heard it, or versions of it, but what does it really mean and how can we do it more properly?

Pinching them in, knitting them together, softening them…it can boggle the mind and leave you at least knowing one important thing: the job of the ribs is not to stick out.


But instead of knowing what not to do with our ribs – don't let them fly out – let's see if we can find a good job for them shall we?

Why all the fuss?

A major tenet of Joe Pilates' method is the strength and flexibility of the spine.

If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.

Looking at the line of the back, the ribs poking out in front creates a stiffness in the middle back. Talking about the ribs staying in is really a more tangible way (perhaps) to find length in this commonly tight area of the back.

Just imagine if you were to tell people to lengthen their middle backs…


That's a tall order even for a top-notch Pilates aficionado.

So length in the back (surprise!) is again what we're after with all of this rib-speak.

Now about giving those ribs a job to do…

Yes. The ribs are a workaround to get at lengthening the middle back.

However, they have a higher calling…

The ribs/upper stomach is really the start of the lower body. Think of the ribs as a gateway to using your bottom and part of a larger conversation about the reach of the lower body.

Get the upper stomach and your seat working and you'll literally lighten the load on your leg muscles and joints.

For example:

Real World Scenario #1

Got a clicking hip when you do the One Leg Circle on the Mat?

99.999% of the time any click can be banished by connecting that circling leg into your stomach – starting the leg way up in the rib which is anchoring to the mat.

Check to see if the rib/upper stomach is working and don't let that leg circle run away with you.

Just a little side benefit of using your stomach…

Leg Circles on the Spine Corrector

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back Part 2

The Spine Corrector is a great apparatus for finding your upper stomach – and your seat, which we'll talk about in a later post.

In the Leg Circles you can see the legs reaching away from the firm, fixed point of the ribs/upper stomach.

Other exercises that achieve the same benefit include Walking, Beats, Scissors, BicycleShoulder Bridge and the Helicopter.

I can fasten the rib/upper stomach component firmly into the Spine Corrector and then stretch away from that fixed point. On this apparatus you can really tell if the ribs are working because you have the contact of the Spine Corrector behind you.

More tidbits about fantastic Spine Corrector exercises:

And some short video workouts:

Double Straight Leg Stretch (Lower Lift)

Remember our dear friends the Ab 5?

This infamous series contains a few gems that suit our purpose.

The Double Straight Leg Stretch (also called Lower Lift) can be a bear of an exercise by the time you get to it. You've already done Single Leg Pull, Double Leg Pull and the Single Straight Leg Stretch (Scissors).


Your stomach is crying and now you've really got to suck it up.

Let's look at our (now) familiar position:

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back, Part 2

In this exercise again, the lower body reaches long and away from the fixed point of your curled up position: here the ribs/upper stomach is hard to miss.

It may even be screaming by now.

Engagement here has always been a challenge for me – to open up my middle back – and I've employed a strategy to help me maintain my position.

Often when the legs lower and lift the position of the upper body suffers. If the curled up position is a challenge it's very easy to fall back a bit throughout the exercise.

I find that if imagine I can lean my ribs on my legs – as though I could curl up so much I might reach my torso all the way to my legs – I can maintain a steady position of my body.

I'm basically pushing my curl-up position toward my toes.

Sound familiar?

I. Smell. 2. Way. Stretch.

Well, the reach of the lower body, to be more precise.

Teaser on the Cadillac

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back, Part 2The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back, Part 2

The Teaser done on the Cadillac with the pushthru bar is really 2 exercises in 1. For our purposes, we'll look at just the first part of the exercise before rolling up into the Teaser.

With the pushthru bar held firmly overhead it's easy to let the back arch off the mat and make this first part very arm-centric.

No bueno.

Use the contact of the mat behind you to discern weather the ribs/upper stomach are working or not. Use the back and the ribs here to gain full control over the heavy spring of the pushthru bar.

It will make your subsequent Teaser all the sweeter…


Remember, too, that “Rome was not built in a day,” and that patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor.

It should come as no surprise that Time is our best friend as we work steadily toward the ultimate control of our bodies.

Spend some time with the exercises in this post and see what your body and the exercises reveal to you.

Of course while we're on the subject of Time, I must mention its constant companion as well:


Practice your exercises diligently with the fixed and unalterable determination that you will permit nothing else to sway you from keeping faith with yourself.

It is with faithful repetition that our bodies learn and become fully under the control of our minds.

Patience is not my strong suit, but I'm a big fan of the long term effects of the Pilates method.

The results are truly worth the wait.

What exercises help you to locate the elusive ribs?

Leave me a comment and share your favorites.

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  1. Alessandra says

    Thanks again Andrea for another useful post!!
    I really like your idea of giving the ribs a job to do to keep them busy????
    When I read your post, I had just attempted (with varied success!) your super challenging mini mat on spiney c , and had just realized that to keep myself precariously balanced on that hump (whatever will you come up with next, I wonder?????) during single leg stretch and, gulp, double leg stretch I really had to keep the feeling of increasing the curl of my upper body to stop myself from toppling off!! Feels almost like I’m lifting the rib cage in and up to get a deeper curl, hence finding more length in my spine but particularly the upper back??
    2 way stretch again??
    Anyway,like you say, it works!!
    Plus you’ve now confirmed my love affair with spiney c!! #pilatesgeek????
    Other exercises I find useful to tame my pokey ribs are leg springs on the tower…really great to reach up into the poles and reach my feet into the straps, which really helps me to anchor down through the back of my ribs, and I’m now loving elephant, where I can enjoy the lift of the ribs in another position…
    I could go on and on! But I’ll stop now????
    So thanks for making me think in another way and again, for sharing your knowledge.
    #rockon Andrea xoxo

    • Oh yes, the Leg Springs are a great place to nail down those ribs LOL! Good job on your precarious Mat exercises on the Spiney C…you really need the ribs so you don’t fall off I agree. That’s how to find your ribs – the hard way ha ha
      I understand your love affair. On Monday I think I finally found my full body workout in the leg springs…I love when an exercise I have been doing forever (read as “a basic exercise’) gets working more from the right place. #happylengthintheback
      Thank you again Alessandra for reading, watching and then deciding to kick your own butt – and I love our chats here 🙂

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