The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back

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So glad we get to chat!


Join me for a new series of posts as we explore strategies for alleviating and lengthening a tight low back.

I am happy to share my thoughts, resources, exercises and experience on my own Pilates journey with all my lovely Pilates friends. I should be an expert by now since I have my own personal tight low back to lengthen each and every day.

Pilates problem solving (and LOVE) all around!


What makes a tight low back?

Tightness in the low back comes in various shapes and sizes.

There's the swayback, like me, usually accompanied by ribs that like to poke out and overworking hips/thighs.

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back

Another type of tight back I've encountered in several of my clients is the tight and sinky back, sometimes accompanied by a tucked pelvis and hip tightness too.

As you look at the body in front of you – or your own body – what characteristics do you observe?

  • Is this a stiff person or a super flexible individual?
  • Long torso or a short torso?
  • How tight is tight?
  • How long has it been that way? An avid exerciser? Active lifestyle or never worked out before?

All these details will give you information and help you to choose exercises wisely for the back in front of you.

“Think Like a Sculptor.”

Contributors to a tight low back include posture, heredity, occupation, sports and all our daily activities.

Part of what we love about the Pilates Method is the efficacy with which it counteracts all the shit we do to ourselves while living with “zest and pleasure.”

Kerry DeVivo, one of my first teachers, first led me down the path toward Jay Grimes' beloved quote:

Think like a sculptor: Get rid of the big chunks first. Don't start with the eyelashes.

Notice the body in front of you. Look for balance in the body.

  • Are there parts that seem out of proportion or over-developed?
  • If you were building this body into a Pilates exercise what would you keep?
  • What would have to change to accomplish the exercise more efficiently?
  • Take a 360° look at the body: what would a change in the front do to the back? What needs to open in the front and how will the back of the body facilitate this?

Kerry pointed up the larger muscles in our bodies that seemed to be out of proportion or distorting the rest of the body. But not to worry, there's an app(aratus) for that…

So what makes length in the low back?

Length in the back requires considerable muscular action.

Oh and opposition.



Just like with a rubber band, if you pull it from both ends it gets long and strong in the middle.

With our backs, it is the ribcage (the gateway to opening up the middle back) that must lift in and upward.

For the opposing force we must find the action of the seat – really the underside of the seat, the part that would pop you up taller if you engaged it when you're sitting on it – that must lengthen downward toward our heels.

I've found the ribs and the seat, they kinda go together. They like to be connected and are helpful to find each other. When the ribs fly and it's hard to locate the seat, and you'll need both to create a long line in the back of the body.

This can be quite a feat of coordination to get the 2-way stretch in action to create length in the back.


Little by little you'll gain control over all of the muscles that will aid in lengthening the back.

Joe Pilates' dream for all of us is that we achieve complete control over our muscles. So if you're in need of more length in your tight back you'll know what muscles to use and which exercises to do to achieve it.

Remember Rome was not built in a day…

A Safe Workout for a Stiff Back

Enjoy this video workout I did a while back. It's kind of a long one as I work around the Pilates System in a safe and supported way. So settle in with a snack or join in the “fun.”:)

It's a great way to care for a stiff back and to focus on finding the muscles to create length and stretch.

This is a voyage of exploration for me as well – I learn more each day about what the tight back needs to thrive…and open and stretch.

In future posts we'll look at apparatus and exercises which cultivate each component of the 2-way stretch we're after for our long, tall back.

Thank you so much for watching!

Questions? Something you'd do differently?

Leave me a comment and let's have a chat.

‘Pre-Pilates’ Exercises: What are they and who does them?

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

For Lali

When one is new to the Pilates Method it is customary to begin at the beginning.

Often we can assume that our new student is unfamiliar in every way with exercises and concepts. Thusly, we begin to lay in the foundation.

As an apprentice, I asked one of my first teachers, Kerry DeVivo of Excel Pilates Annapolis, to show me the pre-Pilates exercises. I had heard of them but I wasn't sure if I had ever done them myself.

What I really wanted was the cold, hard facts: a list of pre-Pilates exercises.

Silly, Andrea…

Kerry provided her sound advice per usual:

Pre-Pilates exercises are designed to help a client gain the tools needed to properly perform the exercises, not in terms of choreography, but rather in terms of reaching the purpose of each exercise.

She urged me to think about the skills necessary to achieve any given exercise.

What needs to be in place to find success in the Hundred, the Teaser, Short Box, the Roll Up?

The Roll Up is a good example. One of the most concrete examples of what I consider to be pre-Pilates is the Half Roll Down, which some students must master before moving to the full Roll Up on the Mat.

The Half Roll Down is just one moment in the midst of the entire Roll Up exercise that one can tackle first. It is a skill inherent in the Roll Up that we can examine all by itself for a while.

Kerry further emphasized that pre-Pilates exercises are merely a teaching tool: a stepping stone on the Pilates path meant to empower the client and maintain the intention of the exercise.

That's on a need to know basis…

Back in the day – even back in my own day, it was a gift to receive a new exercise. You had worked hard for it and now you shall have your reward: Snake/Twist on the Reformer.

There. You. Go.

If you weren't a teacher, you may not have known this exercise even existed. There you were Arm-Circling your little heart out in perfect bliss…

I like to watch Chris Robinson each week when he has a lesson with Jay Grimes. He does a manly version of the Horseback that I have never done before. I don't need to know about that one just yet.

That's on a need to know basis…

Right now I've got my hands full just wrangling the standard version of the Horseback.

And that is just fine.

And Pre-Pilates?

I feel the same way about exercises that we often label ‘pre-Pilates.' If you don't need them, you may not have learned them in your workout. Teacher training programs will most likely include them, but I find pre-Pilates exercises to be in the realm of the Pilates grey area.

Oh yes, the Pilates grey area.

I know it well.

I am a very literal and direct person. I enjoy succinct and clear guidelines.

I adore order.

Pre-Pilates can be a murky, grey place in the Pilates Universe so I've got some examples of how to find your our way.

Know where to look

The need for pre-Pilates exercises generally arises when you're confronted with an individual's unique set of circumstances. Perhaps numerous pathologies all wrapped up together in one personality lead you to seek a basic preparatory exercise.

It is your fervent hope that the pre-Pilates will strengthen/enliven said individual and solve your Pilates problem du jour.

This line of thinking is based on “Mrs. X. should not do a, b, or c because she has this, that and the next thing.” And of course you must be aware of contraindications.

First, do no harm.

However, flip that around and ask yourself “What can this body in front of me do?” You may be surprised by the answers to this question.

Oh and by the way, there's a reason we call it the Magic circle… more on that in a bit.

Okay, so you've got the “why-you-may-need-pre-Pilates,” now let's talk about the “what-we're-gonna-do-about-it.”

“The Magic is in the System.”

Pilates is a systematic method of exercise: one exercise builds off another, much like laying bricks to build a chimney.

At times, foundational work needs to be done prior to “building the chimney.”

For these cases we use what is commonly referred to as pre-Pilates. Kerry DeVivo

Chances are there is a fantastic exercise already on your radar that will fill that pre-Pilates need.

Real World Scenario #1

You guessed it, we'll look at an old favorite: the Hundred.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Joe Pilates says you must do the Hundred with your feet 2″ from the floor.

This is true.

However, if you've got a 70-something loosey-goosey lady with multiple joint replacements, a delicate neck, back and shoulders, you may adopt a different approach.

What's to be done?

You could choose to leave out the Hundred entirely. That is one option.

And maybe you do that for now…while you plan your approach.

Or you could choose to work each component of the Hundred one by one. In this way you'll eventually build a version of the Hundred that is appropriate for a particular individual.

The process will not be speedy, but think of the skills you'll build along the way.

Back to 70-something loosey-goosey lady with multiple joint replacements, a delicate neck, back and shoulders…

  • One element of the Hundred that's just fine with this case study is the breathing part. She's certainly breathing or she wouldn't be having a Pilates lesson.
  • She can lie onto her back just fine as well.


Let's leave her head down for now. Still a great exercise without lifting your head.

How about that arm pumping?

Here's where we can work on our first component for a successful Hundred.

If shoulders are delicate, I'll bet that to pump the arms up and down, our Mrs. X may default to her shoulders and possibly aggravate them. Especially on the Reformer with straps and a moving carriage.

So on the Reformer you could lose the straps, that's one option.

Or, you've got that spacious and sturdy Cadillac you could use to build strength in her stomach and back with simple Arm Springs lying down.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Save pumping the arms until a little bit later on after she's built up some strength in the center so she doesn't bother her shoulders. If necessary you could use a lighter spring.

The Arm Chair may be a great option as well. A bit more challenging with the whole sitting up thing…

So in this scenario we are using the Arm Springs (lying down) on Cadillac and/or the Arm Chair exercises to build the strength and connection of the arms into the center.

This is just one skill you'll need for the Hundred.

As a side effect – all the strengthening of the center will slowly facilitate the lift of the head without neck strain. Eventually.

Rome was not built in a day, yo.

3 Cheers for the TV exercises!

It is my understanding that the TV exercises come from Romana Kryzanowska.

Presumably one can easily do these exercises while sitting and watching TV.

I should really jump on this bandwagon…I have the most terrible TV-watching posture.

Take it away, DeVivo…!

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Distilled to their essence the TV Exercises are all about lift.

What a surprise.

You are seated in a safe (non-moving) place on the Cadillac with the feet supported on a stable box – either the box from the Reformer, or a box like I have in the photos below, created just for these simple exercises.

It is here that we can find the building blocks for the Short Box Series on the Reformer.

And of course, everything else…

50 Shades of Tree

The goal of the TV exercises is to find the muscles that allow you to lift one foot off the box yet still remain in a lifted and tall seated position.

Not an easy feat for some.

At first some individuals may need to use both feet firmly planted on the box to find lift in the back and seat. Just lifting up and sitting tall may be challenging.

For a little while.

As your student becomes stronger you can begin to lift one leg.

Eventually the lifting of one leg can become more elaborate:

  • Lift one foot up from the box.
  • Stay tall and extend the leg forward until it straightens.
  • Lower it with control.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Try it, it's not easy. No slouching!

Real World Scenario #2

I have found great success in using the premise of the TV exercises to prepare for the Short Box Series on the Reformer. This series is fundamental to the Pilates method.

It is vital to the system!

What if your student is unable to experience this necessary series??!

Enter 50-something loosey-goosey lady with back and knee issues that has not exercised before. She wears heels regularly and is a devoted equestrienne.

Ah, the plot thickens…

The Short Box can be a precarious place for some. There you are, stranded on the box without any support for your back and you've got your feet in 2 unstable straps.

It's no fun to do Pilates when you are apprehensive about what you'll be doing. No one wants to feel badly after their lesson. They want to feel successful and empowered.

The location of the TV exercises – on the Cadillac – is a safe and supportive option.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

  • Firmly plant your feet on the box.
  • Here you can work on lifting the back without feeling you'll fall back into the abyss.
  • A tiny version of the Reach and the Side-to-Side done here will find and strengthen your lift.
  • You'll build confidence as you build skills, eventually progressing to full-on Short Box (on the Reformer).
  • Your lift in the Reach will help you find a Round position that is lifted and not crunchy/bone-gnashing to the back.

The Magic is in the Circle!

Oh yes, now it's magic time…

I include the Magic Circle here as it moves between both worlds: the full Pilates exercises and the pre-Pilates arena. It's wonderful for so many people.

And did I mention it's magic?

In the last several years I have had 2 clear occasions to declare the Magic Circle sheer and utter MAGIC.

Occasion #1: I even gasped out loud

Male client, extremely chatty and distracted. Physically coordinated and capable, but super focus-challenged.

Oh and he really only wanted to do the Mat.

And for a bit he wanted me to kill him in every lesson. For a bit.

Divine Intervention

I believe he was sent to me directly from Jay Grimes as a challenge for me to not talk so much. Whenever I said anything the client would take the ball and run with it and the Pilates exercises would get wild and unfocused.

And so I spent the entire hour willing myself to say nothing. When I did speak inevitably it would lead to a discussion. Not about the exercises…

I used to imagine this client cooped up in an office alone all day long with no one to talk to only to finally come to Pilates and let his light shine!

Uhm, no.

In desperation I turned to the Magic Circle. He liked a challenge and the Mat – and I thought the Circle might help to collect him a bit physically. If he had to focus physically maybe it would help his mental focus…?

OMFG he got so quiet and focused the moment that I gave him the Magic Circle. It was truly miraculous!

His focus honed in like a laser on the Circle as he wrangled his new experience of the Hundred. I was amazed.

Clearly there is magic in that there Circle.

Occasion #2: The Magic Circle is in the System!

The Magic Circle is conducive to the entire Pilates system. Imagine that.

It's not just there to kick your ass, people.

Back to 50-something loosey-goosey lady with back and knee issues that has not exercised before. Remember she wears heels regularly and is a devoted equestrienne.

One of the standing exercises she loves to do is basically Tendon Stretch (from Footwork) done on the 2×4. She says it helps her to ‘post up' on her horse and I love it because it connects her lower body into the center – into her stomach.

'Pre-Pilates' Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Win – Win!

She likes the Magic Circle for a similar reason: she needs strong inner thigh muscles to hold onto her horse.

'Pre-Pilates' Exercises: What are they and who does them?

The magic time came when these 2 exercises combined into a glorious lying down version of full connection to the lower body. Her stomach was shaking.

She could use this feeling with the circle to make the Arm Springs (lying down) a full body exercise and get ease in her upper body.


So keep thinking of skill-building when you are in need of a pre-Pilates exercise. 

Got one that works like a charm?

Share it in a comment below – we'd all love to know about it!

Thank you so much for reading!

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Exercises

The above quote from Joe Pilates appears in The Eighth Avenue “Contrologist” by Evelyn S. Ringold, an article published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1964.

It's one of my favorites.

I have come to understand the myriad benefits of even the very first Pilates exercises. And I always assume Joe is referring to the first 5 Mat exercises (because I love them).

How nice would it be if everyone in the world could feel invigorated and positive? All of us at peace with ourselves and with the world around us.

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises

In my very first Mat class at Excel Pilates in Washington, DC, we learned ‘the basic 5.'

The Basic 5:

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises

  1. The Hundred
  2. The Roll Up
  3. Single Leg Circles
  4. Roll Like a Ball
  5. Spine Stretch

These are wonderfully effective when I've procrastinated my time away for a larger workout until dinner time. It looks like a workout is not going to happen and my gosh, I still need to fucking stretch out.

5 in less than 5

These are my 11th hour go-to exercises. Get a good workout in just a few moments. I usually finish the basic 5 in less than 5 minutes.

And I feel virtuous. You can really dig deep into these exercises and they can be thorough.

From one of my very first Pilates teachers, Kerry DeVivo of Excel Pilates Annapolis:

My first and passionate thought about the basic five is this. It is the template on which most everything in the Pilates method is built.  Each of these exercises serves as a building block to other more complex exercises and concepts. 

And within the “basic” nature of each exercise lies sophisticated concepts upon which advanced knowledge can be applied by the long term Pilates practitioner.

How amazing are these 5 exercises? Let me count the ways:

  1. They make a good goal for new clients to practice at home. These exercises will increase their strength, their memory and retention and they'll soon be on their way to figuring out what exactly you're asking of them in their lessons.
  2. It's a good way to begin working out on your own if that's not something you regularly do. Build your daily or every-other-daily Pilates habit little by little. After a few weeks of just the basic 5, you'll want to add a few extra exercises.
  3. They are extremely difficult to do perfectly. You'll be sweating if you apply yourself.

Use these practice videos to perfect your Basic 5. If the exercises are new to you use the more deliberately paced workout first. Then challenge yourself with the uptempo video.

Deliberate Pace:

Brisk Pace:

Got an extra minute?

If you've got an extra minute you can add 2 more exercises giving yourself a basic 7:

  1. Single Leg Pull

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises

  1. Double Leg Pull

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises

Start with 5 repetitions of these 2 exercises. You can even increase the reps to 8 or 10 to get an extra infusion of strength in your stomach.

Also included in this next video is the 3rd exercise in the order of the Pilates Mat exercises, the Roll Over.

If the Roll Over isn't an exercise you currently do, just leave it out and proceed to the next exercise, Single Leg Circles. If you do it and you've got a moment to spare then by all means have at it!

How many minutes does it take to feel awesome?

Get your Basic 5 on and report back!

Inside the Pilates Studio: Kerry DeVivo

Inside the Pilates Studio: Kerry DeVivo

Kerry DeVivo

Kerry DeVivo is one of my first Pilates teachers. In the fall of 2000, I took a Mat class at Excel Pilates (formerly Excel Movement Studios) in Washington, DC. Kerry was co-owner of the studio (along with Lesa McLaughlin) and was friendly when I would see her in the studio. We bonded immediately because of the whole Italian thing, and I have always been envious of her last name. Mine sounds too much like a verb (Andrea Maida cake, etc…), whereas DeVivo means “To life!”

After a while I started to take semi-private lessons in addition to the weekly Mat class (you can see the addiction was growing…).  Finally I got to have a private lesson with Kerry. I was nervous. I wanted to be really focused and do my best. She did not have many openings in her schedule and I managed to snag one. If I did really well, maybe I'd get another? She could tell I was pretty amped up and wisely suggested that I relax. It turned out to be quite the hour. I had no idea I locked my knees so much…

I learned many valuable lessons from Kerry. I mean besides the body of work known as the Pilates Method. Oh that.

  1. The goal as one advances in Pilates is to sustain the work of the powerhouse from the moment the class begins until the final finish 50 minutes later. It was quite the blow. Cynthia Lochard mentioned this just last week. All roads lead to Romana Kryzanowska.
  2. If you are stressed out and need to focus, do the Wall. In a few minutes you'll be calm. And taller.
  3. It's okay to need counseling after teaching your spouse. In fact it's expected.

I was thrilled to be able to catch up with Kerry this past May when she hosted me for a workshop at her studio. Our relationship has developed over the years and I am so fortunate to have her as a friend, teacher, mentor and colleague. I am positively in love with the swiftness of her replies be it via voicemail, email or text. Really, when we need something, we need it yesterday, am I right?

1. What is your favorite Pilates exercise and why?

Kerry DeVivo: At this point in my life, my favorite Pilates exercise is footwork on the reformer.  I lie back on the reformer, set my feet on the footbar, and as I start the first repetition I think, “YES!  I've arrived on the reformer – lucky me and I have a whole workout ahead of me”.  Part two, as a teacher, my favorite Pilates exercise is rolling like a ball on the mat.  First, this exercise is an icebreaker.  First repetition – roll back – roll up…. not quite.  It catches people's attention.  It makes them realize there's something more to this work.  Second, rolling like a ball is a building block to so many other exercises and you see aspects of many exercises in rolling like a ball.

2. What exercise is your least favorite? Pick only one.

KD: Neck pull.  Well, if after 27 years I still can't do it well – then it gets the “least favorite” award.  Of course, it also means I need it!

3. What turns you on creatively, mentally or physically about the Pilates method?

KD: The severity of Pilates' brilliance of the layering and intertwining of the exercises.  It's all there, Pilates has provided it all.  And I just love how it helps us all “return to life”.

Inside the Pilates Studio: Kerry DeVivo4. What is your idea of earthly happiness?

KD: The ability to experience silence, pure silence.

5. What to your mind would be the greatest misfortune?

KD: The lack of appreciation of any thing or anyone.

6. What is your favorite Pilates word?

KD: Empower.

7. What is your least favorite Pilates word?

KD: Belly.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

KD: I would love to be a full-time philanthropist.

9. If Heaven exists, and by some chance when you arrive at the pearly gates Joseph Pilates is also there, what would you like to hear him say to you?

KD: “Gut gemacht! (which is German for bravo), now would you like a lesson?”- as I would not want to stop learning.

10. What did you learn today?

KD: Simplicity really is best.

Kerry is the owner of Excel Pilates Annapolis. Learn more about Kerry and her Pilates POV in Peter Fiasca's recent book Voices of Classical Pilates.

Must-reading for nerds of all stripes.

Inside the Pilates Studio: Kerry DeVivo

The Bust Redux!

No tiny white shorts necessary…

Just wanted to share a follow-up to my inaugural post NYC For Bust. One of my very first Pilates teachers Kerry DeVivo, owner of Excel Pilates Annapolis was in New York and took her own walk up 8th Avenue to feast her eyes on Joe's famous statue.

I made it her mission to get a photo of Pilates in the buff, shall we say.


The Bust Redux!

DeVivo does not disappoint.

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