The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back

The Pilates System: Strategies for a Tight Low Back

Thank you to Jodie for your comment that inspired this post.

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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.

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

Reputedly, Joe Pilates was an evangelist of his method.

As an avid practitioner (nerd) of the Pilates Method we cannot help sharing our passion for the work we do. Oh if only our loved ones could embrace the method and reap its benefits as we do…

Recently over the Christmas holiday, we celebrated in Texas with Joe's family.

Joe's father Bill turned 82 on December 23rd.

Bill, at 6ft tall, has a sturdy and solid physique. He's no push-over and I'm often surprised by his firm pat on the back. It nearly knocks me over.


Bill has been having some balance issues when he stands up after sitting for a while. He would take a few careening steps to steady himself upon rising. He knows when I visit I regularly do my Mat exercises and this year he had a question for me.

“Are there any exercises that would help to improve my balance?”

Imagine my surprise at such a loaded question. He has no idea that I've got over 500 exercises for just that.


I could spare a few for him.

The Pilates Home Practice Project

We would be visiting for about 7 days. I told him we would do 5 Mat exercises plus 2 extra standing ones.

I decided we would start with just 1 exercise and then add an additional one each day. This would help him remember the exercises and also build stamina slowly, a little bit each day, because he hadn't done a physical workout in a couple decades.

In 5 days he'd have 5 exercises plus 2 extra exercises I planned to sneak in on the last days of our visit.

Okay, to get started he would need a mat to use.

Amazon Prime took care of that and the next day I had a mat to use for my workout as well.

Now how did he feel about getting on the floor?

“Not a problem,” he assured me.

Case History

Bill Knight, my father-in-law, is a man of action. We marvel at the speed with which he can send us a package via US Mail. We joke that while on the phone telling us he's sent a package, the doorbell rings and there it is.

We decided his name deserved the honor of being made into a verb.

“Could you Bill Knight that to me please?” Meaning you need it in a hurry.

He was Superintendent of Schools in Mineola, TX for 23 years.

The youngest of 7 of a family of tenant farmers (think Steinbeck), upon his retirement Bill created numerous projects for himself including self-publishing a book about his 3 older brothers that were war heroes. Read more about his book, My Brother Jack here.

So I'm pretty sure the 5 Pilates Mat exercises will not take him down.

He tells me he's had no injuries or issues, he's just stiff. Okay, that sounds great.

And amazing.

Getting onto the floor is not a problem, he says, although it may take him a while. Fine too.

I can see that his low back is tight and he has a bit of a belly.

I want to keep my instructions clear and simple: it's his first time with these exercises and he needs to remember what to do. I promise to write down instructions for what we do.

The plan in action

1. The “Wake up your Muscles” Exercise

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

I chose just 1 pre-Pilates exercise for Bill.

Well, it's kind of a 2-in-1 exercise.

In the photo above is part 1. Scroll down for a video excerpt of part 2.

It's a wonderful first exercise for those that have not worked out in a while. I never did hear a name for this exercise, uhm, bridges and curls?

Regardless, it's a great one to wake up your muscles and find out what they can do.

I love it because it is simple and it really pinpoints what muscles we will cultivate and use in all the Pilates exercises. Especially in a program that does not include work on the apparatus (yet?), these 2 skills are illuminating for the student because they can feel the muscles they should be using.

For the teacher, it is a great assessment tool. You can see the body, the back as it is moving and all kinds of stuff will show up in just a few moments. And it's safe and simple.

For the record, this post will include photos of me doing the exercises I chose for Bill.

It is my fervent hope to include photos of Bill doing the exercises as this project continues. However, I didn't want to get all up in his grill on day 1 of Pilates to feed the blog.

I hope you'll understand.

Here's part 2, the curl into the upper stomach from Pilatesology.

2. Bill's first Hundred

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

I noticed after watching Bill do the previous exercise that to curl up into the upper stomach was a challenge. As I taught him the Hundred I discovered that keeping his head up did not cause strain in his neck. He said it hurt his stomach and was tiring, but his neck was fine.

For now, he will do the upper body portion of the exercise, but his lower body will remain the same: knees bent and feet on the floor. This will also keep things simple at first.

Note: On the first day I used a pillow between the knees to keep his lower body supported. I made only one correction so far after 2 exercises. His right side is stronger and as he lifted up his hips he would really lean over to the right side and barely be on the left at all. So I decided to tell him. 

The next day he didn't need the pillow anymore and he worked much more symmetrically. 

He also told me he has grit.


3. The One Leg Circle

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

For the One Leg Circle I decided to keep my theme of the ‘base position' as I will call it. The position stays the same just with one leg up to the ceiling. He is catching on already.

“When I move my leg I want to keep this still (points to the trunk of his body). Right?

Yes. He also remembered the 1st two exercises we did on the previous days.

Should I order the Pilates Nerd T-shirt now?

4. Single Leg Pull

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

We did this one in 2 steps: (1) I had him just do the lower body part. Pull one leg in with the proper hand position and then put it down. Then the other leg. Head down and whatever happened happened. It was not perfect, but he was moving safely and today, sweating.

So far, Bill has been wearing jeans and a button down shirt for his exercises.

The next day he put on a T-shirt to workout. And (2) he did the Single Leg Pull with his head up and his stomach in.

Extra exercise: standing up without using your hands

On Day 4 I added one of the extra exercises I chose for him. It is simply getting up out of a chair without the use of your hands. This is a crucial skill as we age. I started him in a firm chair that sits rather high up.

It's helpful to feel like you push the floor away when standing. That way you'll use the stomach, seat and legs to get you up.

This is vital lower body strength we must cultivate at every age.

To be honest, this exercise I knew he could do easily.

And he did. I believe it's his intention to learn his exercises and then to help his wife to do them too.

This exercise is really for her.

Meanwhile, he can work on standing up without his hands from a lower more challenging chair.

5. Double Leg Pull

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

On day 5 I introduced what I suspected would be the most challenging of the exercises: Double Leg Pull.

You know how I feel about this exercise. It's my mantra!

We did 3. Slowly…

Although he got himself into the most lovely starting position, this exercise was hard for him.

He was really curled up into a ball. We did about 3, and the work of this exercise was exhausting. He fell out after being curled up. I told him to be judicious and only do as many as he could. 1 was great. If you can eventually work up to 3, that's perfect. When 3 feels easy, then do 5.

I preached frequency, not duration.

Extra exercise: The Wall

The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82The Pilates Home Practice Project: Bill, 82

I wanted to include the Wall into his routine as it is the perfect exercise for a home practice. Everyone has a wall they can use to finish their workout.

I included 3 exercises at the wall: Circles, Roll Down and Squats (Skiing).

He knew right away they were for his posture.

Stay tuned for more on Bill's Pilates Home Project. 

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