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.

And welcome new subscribers!

It's lovely to have you and please let me know if you have questions or concerns which you'd like to see addressed in a future post.

A special thanks to the lovely readers in Chicago, Montana, London and the Philippines for your thoughtful comments.

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.

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  1. Thanks so much for this post.:) I never thought of the relationship between ribs/seat. Great tip I will be using this. Looking forward to more posts.

    • Thank YOU Jodie for the inspiration. Over a couple more posts I will go into more detail with apparatus and exercises to target both parts of the 2-way stretch – the ribs – oh so elusive – and the seat – perhaps even more so LOL. As you start thinking about these components in your mind, your body will get better and better at locating and getting all these things together. Thanks again for reading!

  2. Hi Andrea, thanks for a great informative video, I too have a very sway back (lordosis) I’m a teacher (contempory) don’t throw eggs at me!!! 🙂 BUT after 14 years of teaching, I’m heading in the classical direction as I’m finding it is suiting me better!

    So, my question! The teaser!!! Really really difficult for me to do on the mat, I pop onto my sitz bones, I can do the teaser on the cadi and the reformer, but really struggle on the mat! I find it incredibly hard to get sufficient lumbar flexion needed! any tips? thank you!

    I love your style of teaching and how you get the method across, and I look forward to receiving your emails, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop when it arrives!
    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Suzy!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. No worries – all movement is good and LOL I don’t throw eggs. Thank you so much for your kind words on the blog – I am so happy you find it helpful and that you are enjoying the posts and videos.

      Your question is timely given our topic on length in the low back. So it’s the same seat story I think for your Teaser. I am betting the Spine Corrector could help you to find more seat, more stomach and more opening in the low back all at the same time. But you may try just arriving in your teaser – popped up on the sit bones if that happens and just pull your stomach in and try to roll back to a more precarious position – think Rolling Like a Ball or Open Leg Rocker – your stomach and seat will wake up and try to save you! If you crash and burn and fall to the mat, no biggie. You may just discover the muscles and the spot that will make them work in the process.

      Another thought I have is that when you are essentially balancing on your butt to do the Teaser (which I did for YEARS) find your inner struggle of the 2-way stretch: pull the stomach in fiercely and reach your limbs all far away in opposition.

      Give it a try and hey maybe this is a perfect topic for a short video tutorial… thanks for the inspiration and stay tuned – this is a great topic 🙂
      Again thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here!

  3. ANgel davis says

    The struggle is so real sweet Andrea! I appreciate your post this week. It’s like you are shaking your finger at me saying lengthen damn you. I am guilty of leveraging without awareness into my back causing pain later and always need the seat to help me hold myself on my feet and hips. Thanks for the great video of supporting exercises for this goal. You are the best!????

    • LOL I know. The struggle is real!!! So nice to hear from you 🙂 I am shaking my finger at my own back to lengthen as well ha ha. I hope you are well and look forward to seeing you soon. xox

  4. Amazing post as usual Andrea!

    I’ve really been doing a lot of Pilates exercise lately and your blog gives me everything. And as you said Rome was not built in a day – so i’ll continue persevering and achieve a healthy body, and i’ll definitely try this one out.
    It’s like you feel what kind of exercise my body needs 😀

    Best regards,

    • Ooh I love the sound of that. I am working on finding the length in my back right now too. I know we all work on this in our study of the Pilates method…and little by little we can share our successes 🙂 Thank you so so much for all the praise you have given to the blog – and I will keep sharing what is on my Pilates mind – it seems we are all more alike in our pursuit of the method than we realize. Cheers to you and thanks for reading and chatting here! xo

  5. Alessandra says

    This is another really useful, interesting post! And we get another workout to do with you (so to speak !). I was feeling a bit achey in my upper back yesterday so practised this and no surprises, it really helped! That’ll be because my whole spine is #connected, I thought!! ???? D’uh!! Really lovely on lighter springs too.. especially love, love, loved the leg spring moves! ❤️❤️❤️ Delicious but challenging !! felt more #connected overall. One question I would like to ask is that I only have a wunda chair (No electric or armchair versions!) ????Any thoughts for how this could be used for opening the lower back?
    I always think of Mr Wunda as a rather strong piece of apparatus, although useful for #gettingmy2waystretchon ????????????????????????
    Thanks again for sharing !
    #rockon Andrea #pilatesgeeksunite

    • Hi Alessandra 🙂
      So glad you enjoyed the workout and that your back felt good. Yes, you can use the Wunda Chair in a way that approximates the High Chair. Use the Short Box from the Reformer and place the Wunda against a wall. Use the Short Box as the “back” of the High Chair. Put the Wunda on a heavy spring setting – try 2 top springs and adjust if that just feels too oppressive. See what you think. It is not exactly the same feeling as the High Chair but you will get the idea for sure. The leg springs with the lighter spring can be wonderful for the center – so glad you liked! Thanks so much for reading and watching! xo

      • Alessandra says

        Brilliant! I’m off to try it now!! ????❤️
        Thanks xoxo

        • Alessandra says

          Brilliant! It worked! Thanks for your help! Here I am with my newly lengthened low back????
          For many years I noticed that the first few exercises on the reformer aka footwork, 100, frogs and circles have always helped release my annoyingly tight back (how can it be tight, I often wonder, when I do so much Pilates ????) but never really understood why… And now you’ve explained it perfectly- because these exercises lengthen the low back!!
          Of course!! It’s that #2waystretch thing again!
          Looking forward to your next exciting post!!
          #rockon Andrea xoxo

          • I love your discovery about the length in the back we get from Footwork, 100, frogs + circles! Fantastic!!! I could not have said it better myself 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the workout and I am excited to have you on this journey with me as we explore length in the low back over a few more posts… and thank you again for your support, emojis and kind words on the blog…I. Shall. Rock. On. And hey, hopefully next year I will get to the UK! xo

  6. Alessandra says

    Thanks for your support and kind words! I’m finding that Pilates is a never ending journey of discovery about both The Method and my own body…great to have friends on that same path ????♥️♥️ Together with your informative posts which provide us with food for thought!! #pilatesgeeksunite ????

    As always #rockon Andrea????????

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