3 Pilates Exercises That'll Help You Do a Back Bend

Back Bends You Can Do
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When you see inspirational images of lithe bendy bodies turned inside out in jaw-dropping back bends, you might think, “Wow! I could never do that.” If you’re dropping in to an all levels yoga class or an old school gymnastics class, you’re probably right. But if you’ve got back bends on the brain, Pilates just may be your best place to start.

Back Bend Benefits

Your spine is capable of movement in various planes. Forward bending or flexion is the way you move when you fold over to tie your shoes or pick something up off the floor. Back bending or extension is just the opposite and involves backward arcing of the spine as you might do in a backward dive or a back bend. Your spine also bends side to side and rotates but out of all of these movements extension has the most profound benefit to the average human.

As upright bipedal creatures, we fight gravity every single day. The weight of the world is literally pressing our shoulders forward, rounding our upper backs, compressing our spines and pressuring our heads and necks forward in space. Gravity is the enemy of good posture. Without any means to counter gravity, we are bound to continually shrink forward into permanently stooped posture.

Moving your spine into extension allows your internal organs to decompress, your joint spaces to open and your lungs to fully expand. That means you allow for increased flow of oxygen, blood, lymph and synovial fluid.

The simple act of standing up straight and opposing gravity offsets a host of physical maladies. You'll not only stand taller, but you'll breathe better and function more easily. With all these solid arguments for back-bending, it makes sense to build a program that gradually propels you towards this important spinal extension move.

Exercises to Help Build a Back Bend

Before deciding back bends are not for you, understand that back bends begin with some very simple moves that most normal bodies can manage. Working your way up to a back bend is a terrific goal but that doesn't have to be the only goal. Work yourself slowly into these beginning moves and over time you will develop a stronger and more flexible spine that will serve your body well.

You wont need more than a floor and a wall. A carpeted floor is sufficient. If you prefer an exercise mat, pull one out and begin with the first exercise.

Pelvic Curl

Ben Goldstein

To do a pelvic curl, lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Place the feet hip width apart reach your arms long by your sides. Gradually raise your hips towards the sky. Be certain to keep the feet directly under the knees. Open your chest and press your arms into the floor under you feel the upper back muscles working towards the center of your back. Take 3 to 5 deep breaths and then roll down one vertebra at a time. Repeat 5 to 8 times.

It may take months to feel comfortable with this exercise or it may feel great the first time you try. Allow your body to advance at a comfortable pace. Repeat the move daily until you can perform it with ease.

Shoulder Bridge

To do a shoulder bridge, you'll build on your pelvic lift. Lay on your mat and begin the same way with knees bend and feet flat and hip width apart. Press the hips up and bend your arms to place your hands under your low back supporting your hips from below.

Some of your weight will now be on your elbows so position your upper arms well underneath you at the level where the back of your pelvis ends and your low back begins. Hold this position for 3 to 5 breaths. Release your arms, lower the spine one vertebrae at a time and repeat the exercise twice more for a total of 3 repetitions.

Need a modification? Release your arms at any point in the move and continue. Over time keep experimenting with the arms to see if you've gained enough strength and mobility.

If you can achieve this comfortably progress the exercise by extending one leg up towards the sky. Try to keep your hips level. Keep the standing leg strong and continue to propel the hips upward. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths and switch legs. Repeat on the other side. Work your way up to 3 sets.

Wall Back Bend

Begin standing one foot length away from a wall with your legs hip width apart. Inhale deeply and reach your arms up to the ceiling. Look up to your hands without crunching the back of your neck. Gradually reach up and back until you can see the wall behind you.

If you can see the wall, try to touch the wall. Carefully return upright and round over your legs reaching towards the floor. Roll up the spine, stand tall and begin again. Repeat 3 times increasing the range of motion each time.

What's the next level? Walk a bit further away from the wall as you progress aiming your flat palms to the wall and eventually walking down the wall towards a back bend. Be cautious to add small increases over weeks and months rather than rushing into a painful position and risking injury.

Track Your Progress

Keep a log of how many days per week you regularly perform these moves. To track your back bend progress, use your wall. Make a line where your feet are on the floor and where your hands land on the wall the very first day. After one week of regular practice, check again. The farther you can get away from the wall and still reach the wall, the more range of motion your spine is gaining.

By Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS
Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS, holds a Pilates certification through the Pilates Method Alliance and a master's degree in clinical nutrition.