Pilates exercises are very effective for improving abdominal strength and helping with low back pain, because the Pilates method focuses on posture and the core muscles. However, some Pilates exercises are only safe to do if you already have a strong core and pain-free back. This post looks at the main safety issues with Pilates exercises and ways you can make the exercises safer.
What is Pilates?
Joseph Pilates developed his method in the 1920s and his followers were mainly elite athletes. He based his method on principles of good movement, posture and control. Over the last 15 years or so, many schools of Pilates have been set up, all with their own interpretation of his work. They all use the original 34 Pilates exercises as a basis, though. Some styles of Pilates use mainly modified exercises which are more suitable for the average exerciser. Other styles are more true to the original Pilates exercises and therefore more suitable for advanced exercisers. If you do Pilates, either on your own or in a class, here are some of the exercises you need to be careful of.
#1 Straight leg curling up exercises (original Pilates exercises the roll up and the neck pull)
Straight leg curl ups are usually avoided in fitness programs. Bending the knees and putting the feet flat on the floor puts the lower back in a much safer position for curl ups. You need very good core control and hamstring flexibility to do straight leg sit ups safely. See this post for a step by step guide to building the strength and flexibility needed for these exercises.
Modification: bend the knees and put the feet flat on the floor to do an ordinary curl up, or see this post for a modified roll up.
#2 Prone exercises with upper body and legs lifted (original Pilates exercises – the swan dive, double leg kick, swimming and rocking)
All these exercises involve lifting the upper and lower body at the same time while in the prone (face down) position. This causes the spine to arch, which can lead to lower back injury. The swan dive and rocking are particularly unsuitable for inexperienced exercisers
Modification: Only lift one half of the body at a time and only lift a few inches off the ground. Lifting your opposite arm and leg at the same time is also safe if you do it carefully.
#3 The leg pull exercises (original Pilates exercises – prone and supine leg pull)
Both of these can put strain on the supporting knee.
Modification: Do plank hold exercises with both feet on the floor. It’s the lifting of the legs that puts pressure on the supporting knee. See What’s the best plank position for a strong core and Elbow plank 5 minute workout for more about the plank exercise.
#4 Exercises which take the legs over the head (original Pilates exercises – roll over, corkscrew, scissors, bicycle, jack knife, boomerang and control balance)
In all of these you need to be careful that you aren’t putting any strain on the neck. They also require good flexibility in the back of the legs and strong core muscles. Unless you are very fit and strong and want to challenge your core strength, flexibility, balance and coordination you should avoid these exercises.
Doing Pilates exercises can be very beneficial to posture, core strength and back health. But it’s important that you only do exercises that you can do safely. Doing exercises that are too advanced is worse than not doing any!
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