How I beat Back Pain with Pilates: Week 8

Lessons learnt so far..

Collage of several of Gray's muscle pictures, ...

I’m about half-way through my back rehabilitation journey and I wanted to share what I’ve found to be useful lessons for decreasing my back pain..

  • Habits – learn how you form them and learn how to break them. This takes awareness. Pay attention to your daily postural habits and learn to break them, making new postural habits that benefit your body. There’s a super-high probability that your back pain has resulted from poor postural habits, all happening unconsciously. Make the effort to spot these habits.
  • Muscular Awareness – You can’t activate a muscle if you have no bodily awareness of it. If you can’t engage a muscle needed to improve posture, you definitely can’t work on reducing your back pain efficiently.
    Go to the foundation of the problem (probably a muscular weakness).
    Otherwise just stick to your meds.
    I was offered a whole cocktail of pharmaceutical crap from my country’s health service as part of their protocol for treating back pain. I wasn’t satisfied with pain relief. I wanted pain to cease. This starts with learning how to activate key muscle groups in isolation, and then in unison with other necessary muscle groups.
    How do you gain awareness of a muscle group?” I hear you ask. One way is to use isolation exercises to engage the muscle – E.g. For the bicep, curling a light weight will show you how to activate it. A heavier weight will add soreness to the muscle the next day, and you’ll know how and where to engage when it hurts!
    But the best way I found was to study an anatomical picture and then just really concentrate on isometrically contracting the chosen muscle group in isolation from other muscles – I learn primarily visually, so pictures and visualisation helped me. This takes time to master, and even longer to coordinate with other muscular contractions, but it is very valuable. For example, I have been playing around with chin/pull-ups on a bar to understand more about engaging my latissimus dorsi muscles. After a couple of weeks (with mild-soreness!) I could apply my ‘lat-connection’ in unison with other muscles groups for Pilates exercises, making each movement more effective and perfected.
  • STRETCH – Probably the most valuable asset in reducing my back pain has been stretching, specifically PNF stretching, minimum twice a week, full body. Stretching really helps you to gain awareness of muscle groups, too, as to really stretch a muscle, you have to learn how to turn it ‘off’ and let it relax. Do the opposite and you have an isometric contraction. If there’s one thing I could recommend over anything else, it’s stretching.
  • Practice – I hate this word because if you practice something wrong, you get good at doing it incorrectly. So practice precisely. And in order to do that well, you must learn how to learn. We all learn in different ways. I strongly encourage you to become familiar with how you learn a skill. For me, it was via juggling that I really began to understand how my brain learnt a new skill. Now I translate that learning process into every thing I want to pick up , and it works, Pilates included. Once you know how to learn, you will be able to practice precisely your Pilates movements and isometric contractions, watching your progress rocket and pain plummet.
    I made a committed to decision to beat back pain which requires me to practice solo, at least 5 times in a week.
  • Big Picture – Pilates works because it looks at the big picture – the whole body. Countless times in class, Amy’s helped me trace my back pain to originating with a weakness somewhere else in the body. The clues surface in any of the Pilates movements when they are not performed correctly. Think of each movement as a sieve, filtering the strengths and showing up the weaknesses. For example, thanks to an old, uncorrected right-shoulder injury years ago, I developed the habit of dropping the shoulder in everything I do. Dropped right shoulder causes extra stress on left hip, resulting in back pain. Increase the strength and stability of the right shoulder and suddenly stress on the left hip is reduced. As is back pain. Don’t always think the solution is to fix the problem area directly. Very often the solution for reducing back pain will be found in stabilising and strengthening other areas of the body, too.

Homework Repertoire

  • 1 set X 3 reps One Legged Teasers
  • 3 sets Teasers –  1st set   Teaser 1
    2nd set Teaser 3
    3rd set Teaser 3 (arm circles and shaving the head like in class)
    It’s difficult but the shaving the head practice should pay off in class.
  •  Isometric contractions on my right leg to mimic stepping up on the Chair. 3 sets of 10 seconds, 30 seconds rest between sets. Making sure to keep my hips from swinging out. Really fires up in my glute and hamstrings.
  •  Shoulders – strengthening my right teres minor, with 2 sets of 10 reps of one exercise, with about 4kg weight or less.
  • Standing, pressing arms against the wall:
    1 set palms facing out
    1 set palms facing in
    Hold for 12 breaths/1 minute.
  •  Standing, using pole, 5 reps raising arms above head and down, trying not to let the ribcage raise.


Successful results

  • Teasers on the box – actually got shaving the head, about 2 reps! I was happy, although the form was far from elegant. The main thing is that I increased the C-curve in my abs/back, and paid special attention to wrapping the lats around and down to connect with the upper rectus abdominals. That way, shaving the head worked! If you sit upright too much, you have nothing!
  • The Chair – actually got good step-ups on both legs! Right leg especially! The isometrics for the week worked a TREAT.
  •  I now have even more range of movement on the short-spine massage on the reformer. That’s thanks to the loosening up of my lower back and sacrum.

 Needs more work

  • The side-splits exercise on the Chair –  still impossible! Inner-thigh connection needs to be stronger, so I might have to try some inner-thigh isometrics until next time..
  •  Upper-torso twisting – tightness, both directions in my inner-left shoulder blade.
  •  Amy emphasized to focus on the upper rectus abdominal connection – what you use to hold your ribcage tight. The lats wrap around your sides, and connect with these muscles at the front. Engaging them in unison holds the ribcage still. But man, is it difficult to hold it on! You also use that section of your abs to lift your neck/upper-torso up in a roll-up movement/neck-curl.

The pieces are gradually coming together!

Friday’s mat class

  •  Leg series needs work still. ITB is still tight in both legs.
  •  Shoulder-bridge then raising one leg was super hardcore on my erector spinae muscles. Might sneak that one into the homework because it’s hardcore.
  •  Did some cool wall stretches for opening up the upper-back and shoulders. Basically doing ‘downward dog’ into a wall. Felt really tight in the posterior parts of both shoulders. Going to do that stretch in homework, too.
  •  No videos this week, as was lazy and didn’t charge the camera!

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