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The Perfect Pilates Approach for your Back

by Ann Crowther(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 219 - January 2015

How many hours do you spend each day sitting at your desk in front of a computer screen?

The next time you are out, observe the general public and see how many ‘forward heads’ you can spot! Yes, ‘forward head’ - the 21st century posture phenomena - when your head literally juts forward as a result of repetitively peering at a computer, causing pain and strain in your back, shoulders and the top of your spine.

So what can you do to prevent this phenomena?  You need to get a grip on ‘core stability’...yes, the buzz word that everyone uses today - but what does it actually mean and what does it do for your health and wellbeing?

The Perfect Pilates for your back

It is the deep abdominal muscles that are crucial to ‘core stability’ and Pilates technique. As well as controlling posture, they are the major stabilizers of the back. Perhaps the most important abdominal muscle of all is the transversus abdominus, a sheath of muscle that surrounds the internal organs. The deep abdominals should not be confused with the superficial abdominals, such as the rectus abdominus and the ‘external obliques’, which control the rotation and flexibility of the torso. It is not possible for your superficial muscles to take over the work of the deep muscles because they cannot control posture, nor contract, for long periods of time.

The neck and shoulders are the main areas in your body where you store muscular tension. Tightness here can lead to headaches, pain, a stiff neck and a restricted ability to move your head. To guard against such problems we have to teach the neck and shoulder muscles to relax. If, over the years, you have fallen into the bad habit of slouching in chairs, your deep muscles have probably become deprogrammed, so that you may find maintaining a correct, upright posture difficult and requiring great effort. So how then do your reprogram these muscles and regain good posture?

Try these exercises, stretches and mobilizers to ease tension, especially after sitting at a computer or driving for long periods - they will help relieve stress and leave you more relaxed. Remember to be gentle, if you do them too vigorously this will be counterproductive and could cause more pain.

Posterior Neck Stretch

Stand upright, with feet hip distance apart. Interlink your fingers and place your hands on the back of your head. Inhale. As you exhale, apply gentle pressure to your head, pushing your chin toward your chest. Your shoulders should remain relaxed. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds.

Lateral Neck Stretch

This is an excellent stretch for the upper trapezius muscles – it prevents the tightness that can lead to neck pain or headaches.

Stand upright with your feet hip distance apart, raise your right arm and position your right hand over your head to touch your left ear. Keep your left arm by your side. Inhale and hold your shoulders level. Exhale and slowly pull the left side of your head toward your left shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds. (To increase the stretch, reach down toward the floor with your left arm.) You’ll feel the stretch in the side of your neck and top of your shoulders. Repeat the sequence on the other side.

Shoulder Mobilizer

Sitting with your back straight, place your fingertips at the base of your neck and shoulders, with your elbows out to the sides at shoulder height. Slowly rotate your elbows forward eight times, and then backward eight times. Repeat the sequence three times.

Shoulder Blade Release

Sitting in a chair with your back straight, inhale and relax your shoulders. Exhale and slowly push your chin down toward your chest, making a double chin. Keeping your chin down, stretch the back of your neck, imagining that your ears are being pulled up on strings. Keep your chin down. Repeat six times. (You can do this exercise while driving, drop your chin toward your chest, and try to push your head back against the headrest to support your neck muscles.)

Full Back Stretch

Sit on a chair with your back straight, feet flat on the floor slightly apart. Stretch your arms out in front of you, at shoulder height, and place your left hand over your right hand. Now raise your arms until your hands are level with your ears. Exhale and lengthen your left arm more than the right. Hold the position for eight seconds. Repeat the stretch with your right arm lengthened.

Chest Stretch

Sitting with your hands behind your back, interlink your fingers. Keeping your back and arms straight, exhale and push your hands away from you, raising them up behind you as high as possible. Imagine there are strings on your ears pulling them up toward the ceiling. Hold for eight seconds. Repeat once more.

Perform these stretches and exercises whilst sitting at your desk every day, or whenever you feel tension, and all the strains, aches and pains will be a thing of the past.

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About Ann Crowther

Ann Crowther trained in Pilates in California, and later in Exercise and Health Studies at the University of East London, followed by specialist training in Kinesiology, Nutrition and Stress Management, Ann draws on over 20 years of experience as a fitness trainer and has won extensive praise for the development of her own highly successful Pilates system. She is the author of Pilates for You, Duncan Baird Publishers, and several fitness DVD/book sets. She may be contacted via pilatesplusann@hotmail.com ; www.anncrowtherlifestyle.com.

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