How to get the most out of your Pilates Practice: Backbends
by Chris Hocking
Announce in class that we are working up to backbends and a discernible groan is released even in the advanced groups. Good Pilates students also find backbends tough because of the ills of the sedentary life style... but at least they are doing something about it and benefiting from correct practice.
The backbend is hard work and without careful instruction and preparatory conditioning, could be done so badly it becomes detrimental to health. Yet it is an essential ingredient of a balanced workout leading to a balanced physique.
Even though backbends are not always popular, Pilates does not neglect this training whether encouraging beginners or advanced students. The trick is to prepare participants correctly for backbends creating a safe and effective practice. What we need to do is to get rid of the dread. Pilates has a lot to offer.
Without training, people do not usually have the posture, joint movement and placement strength to perform backbends beneficially. The anatomically correct backbend opens the chest, articulates the spine to give extension, stretches key muscle groups and strengthens most of the dorsal muscles of arms, legs and torso. With lack of balanced movement and relative inactivity dominant in the lives of people of Western culture, and with hours spent in the sitting position, the average person experiences very little muscle contraction in backbend and has a body bereft of the therapy of this movement... weak, imbalanced, and vulnerable. Poor posture and the compressed lumbar curve is of great concern here. This is not going to work well for backbends and unless addressed will do more harm than good.
The backbend... it is a BC thing. The ancient world is littered with images... as religious practice, as health and wellbeing practice, as acrobatic entertainment, as part of mindbodyspirit culture. Today it is an essential element of Thai massage, the martial arts, dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, yoga and Pilates. Both East and West have cultivated it. The human body can have an amazing facility for it creating the exquisite shapes of body and religious culture and performance art from around the world. The backbend is also one of the first developmental movements a baby will make as the spine changes in preparation for a lumbar curve and walking. The baby backbend is exquisite with thoracic spine movement undamaged by imperfect posture, heavy bags and stressful encounters.
For us here and now... how do we get going and re-instate a healthy backbend into our lives? As a Pilates teacher, I'll inevitably understand the starting point to be posture. Correcting the shoulder girdle is key to preparing for backbends. Poor alignment in this area creates weak triceps, tight pectorals, a forward head, weak muscles of scapular stability, stiffness in the thoracic curve of the spine with its concurrent reaction in the lumbar curve and consequences for muscle tone of abs, buttocks, ham-strings, hip flexors and para-vertebrals.
Exercises will be needed to re-set the shoulder blades, loosen, mobilize and lengthen the thoracic curve, condition and strengthen the buttocks, ham-strings, para-vertebrals and deep abs and condition, release tension and bring flexibility to hip flexors and pectorals to release the lumbar curve from compression. Muscles tight with excessive use due to poor posture and muscles flacid with under use all need to be re-conditioned and only then can joints move freely to create a backbend.
In our classes, Pilates Body Awareness, we use chest stretch material both active and passive, breathing techniques, twists to loosen the spine generally, scapular retraction stretches, the prone section for core and buttock strength, quad and hip flexor stretches, the cat stretch, constant postural awareness of shoulder-girdle and head alignment, exercises to stimulate energy levels and metabolism and shoulder-bridges both straight line and chest lift.
In a supposed class with inappropriately hard backbend material, the mislead but enthusiastic student still wishes to join in, the brain fires up to achieve ....but the body will not and cannot co-operate due to stiffness and weakness. The student experiences fatigue and possibly pain as the lumbar curve of the spine becomes dangerously compressed. Backbends should be hard work and can act as mood enhancers but only when the body is ready. Without these postural preparations, students become confused, despondent, demoralized, sore... and possible injured.
The Pilates technique is scientific in its approach to muscle imbalance and faulty technique... de-constructing, analyzing and re-constructing. It might take a while as the body does not re-condition over night but the work is thorough, progressive and encouraging. Little by little students enter the realm of full backbends with resources of strength and mobility all present and correct for the job at hand. For me this a better and more rewarding way to teach essential training. It might take longer but injuries will be avoided and a good outcome likely... intelligent step by step conditioning... the Pilates way.