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This exercise is a classic Pilates exercise. The focus is on using the core muscles to slowly articulate the vertebrae. The back should look round like the letter C throughout the entire exercise. The more you tuck the tailbone under and draw in the lower abs, the more work you will get out of the exercise.
Start sitting up tall on a mat. Feel the crown of the head reach up toward the ceiling and the spine lengthen. Take an exhale as you tuck the tailbone under and slowly roll your back down to the mat one vertebrae at a time. If you are properly rounding your back, the lower back will be the first thing to touch the mat. Inhale as you lay the head and shoulders all the way back, arms to the ceiling, keeping the abdominals engaged. As you exhale, drop the chin toward your chest, draw the abdominals in, and slowly roll back up to a seated position, one vertebrae at a time. (Remember to maintain that “C” curl on the way up.) The legs should stay down, firmly pressing into the mat. It should look smooth and precise. Try not to jerk your body forward in order to make it back up. If it does, you either have weak abs or tight hip-flexors. In that case, you could try the same exercise with bent knees and see if it makes it a little easier.
This is another Pilates exercise, although it’s a greatly modified version. For those of you that can master this one, we’ll reward you with the full version in the future (it will take months of practice to build the strength needed for the full variation). This is not an easy exercise to execute properly. It’s easy to use jerky movements to force your way to the top, however it’s extremely difficult to do with the fluidity, control and precision needed to build the core muscles.
Start sitting up with the knees bent hip-distance apart. Reach the left leg forward so the thighs and knees are about parallel. Sit up tall, feeling the spine lengthen and the shoulders drop down away from the ears. As you exhale, curl the tailbone underneath you and slowly round the back down onto the mat one vertebrae at a time. From the side your lower back should look like the letter C. If the back was properly rounded, your lower back will be the first thing to touch the mat on the way down. Keep your abdominals engaged as you lay the head and shoulders all the way back, taking a full inhale. As you exhale, re-curl the spine back into the letter C and try to slowly, one vertebrae at a time peel your back off the mat (no jerking or using momentum!). Try to keep the shoulders relaxed away from the ears and the abdominal muscles hallowed out. It should take a minimum of five seconds to roll either up or down. The slower you go, the more muscle you will use. See if you can complete 8 reps on each side without losing good form.
Pro tip: A common problem with abdominal work is that we often focus too much on making the stomach feel “hard,” rather than “scooped out.” If you don’t want bulging, protruding abdominal muscles, make sure not to let the stomach balloon out while you’re working.
This is a great “on the go” stretch. You can almost always find a bench, cable box or other structure to help you get into the stretch. The rotation in the torso gives you more bang for your buck because you get a spine stretch and a hamstring stretch. Two birds with one stone! This is also a great post-running or biking stretch since it can be done outdoors and doesn’t require any special equipment.
Stand facing the bench (wall, trashcan, or whatever you can find), and put one foot up. Make sure that your hips are squared to the front, and your toes point straight up to the sky. Stretching is 10 times more effective when it is done in proper alignment- take the 2 extra seconds to make sure you’re lined up correctly. Place your opposite hand on the outside of the thigh and turn your chest as you reach back through the opposite arm. Try to stay tall as you rotate so that you’re maintaining length in the spine- it will give you that much more of a stretch. The trick is to not let the hips rotate as you rotate your spine. If you’re right leg is extended forward, think of pulling back through the right hip in order to keep them square.
**Pro tip: make sure that whatever you put your foot on is below hip height, especially if you have tight hamstrings. Anything hip-height or above will make it impossible to keep the hips in alignment and could over-stretch the hamstring.
This stretch builds directly off of last week’s stretch. You start in the exact same position with all of the applicable rules of alignment. From there, reach the left hand up to the sky and get as long as possible. Keep the length in the body as you twist and reach around for the right foot with the left hand. Keep leaning the hips forward as you turn the chest even more to the left. Carefully pull the right heel in toward your bottom to create greater stretch in the quads.
If this is too intense, stick with last week’s exercise for the hip flexor. If you’re that tight, chances are last week’s stretch is enough to get both the psoas and quads.
**Pro tip: if you’re über flexible, try dropping the right elbow down to the ground on the inside of the left knee. It’s guaranteed to be the deepest quad stretch you’ve ever tried!
This is a classic hip-flexor stretch that’s good for almost anyone. That being said, I watch people do this stretch all the time at the gym and it is rarely executed properly. Just like anything else in life, if you want good results you have to put in the intention and effort to make it so. Notice how the knee doesn’t come forward of the ankle? That’s the first key to performing this stretch properly, and the most common misalignment I see when people do it. Letting the knee come forward of the ankle past 90 degrees puts a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress on the knee joint.
To stretch your right hip flexor (anatomically known as the psoas), step your left foot forward so you’re in a low lunge. Remember that knee alignment! Slightly tuck the tailbone under and lift the pubic bone to lengthen the lower back and maintain neutral pelvis. This will prevent stress or strain to the lower back. Gently place the hands on the knee and stretch up through the chest making the front side of the body feel long and open. Take some deep breaths and try and relax into the stretch. You should feel it deep in the front of the right hip.
** Pro tip: to increase the stretch, isometrically pull the left heel back and the right knee forward as you continue to tuck the tailbone and stretch up through the chest. (Isometric means that nothing actually moves, it’s a static action.)
For all intents and purposes, this is a glute and piriformis stretch, which opens up the hip rotators. However, it is also a yoga stretch known as “double pigeon.” Stand how you normally stand and look down at your feet. Are your toes rotated out to the sides? If so, this is the stretch for you! It’s a chicken and egg scenario, but having tight hip rotators is correlated with turned out feet. Both can contribute to a narrowing of the sacro-illiac joint, which can cause back pain, sciatica, and all kinds of other problems. The hip rotators can also become tight with running, ballet, cutting movements, and really anything if you’re not keeping proper foot/ankle/hip alignment, or if you supinate your feet.
Most of us will not look like this when we do this stretch. This guy has pretty flexible hips, which is seen by how well he can rest his knees on his feet. For most of us there will be a significant gap between where the feet rest, and how close we can get the knees.
Sit on the ground and bring your right shin perpendicular to your body. It’s a slightly more extreme angle than when you sit with your legs crossed. Once you have that, try to bring your opposite shin to stack directly on top. This is tough! You want the knees and feet directly stacked. Make sure to flex the feet in order to protect your knees. Try to sink the left knee down toward the right foot as much as possible. Chances are you’re feeling it quite a bit at this point. If this is the case, stay here and take 20 deep breaths. If you feel like you can go further, round your spine and lean forward over your legs. When you’ve completed 20 breaths, switch to the other side.
Now that we have properly stretched, strengthened and aligned the shoulders, we’re ready to go for the gusto…thorassic extension! This is one of the best exercises because it extends the area precisely where we like to slump over. (Think of it as the anti-hunch-back exercise.)
Lay on your stomach with the foam roller out in front of you. Line it up so that your arms are straight and the forearms are resting on the roller just under the elbow. Begin by pulling the shoulders down the back. It should feel like you’re keeping your arms straight, but pulling the arm bones closer into the shoulders. Press the pubic bone into the mat to feel the lower back lengthen- it will protect your back from injury. Inhale to start extending from the crown of the head until you feel your chest lift off of the mat. Remember: it’s an extension, not an arch! Concentrate on feeling longer, rather than arching your back to gain height. Gently pull the ribs into the body to prevent the back from arching. The pelvis and legs should stay firmly pressed into the mat. As you exhale, keep the ribs pulled into the spine as you slowly return back to the start position. You shouldn’t feel this exercise in your lower back. If you do, try not to come up as high and pull the ribs in even deeper toward the spine. This should help to eliminate the probable arch in the back that is causing pain. You should feel it in the mid-back area below your shoulder blades and behind your ribs.
This looks like a pretty simple exercise, but is surprisingly hard to execute properly. It works the transverse- better known as the low abs, the obliques, and the pelvic floor, all of which are crucial to a healthy back. (As an esthetic aside- it also targets that hard to tone lower abdominal area!)
Start in a seated position with the knees bent, legs hip-distance apart. Sit up as tall as you can and take and inhale. As you exhale, round your lower back so it looks like the letter C and roll your spine half way back. Stay there and hold it for and inhale, trying to pull the abdominal wall even closer the spine. As you exhale use the lower abdominals to maintain the C curl as you come back up. Complete 15 repetitions with good form.
The most common mistake is to push the head forward like a turtle as you roll down, or to lift the shoulders toward the ears. See if you can keep your head over your shoulders rather than pushing it forward over the chest. Remember to keep the shoulders relaxed down away from your ears. No turtle necks!