LONG ANSWER: Many doctors, chiropractors and massage therapists send people my way to get help with ‘back pain.’ In general, the thinking is that ‘a stronger core’ will support your back and you’ll feel better.
If your back pain is intermittent and low-level, a group Pilates class may help, since you’ll build a stronger mid-section — aka “Powerhouse,” in Pilates terminology – and you’ll strengthen and lengthen all of the accessory muscles that support your spine.
Here’s the Golden Rule on this: if you’re hoping to help a cranky back with a group class of any kind, always ask the teacher if their specific class is appropriate for you.
Side Note/Virtual Rant: Articles like this drive most Pilates teachers a bit batty. I think the photo shown in the article is a poorly executed version of “teaser.” If you have back pain, PLEASE DO NOT PERFORM THIS POSE. The study referenced in this article is spot-on correct, but the article forgot to mention that the study participants worked very closely with a trained professional. They did not attend a generic Pilates group exercise class. End Rant.
I’ll tell you a secret about ‘group exercise’ classes. You know, the free classes that come with your gym membership. Those classes are designed for ‘perfectly able-bodied people.’ That means people who do not have: a slipped or bulging disc, low bone density, spinal fusion or stenosis, active sciatica, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, spondylosis or back pain originating from any other cause. Gulp.
Some group Pilates classes are designed with modifications in mind for folks who have back pain or pain in another area. Yay! But, it’s always best to ask for a recommendation that fits your specific situation. If you don’t, the class that you’re thinking of attending may include exercises that could damage a disc, cause a vertebra to collapse or simply make your back feel worse.
Why is that? Most group classes are a “performance-style” workout, meaning they are pre-choreographed. (Think: Nutcracker, hopefully not “Black Swan.”) You’re paying to be part of a group experience; you’re not the soloist and it’s not all about you as an individual. Most teachers have 10 minutes after class to answer questions. Best to save ’em for after class, rather than hi-jacking the group’s time.
So what do you do if a teacher says that their group class isn’t appropriate for you right now? Private Pilates sessions. Here’s the great thing about private training: it can cover anything you need — a high-level Performance session (maybe more advanced than can be taught in a group setting,) a breakdown of everything that should happen in a specific exercise, problem-solving, or ways to modify common exercises to fit your body’s specific needs. You’re paying for your trainer’s time and expertise and a private session is all about you. Private sessions can often help you bridge way into Small Group training , where someone is keeping an eye on your form; or Group Exercise classes, where there may be too many bodies in the room for the trainer to keep an eye on you specifically.
REALITY CHECK: If your goal was to run a marathon, you wouldn’t just show up at the NYC Marathon, right? You’d work your way up to it. When you have a sensitive back — or a ‘sensitive any other body part’ — – you need to listen to what it tells you and modify your exercises when needed. That’s part of a Pilates teacher’s job: helping you know which exercises to modify or even leave out of a workout.
NEED A QUICK LOW-BACK RELEASE?
Toe Taps works for 80% of my clients with occasional low-back crankiness. It releases tight hip flexor muscles — aka psoas, illiopsoas, illiacus — often caused by sitting for extensive periods, or increasing the number of steps you take in a day.