The word “spine” is a very common word in a Pilates class. Lengthening of your spine, alignment of your spine, articulation of your spine, lower the bones of your spine one at a time… and there is also an exercise that is called the Spine Stretch Forward exercise also known as Spine Stretch for short that is done in a Pilates mat class. Let me help you understand this very simple-looking exercise as there are quite a few details that beginners should know in order to perform this movement correctly.
What is the Pilates Spine Stretch Forward exercise?
The Pilates Spine Stretch Forward exercise is the 8th movement of the Classical Pilates Mat sequence written by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s. The Pilates practitioner starts in a seated position on an exercise mat with the legs wide apart and stretches forward with a round spine.
The Spine Stretch exercise can be easily mistaken as the common sit and reach exercise that you can see regularly in a fitness gym or in the park after someone’s short run. These exercises very much look alike, especially in the end position but performing them is very different once you understand the Spine Stretch better.
Spine Stretch vs. Sit and Reach stretch
The Sit and Reach stretch is really just that. You sit down on the ground and reach forward towards your toes. It can be done with only one leg straight, both legs straight and together, or both legs straight wide apart which is also known as Seated Straddle stretch.
In a Sit and Reach stretch, regardless of which version you are doing, the intention is only to reach as far as you can forward and hold it there. It doesn’t matter how you start the stretch.
Whereas the Spine Stretch exercise is a movement from start to finish. That means in order for you to do it correctly, you have to start correctly, move towards the end position properly and control your movement as you go back to the starting position.
What is the purpose of doing the Spine Stretch exercises?
The self-explanatory purpose of doing this exercise is to stretch your spine. But since this movement is done very precisely with great attention to the details, there are more benefits in the Spine Stretch Forward exercise than just stretching your spine.
Here are a few more reasons why one should be performing the Spine Stretch regularly:
- Lengthening of the spine in a straight vertical line - if you spend more time paying attention to the starting position of the exercise, you will realize how challenging it is to sit up straight. This is even tougher if your hamstrings and hips are tight.
- Awareness of your spine from top to bottom - as you go through the movement a few times, you will learn to control your spine well.
- Lengthening of the spine in a round shape - one unique point in doing the Spine Stretch at the end position of the movement is the intention of reaching the top of the head forward rather than aiming to just reach with your hands. This may result in a very similar position visually, but the sensation and effects will be different. When you reach forward with your head, you will lengthen the spine deeper and lessen the compression forces of the spine in this round position.
- Improve hamstring flexibility
Another similar Pilates mat exercise that works on your spine articulation and hamstring’s flexibility is the Pilates Roll-up. Here is an article I wrote where I go deeper with the Pilates Roll-up exercise.
How to do the Pilates Spine Stretch Forward?
I’ll break the Spine Stretch movement down for you into 4 parts to better understand how it’s being done.
1. Sit up straight, lengthening your spine to the ceiling
Start sitting down with your legs straight, feet flexed, and opened a little wider than your exercise mat. Make sure that you sit up as tall as you can with your back really straight, vertical, and your head reaching strongly to the ceiling.
If you do this correctly, you should feel intense work on the muscles around your spine and legs area. To fully activate your lower body, think of reaching with your heels to the front to flex your feet.
2. Articulate your spine from top to bottom as you reach forward
Slowly articulate your spine from the neck, going downwards. Once you reach the end of your range, keep reaching forward not only with your fingers but with the top of your head. Try not to look forward at this point as it will shorten the muscles of your neck. You should be gazing between your knees or thighs at this point.
3. Engage the core and leg muscles at the end range
Now try to hold the position at the end of the movement for a short period. It is essential to pay attention to engaging some muscles. First, make sure that you are still flexing your feet and reaching your heels forward. That means that your feet should be somewhat vertical, and your toes are pointing backward. Check if your knees are still straight, as well as you are engaging your thigh and core muscles.
4. Stacking your spine one vertebra at a time
As you go back up, try to find that same sensation when you were sitting tall. Stack the bones of your spine one on top of the other, being mindful the whole way. Doing this manner will increase your awareness of your back which will help you improve your posture and perform the movement better.
How to modify the Spine Stretch Forward?
One most significant challenge when doing the Spine Stretch is in sitting up straight at the starting position. If your hamstrings and hips are tight, it will be almost impossible to sit upright on the mat, and you end up with a round back.
A common modification is to just let the knees bend slightly, enough to release the tight hamstring muscles and it will make it easier for you to sit upright. This is very effective, especially in a Pilates mat class setting where the Pilates teacher will not have enough time to modify the exercise for you.
My favorite modification of the Spine Stretch exercise is to elevate your buttocks with a folded mat or towel, or you can even go higher sitting on a low bench. It is important to modify this way so you can understand how to sit up tall and still keep your knees straight at the same time. You can then slowly progress to a lower elevation as you improve your hamstring’s flexibility.
Another version of doing the Spine Stretch has your back against the wall. Ensure that there is full contact of your back with the wall from your tailbone all the way to your head with a slight gap around the lower back area. This is important so it can maintain a neutral spine at the starting position.
You can combine this with the bent-knee version to make it easier for those with tight hamstrings. What makes this type of modification great is the feedback it gives your spine while it is in contact with the wall and as it goes back to the wall when going back up to the starting position. It will also improve your awareness, getting your back upright and vertical.
How to prepare for the Spine Stretch exercise?
This exercise as a whole will challenge 2 areas; the awareness of your spine and your hamstring’s flexibility. So it makes sense to address these areas separately in order for you to perform the Spine Stretch properly.
One movement that will highly support the Spine Stretch is another Pilates mat exercise called the Pilates Roll-up. The Roll-up exercise will work really well in articulating your spine and stretching your hamstrings effectively in one movement. To read more about the Pilates Roll-up, you can see my post here.
But there will be instances where your hamstrings are just too tight, and it will be hard for you to go deeper with the stretch if you do it seated on the mat. So we may have to stretch your hamstrings in a separate exercise altogether.
One exercise I would recommend that is very effective to stretch your hamstrings is the Standing Straddle Hip Hinge exercise. Here is how you do it:
Start in a standing position with your legs shoulder-width apart.
Slowly bend forward with your body and make sure to keep your back as straight as you can. Go to the lowest position you can manage before you feel that your back is starting to round. Your goal is to get your body parallel to the horizontal eventually.
You can keep your arms open as this will help you to engage the back muscles to keep them straight. You can bend your knees slightly when performing this exercise.
Start with 5 repetitions and try to hold the last rep for 10 seconds to feel the stretch deeper.
It is better if you can do this drill where you can see your sides from the mirror so you can check if your back is straight, especially at the lowest position. It is more important to keep your back straight rather than going lower with your back rounding.
Can the Spine Stretch be done on Pilates Equipment?
Definitely, you can do the Spine Stretch on most Pilates equipment. My favorite one is doing it on the Pilates Reformer Machine. It is very similar to the original mat version except for your legs to be pressing against the foot bar.
You have to adjust the foot bar to a low position where it is just slightly higher than the Reformer bed. Sit closer to the front edge of the carriage, then push the bar to straighten your legs. You can then proceed to do the regular Spine stretch exercise. The springs don’t matter much here, I would go for 2 medium springs as going too heavy with the springs will increase the likelihood of your buttocks slipping of the carriage.
The contact point and pressure with your heels against the foot bar will improve the engagement of your lower body as you do the movement.
Another common version is done on the Pilates Cadillac. This will again look very similar to the mat version, except you will be holding the push-through bar this time. You will perform the basic sequence of the movement with the added sensation of pushing your hands against the bar. This version is great, especially in the upright position, as you can push the bar up, allowing you to engage further with your core muscles that lengthens the spine.