Just sit down and twist; that is what you can see from the outside on this one of the simplest Pilates mat exercises. It is very simple that it makes you question whether you really need someone to guide you with how to do this Pilates movement. That’s gonna change your opinion once you attend your first Pilates mat class, the same way I experienced mine more than 20 years back.
Spine Twist is the 19th movement in the original mat exercise list created by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s. It is a twisting movement of the torso done in a tall sitting position with legs straight and together on an exercise mat to improve the practitioner’s spine flexibility, core strength, and posture.
How to do the Pilates Spine twist?
The spine twist exercise is originally done with the legs together, but it can also be done with legs wide apart. In our Pilates mat class, we do both versions, depending on the intention of the movement.
Though both versions will have the same effect if you are paying attention to the details of the movement, the open-leg version will be easier for participants with tighter hips. On the other hand, the closed-legs version will give better feedback on the students on how much they need to stabilize their hips and legs.
Here is how you do the spine twist:
Start sitting down really tall on a mat with the legs together, knees straight, feet flexed fully, and with your arms spread to the side in a letter T position. Inhale as you lengthen your spine upwards like you’re reaching the top of your head to the ceiling.
Exhale as you slowly twist to one side while maintaining a very tall posture in your spine and ensuring that you are still rotating through the same central axis as you complete the full twist.
Inhale as you go back to the center while still keeping the same tall posture and exhaling to twist to the other side. Repeat the movement up to 5 times.
Common mistakes in doing Spine twists and how to avoid it
Though everyone will have different physical limitations when doing the spine twist exercise, there are quite a few common mistakes that you will see in a Pilates class.
The very first mistake is not sitting upright from the start, so make sure you really try your best to sit as tall as you can and think of reaching the top of your head upwards.
If your hip and hamstrings are very tight, sitting straight up on the floor with legs straight may not be possible, so in order for you to do the exercise in the class, for the time being, is to bend your knees or elevate your buttocks by sitting on a folded mat. You can then work on your hamstrings and hip flexibility by doing a separate exercise to address it. Here is an article that will help you stretch your hamstrings effectively to help you with your spine stretch exercise.
It is a very common reaction when I ask everyone to sit taller. So instead of looking up, you make sure you are looking forward, and chin tucked like how you hold your posture when someone measures your height.
To compensate for the limited twisting range, some people will lean to one side. An easy fix is to make sure that both sides of your buttocks or sit bones are firmly planted on the mat as you twist. You may also want to twist smaller to do the movement better and then gradually increase the range.
If you managed to sit upright in your starting position, you should be able to stay upright as your twist. It is challenging, but this is the important part of the exercise where you have to really concentrate on keeping your posture tall.
One way to improve this is to work on developing the back extensor muscles of your spine. It will be much easier to sit upright and correct the movement if the back muscles are strong. Here is an article that you can read on how to get your back muscles strong doing the Pilates Swimming exercise.
This is an indication that your hips are not stabilized enough as you are twisting. Just being aware of what your hips and legs are doing will prevent this from happening.
What is the purpose of doing the Spine twist?
The spine twist’s main purpose is to literally improve your spine’s twisting range, which actually happens on the upper part of your spine where the ribs are attached, also known as the Thoracic spine. But there are other subtle reasons why you need to do this exercise regularly.
- Improve your posture
- Develop core strength not just on the abdominal muscles but also with the obliques and back muscles of the spine.
- Improve your hips flexibility
- Learn to stabilize your pelvis
- Increase overall body awareness
Pilates spine twist vs. Supine spine twist
Another version of the spine twist stretch is doing it while you are lying on your back (supine position). There are quite a few supine versions depending on the leg position; we will look at the one where you hold your legs up with your knees and hips bent at a 90-degree angle.
You start lying down on your back with your arms spread out to the side and legs off the floor. Keep your hips and knees bent at a 90-degree angle as you slowly lower both legs down to one side. Lower the legs only up to the point that both of your shoulders are still flat on the floor. Bring the legs back up and lower down to the other side.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of both exercises.
Seated Spine Twist
Supine Spine Twist
Obliques, Intercostal muscles, hamstrings
Obliques, Intercostal muscles
Spine extensors, quads, hip flexors, and shin muscles
abdominals, hip flexors, triceps, and upper back muscles
So the selection of the exercise will depend on your goals. If you want to work more on your posture, the seated spine stretch will be more effective. Suppose you just want to stretch the back and strengthen the abdominal muscles simultaneously. In that case, the supine version may be a good option.
Spine twist modifications
If you struggle with the original version of the spine twist or you want to work on the exercise regularly without the need for the mat, here are 3 modified versions that you can choose from.
1. Standing spine twist
Stand up tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your arms either in a T-position or hands behind the head. Slowly twist to the side but make sure that your hips are still facing front and standing as tall as you can.
One of my favorite warm-up exercises to start my Pilates classes is either on the mat or Reformer.
2. Seated on a chair version
Do the spine twist while sitting on a chair or stool with your legs slightly spread apart, so you feel stable in your position. Here is an article where I describe more seated spine stretch exercises.
3. Elevated spine twist
This version closely resembles the original movement except that your hips are elevated. This will make it easier for you to sit upright and focus more on the twisting of the spine and stabilizing your hips.
How can you improve your spine twist?
Spine twist is a movement that requires good awareness in the spine, strong back extensor muscles, and decent hamstring flexibility. You can improve these areas just by working on the Spine twist exercise itself, or you can work compliment your practice with these few exercises:
- Hip hinge work - to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings
- Pilates Roll-up - to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings and spinal awareness
- Pilates Swimming exercise - to develop more strength on the spine extensor muscles
- Spine stretches - to enhance your awareness of your spine
- Spine stretch forward - improve awareness of your spine, learn to sit tall, and better hamstring flexibility