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Pilates Exercise Dive: Spine Stretch

exercises matwork pilates principle

Something New... check it out, an embedded video!πŸ‘†

Hello Spine Stretch!

How can such a simple movement, literally bending over forward, sometimes feel so hard to do?

When I organise my deep dives I love looking at the Pilates exercises with a focus on WHAT, HOW, and WHY

WHAT: The Spine Stretch is one of Joseph Pilates’ original 34 Matwork exercises, it comes in at number eight, right after Double Leg Stretch and right before Open Leg Rocker.

To perform the exercise you sit on your mat with your legs out in front of you and your back as straight and tall as possible, roll your spine forward in front of your hips towards your feet, and then reverse and roll back up to where you started from, sitting up tall.

In theory it’s a really a simple movement but as I like to say, simple does not = easy.

Let’s get a bit more specific with the HOW of the beginning position, okay?

- When you sit up straight with your legs out in front of you as wide as your mat, your knee caps face straight up to the ceiling - meaning you have neutral rotation of the legs at the hip sockets.

- Your feet are strongly dorsiflexed, i.e. the ankles are bent, toes up to the ceiling with the sole of the foot facing flat forward.

- Your spine is lifted and stacked: lift your hip bones away from your thigh bones, glide your waist above your hips, float your ribs above your waist and lightly settle your shoulder girdle on top of all that.

- Your arms can be various places: resting on your thighs, straight forward at shoulder height/shoulder width, or reaching up to the ceiling again, shoulder width apart. 

But what happens if this opening position feels impossible for you to do - you can’t sit up straight with your legs out in front of you?

Maybe your quads, hip flexors, calves, and/or low back are too tight and stiff to make this doable?

Maybe your mid-back is tight and stiff and sitting up tall is not happening for you?


No worries! One of the things I love about Pilates is that we can modify the exercise(s) depending on our body’s strengths and weaknesses.

In this instance we use a prop like a rolled up mat, a stack of books, or a Pilates barrel to lift the pelvis up which opens the angle of the leg & hip giving us more ease as we sit.

(more often than not this is why you might struggle with even getting ready to do a Spine Stretch and why you might not like it so much)


Since Pilates ultimately asks us to align our skeleton (to the best of our ability) and then move from there, you actually might have the opposite problem:  too much flexibility in your hamstrings and hip flexors. When you sit up straight it actually feels like you’re leaning back because you’re so used to sitting towards the front side of your sitz bones and hanging into your flexibility.


Remember the Pilates concept of Uniform Development: loosen what’s tight, tighten what’s loose; find the functional balance between mobility and stability so the body can move efficiently with *“spontaneous zest and pleasure”

So, we’ve found the HOW of the opening position,  now let's find HOW we move through the exercise.

From our tall spine we roll the spine forward on the exhale and unroll the spine back to vertical on the inhale trying to find an even curve from crown of your head to your tail bone.

As I said, simple, right?

Things you’re looking for:

- Soft shoulders with the shoulder blades resting gently on the back of the ribs, letting them spread wide as you roll forward and coming back to “home base” on the way up. It’s important not to mistake shoulder elevation for spine bending!

- Let me repeat, you want a long even, supported curve from tailbone to crown of head.

- The lift in & up of the low abdominals plus a little bit of oomph in the hips so that the weight of the torso is supported (especially good idea if you do have really open hamstrings so you’re not hanging off your low back).

- An anchored tail, again energy through the hips, with a reach through the legs to help create that stable base to roll away from.


Some images to help with the HOW:

- Put a giant thumbtack through your tail pinning it down to the mat

- Sit up against a wall and keep sliding up it even as you peel away from it.

- Make the abdominals an iron smoothing out the 'wrinkles' of the inner surface of the spine - versus steaming the abs only back into the waist.

- Let sunshine beam from the soles of your feet as you open them up and reach the legs away from you.

photo by Teslariu Mihai 
photo by Diego PH


Now, let’s talk about the arm placement which will lead us nicely into one of the WHYs of the Spine Stretch.

Traditionally the arms are shoulder width and shoulder height and stay parallel to the floor as you move the spine however, now that I’ve been teaching for a few years (okay 20+) I like this less and less because I think it encourages the neck to over curve and fall between the shoulders as the arms stay parallel.

I think that my clients are better served by either sliding the arms along their legs and then lifting them up from underneath or to have them up by the ears the whole time.

Both on these encourage the soft shoulders mentioned above and help in figuring out how to hold the arm up from the back. I show it a bit more fully in the video at the topπŸ‘†


Not a full list by far but, some more WHYs...

Spine Stretch:

- Opens up the back line of the body all the way from toes to fingertips.

- Shows us how to hold up the weight of the torso from the hips, belly and legs.

- Lets us experience how fully emptying the lungs on the exhale creates a vacuum so that the inhale just naturally helps floats the spine back to vertical.

- Teaches us how to time the breath since we only have one full breath per repetition.

- Gives us feedback on where our back doesn’t bend so well.

- Lets us find the sensation of spinal decompression as we sit up and also as we move.

- Helps us to strengthen all the deep core muscles especially the scaffolding muscles of the back.

- Is a way to really feel what it’s like to draw the belly in and up.


I do love the exercise deep dive because it really makes me stop and think about what each and every one can reveal to us and then how we can use that information to strengthen our Pilates Practice.

I could go on and on and on (obviously) but I think I’ll leave it there because there is quite a lot of information to digest in this post.

If you're looking for a place to start exploring your Spine Stretch, watch the video, and then get down on your mat, pick one of the WHYs that I mentioned and focus on only that as you practice.

Then, taking your time, play around with a few of the other WHYs trying to integrate them into the exercise. You'll then be on your way to performing your best Spine Stretch ever πŸ™ƒ

Be Well, xBec


The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and Rebecca Forde disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this post

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