Try these Pilates exercises to strengthen your lower back

Back pain can be truly debilitating. It can impact every area of your life, and make even the simplest tasks feel impossible.

Studies in the British Medical Journal have estimated that chronic back pain affects between one third and half the UK population, and working from home has exacerbated this problem.

Helen O’Leary, physio-led Pilates instructor and clinical director at Complete Pilates, has put together her top movements to help us strengthen our lower, mid and upper backs – as well as explaining why clinical Pilates can help. 

‘While we often don’t think to do certain things to prevent chronic back pain until it becomes a problem, there are things we can do to prevent pain from becoming an ongoing issue,’ Helen tells

‘If addressed early, we can make sure that the body is given the best environment to heal and recover.’

Helen says most episodes of back pain will recover fully within eight weeks. But, because pain is complex, we need to take into account all the factors that might be influencing it and ensure we provide the best environment for change, healing and recovery.

‘Pilates is often recommended and successful at preventing chronic back pain, she says. 

‘Pilates works to strengthen your core, align your spine, improve your posture and release tension, which can all help to encourage healing and prevent prolonged pain and future episodes of pain.’

A 2016 study backs this up, with researchers finding that in patients with chronic low back pain, ‘Pilates showed significant improvement in pain relief and functional enhancement.’

A more recent study, in 2019, also found ‘a positive effect of Pilates – such as reducing pain and improving functional outcomes’.

Helen says the best thing you can do is to start looking after your back before it becomes a problem.

‘Stay active, and ask for help,’ she adds. ‘If you have pain, see a physio sooner rather than later and invest in yourself. It is a process, so be patient.

‘But importantly find something you enjoy, as this will help. Be honest with yourself and your physio about what you want to do.’

Below are Helen’s key Pilates exercises that will help you strengthen your back, which should in turn reduce pain:


  • Lie on your stomach with your arms down by your sides, palms facing up and your forehead resting on the floor with your feet slightly apart.
  • Allow your nose to hover off the floor so the tip of it is still facing the floor. This will start to activate your neck muscles.
  • Press your pubic bone into the floor and reach your legs out long behind you. Even your feet should be working here.
  • As you inhale, reach your hands towards your feet and feel your shoulder blades move towards each other. Allow your upper back to come up off the floor into extension, keeping the pubic bone pressing into the mat.
  • Press your feet into the floor and keep your arms and legs straight.
  • Pause at the top and exhale, trying to stay high. Inhale again, coming up a little further and exhale to return to the floor.
  • Repeat the exercise, changing your breath around to see which facilitates your movement better.


‘This move strengthens all the muscles in your back. These muscles include large muscles such as erector spinae, multifidus and glutes to name a few. It also strengthens the muscles in your legs such as your hamstrings. It builds strength and stability in and around the pelvis

‘It also improves your overall posture and mobility into extension, provides ease with movements that may cause pain, such as bending, twisting, or lifting, and helps build strength to be able to do more advanced back strengthening exercises safely.’

Marching Bridge

  • Lie on your back with your arms at your sides; press your heels into the floor and lift your pelvis up until your knees, pelvis, and shoulders form a straight line.
  • Hold your bridge while you lift your right knee toward your chest, until your hip is at a 90-degree angle.
  • Return the heel to the floor, and lift the left knee.
  • Do not let your pelvis sag or your back overarch while lifting and lowering your knees.
  • Repeat 4-10 times on each side.


‘The marching exercise is an essential exercise for athletes and anyone looking for increased strength, stability and function of their hips, lower back and pelvis.

‘This move works the core and glutes, stretches out the hip abductors, glutes, and hamstrings, improves stability in the obliques and quadriceps, improves overall strength and posture, and eases lower back pain.’

Quadruped exercise

  • Start in a table top position (all fours) with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders.
  • Move your back in a cat cow position and then find your neutral spine.
  • Gently hover one hand off the ground, keeping the other hand pressing into the ground and your core locked in, and then place it back down and repeat on the other side.
  • Press into both hands, exhale and then slide one leg back along the floor away from you. Keeping your knee as straight as possible.
  • Lift your leg up while pushing it away from you and keeping your spine in a neutral position the whole time, Ensure your other leg is in a vertical position.
  • Place your leg back down and return to a table top position.
  • Alternate on the other leg.
  • Next slide your right hand in front of you with your left leg sliding back.
  • Lift your arm and leg up – again maintaining that neutral spine and your  shoulders and pelvis staying still.
  • Bring your arm and leg back down while still reaching away
  • Slide them back in and repeat on the other side.


‘The quadruped exercise is good for building low back function, as it engages both the core and back muscles at the same time.

‘Other benefits include abdominal activation and control, hip and shoulder disassociation, hip and shoulder stability and strength and it reduces lower back pain and is regarded as a safe exercise during recovery from a back injury.

‘A strong core and good spinal stability will help you in everyday tasks whenever you need to bend or twist.’


  • Sit on the floor with both legs folded to the right side in a 90/90 position.
  • Make sure the back foot is cupping the buttock to encourage the rotation at your hip.
  • Allow your left hip and thigh bone to drop towards the floor. This will help to keep you grounded as you move through the exercise and will encourage the stretch in your side.
  • Let your right arm settle onto the floor by the side of you and extend your left arm straight up above your head. Allow your arm to be in front of your ear as this will keep your shoulder settled rather than crunching towards your ear.
  • Try to keep your left hip grounded as you reach your arm up towards the ceiling and over to the right side of you. Let the supporting elbow bend by pulling the elbow to the floor to activate your triceps.
  • Send your left sit bone down toward the mat to deepen the stretch. Pause here and take a few breaths, imaging you are expanding the side of you. On an exhale, press into the right arm, reach upwards with the left arm and bring yourself back into sitting.
  • When sitting upright, reverse the stretch to the other side. You can walk your supporting arm (left arm) out and bend at the elbow to take your forearm towards the floor to increase the stretch.
  • Again, focus on keeping the right sit bone grounded as your stretch extends up and over toward the left.
  • Repeat two to three times each side, using your breath to release the stretch each time.


‘There are plenty of movement benefits when it comes to the mermaid Pilates exercise.

‘It’s great for improving overall flexibility and hips by stretching your obliques, deep back muscles and lats, shoulders and hips. It also opens your side body, lengthening the muscles between the ribs and pelvis which enables you to expand your chest fully when breathing.

‘Not only that, but it prepares you for movements where your body twists and bends. It also keeps your mid-back supple too.’

Cat cow

  • Begin on your hands and knees in table top, with a neutral spine.
  • As you breathe in, curve your spine down lift your sit bones upward, press your chest forward and allow your belly to sink.
  • Lift your head, relax your shoulders away from your ears, and keep your gaze straight ahead.
  • As you breathe out, round your spine upwards, tucking the tailbone, and drawing your pubic bone forward.
  • Release your head toward the floor and relax.
  • Repeat as many times as you feel is best for you.


‘There are many benefits of the cat cow pose in that it increases the flexibility of the neck, shoulders, and spine. The movement also stretches the muscles of the hips, back, abdomen, chest, and lungs.

‘At its peak, the cat stretch can help to relieve tension of the upper back and neck while the cow pose increases the curves in the thoracic and sacral spine.’

Cat cow is great for:
– Posture.
– Balance.
– Back pain.
– Maintaining a healthy spine.
– Calming the mind/destressing.

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