Nerdilates (Pilates for Nerds): A bit on Spine Mobility from different perspectives

Lower back tightness and discomfort is one of the most common issues our clients deal with when they come to our studio. We offer a few different movement disciplines and I want this post to clear up some of the confusion with regards to the different approaches to developing spinal mobility and stability. At first glance, Somatics' Arch and Flat, Pilates' Neutral and Imprint, and GYROTONIC's Arch and Curl seem very similar, but I assure you that their intentions and the muscle activation patterns that generate the movement are very different.

Hanna Somatic Movement

The primary goal of Hanna Somatic Movement, also known as Hanna Somatic Neuroeducation is to gain voluntary control of your skeletal muscles tension. One way to do the Arch and Flat exercise is done in a supine position (lying down on your back) on a carpet or blanket on a hard/smooth floor (rubbery Yoga mats are generally designed to generate traction so you don't slip and fall during Yoga so they restrict movement and aren't great for Somatics). Lie down with knees bent, feet on the floor about hip width apart, arms falling away from your body in a comfortable position at your side with palms up towards the ceiling.

Start in your most comfortable individual natural position of your spine. This may be slightly extended (arched) or flexed (flattened) depending on your posture. Breath naturally and fully so that your ribs and belly swell full of air and you aren't holding any tension in your abdominal muscles. Place a hand on your abdomen and feel your hand rise and fall smoothly like the waves in a calm ocean. When you are as relaxed as you imagine yourself to be, proceed to movement.

Schematic representation of the spine during the basic Hanna Somatic Movement, Arch and Flat where the position of the spine is changed based on coordinated contraction of the back and abdominal muscles combined with breath.

Schematic representation of the spine during the basic Hanna Somatic Movement, Arch and Flat where the position of the spine is changed based on coordinated contraction of the back and abdominal muscles combined with breath.

From here, on an inhale, attempt to contract your back muscles SLOWLY lifting your lumbar spine into more extension, a deeper arch. The space we call the "small of the back" between the lower back and the floor gets larger and the pelvis tilts away (extends) from you so the sacrum becomes more vertical. Reach the apex of your arch with deepest engagement of your back muscles when you ribs and belly are at their fullest with air, abdominals are relaxed.

Then, as you initiate your gentle and slow exhale, begin to relax and release your back muscles, allowing your spine return towards the floor in a controlled decent, passing through your starting position. As you pass your "neutral" spine, begin to engage the abdominal muscles to flex your back further towards the floor until the small of your back all but disappears. Try to time the ending of your exhale when your back reaches a fully flat position. Begin to inhale again relaxing and releasing the abdominal muscles, allowing your back to return to its "neutral" starting position.

It is really important to remember that the primary goal of this movement is about engagement, release, and coordination of the abdominal and back muscles. Range of motion, the extent that you are able to arch and flatten your spine and the distance your lumbar spine ultimately moves, is secondary and happens AS A RESULT of muscle engagement. If you find yourself tensing up in your shoulders or neck, or pressing into your feet and glutes as you TRY to arch further or flatten further than your abdominals/back muscles allow you to, then you are missing the point of the exercise. The arch and flatten motion of the spine will increase as you gain greater control of your core.

Pilates

Cartoon representation of the average degrees of curvature of the spinal column. Notice that the cervical and lumbar spine are both lordotic and the thoracic spine and sacrum are kyphotic. We seek to "lengthen" or flex the  lordotic curves when we imprint.

Cartoon representation of the average degrees of curvature of the spinal column. Notice that the cervical and lumbar spine are both lordotic and the thoracic spine and sacrum are kyphotic. We seek to "lengthen" or flex the  lordotic curves when we imprint.

Pilates is a mind body exercise system that works to develop a strong and stable core from which movement can then occur. Pilates referred to the core muscles of the abdomen, the lower back, pelvic floor, and a few others as the "Powerhouse." At SOMA Movement Studio we teach contemporary Pilates so we teach clients to exercises in neutral and imprinted spine positions

The neutral spine is just that, the natural curvature of your cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back, attached to ribs), lumbar (lower back), and sacrum/pelvis as an extension of the spine. There are "normal ranges" for spinal curves that are measured by the angles your vertebral bones make when measured off of x-rays, but that is too detailed for this discussion. What is important is to realize that just because the spine is neutral does not mean that it is relaxed. This one way that the neutral spine in Pilates differs from the neutral spine in Hanna Somatic Movement. Pilates teaches that the core should be engaged to support the spine in its most neutral position. That means that when you do a Pilates exercise, your core is never "off." It is always engaged.

These are muscles of the "core" including the three layers of abdominal muscles, the external oblique, internal oblique and the transversus abdominus. What is not illustrated is the differing direction of muscle fibers that result in compression of the abdominal contents and support of the spinal column.

These are muscles of the "core" including the three layers of abdominal muscles, the external oblique, internal oblique and the transversus abdominus. What is not illustrated is the differing direction of muscle fibers that result in compression of the abdominal contents and support of the spinal column.

So, how do we engage the core? There are different types of muscles that make up the core musculature; some of which can be voluntarily (i.e. you can engage/contract them by thinking about it) and others that are at least in part, engaged through involuntary, or reflexive signals from the nervous system. The abdominal wall is made up of three layers of muscles from outer to inner being the external obliques, internal obliques, and the transversus abdominus (TVA for short). The external and internal obliques are easy to find and activate, the pull your rib cage and pelvis towards one another. The fibers of the TVA encircle your abdomen like a corset with fibers running all the way from your back, around your sides, to just a few inches shy of your midline in the front. The TVA is best engaged through active, slow exhalation against resistance (imagine flowing up a balloon or breathing out through pursed lips) to compress the abdominal cavity contents while your lungs deflate. This compression by the TVA provides support to the lumbar spine and works best in conjunction with pelvic floor activation to further support the abdominal contents. Core activation is a lot of work, right? And we still haven't moved.

Now to imprint. Imprint is similar to flattening in Hanna Somatics as the lumbar spine flexes as a result of abdominal muscle activation. However, as the goal of imprinting is to place the spine in a stable, protected position for exercise, rather than mobilizing and gaining dynamic control of the core muscles as in Somatics. The degree to which the lumbar spine flexes (flattens) is less so the goal is not to press your back into the floor. If neutral is zero, the arch in Somatics is +10 and the flatten in Somatics is -10, then Imprint moves from a neutral spine (position) zero to a -5 to -8 position depend on how much of an imprint the exercise requires.

Portrait of Joe Pilates with "scooped" abdomen where the transversus abdominus and obliques are activated, the abdomenal muscular corset compressed and lifted in and up.

Portrait of Joe Pilates with "scooped" abdomen where the transversus abdominus and obliques are activated, the abdomenal muscular corset compressed and lifted in and up.

To return to neutral the mobilizing abdominal muscles (obliques/rectus abdominus) release slightly to allow the lumbar spine to return to its neutral posiition in space, however, the goal is to maintain TVA and pelvic floor activation throughout, even when in neutral. Easier said than done.

In Classical style Pilates, students are taught to "scoop" the abdomen rather than imprint. The scooping maneuver is a more pronounced version of the imprint where on an exhalation, the TVA is activated, compressing the abdomen down and then additional contraction to pull the abdomen up and in towards the rib cage. The flattening of the lumbar spine (more often referred to the lengthened lumbar spine in Classical Pilates) is more pronounce as the abdominal muscles allow your spine to relax into a deeper flexion which allows for greatest activation of the "powerhouse."

GYROTONIC Expansion System

The GYROTONIC Arch and Curl actually refers to the position of the pelvis rather than the spine. The pelvis is made up of three bones; two ilia (plural of ilium) on either side and a sacrum in the back with is a curved, keystone shaped bone that connects the spine to the pelvic ring. In a sitting position, when you extend your pelvis the pubic symphysis (the middle front part of your pelvis, right above the genitals) rotates downwards and the sacrum lifts. As the sacrum is an extension of the spine, the spine follows suite and also extends (arches) while the rest of your spine lifts up and lengthens. The curled position refers to flexion of the pelvis where the pubic symphysis rotates upwards and the sacrum rotates down downwards towards whatever you are sitting on and the lumbar spine flexes to follow the sacrum. There is a lot more that goes into creating the Arch and Curl movement, but that is the bare basics of how the bones of the pelvis move.

Schematic representation of some of the musculature around the pelvis that is utilized for the GYROTONIC basic, seated Arch and Curl movement. Notice the involvement of the core muscles, psoas, as well as muscles of the legs all of which are used to maximize mobilization of the pelvis and spine.

Schematic representation of some of the musculature around the pelvis that is utilized for the GYROTONIC basic, seated Arch and Curl movement. Notice the involvement of the core muscles, psoas, as well as muscles of the legs all of which are used to maximize mobilization of the pelvis and spine.

If neutral position of the lumbar spine is zero and Somatics took your lumbar spine from  a +10 arch to a -10 flat, GYROTONIC methodology will take you +20 arch to a -20 curl (the goal being to reverse the curve of the lumbar spine). Because the GYROTONIC methodology utilizes the full pelvic floor, gluteal muscles, and position of the legs to rotate the pelvis from the arch to curl (extended to flexed) positions, the range of motion achieved through the lumbar spine (and the rest of the spine for that matter) is greater. Additionally, the basic arch and curl is done in a seated position rather than supine (lying on your back) so the floor does not get in the way of movement (conversely, you have to support yourself through the exercise, rather than the floor supporting you). 

Summary

Hopefully this summarizes some of the similarities and differences between the some of the movement disciplines that are offered at SOMA Movement Studio. In general if someone is really tight though their lower back it is generally most efficient for clients to start with Hanna Somatic Movement to gain voluntary control of their core muscles and the ability to coordinate movement with breath before moving on to Pilates and the GYROTONIC Expansion System. We find that Hanna Somatics, Pilates, and GYROTONIC methodology are wonderfully complementary techniques for achieving strength, flexibility, and freedom of movement through the spine. As Joe Pilates said, You're only as old as your spine feels.

SOMA Movement Studio does not "treat" acute low back pain or injuries nor can we accept health insurance as a form of payment. We will however work with your physical therapist, chiropractor, or other health care professional to develop a post rehabilitation exercise program to meet your individual needs. If you have questions about integrating movement-based fitness into your post-rehab recovery, give us a call at (860) 470-MOVE (6683).