Spinal Flexion and Extension

“if your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” – Another truly profound quote from Joseph Pilates.

If your spine is stiff your body is affected with aches and pains. Is this a healthy/happy way to live life? A healthy spine is a mobile spine, a mobile spine frees us of aches and pains which leads to a happier life.

The technical/anatomical part…

To create a more mobile and healthy spine (better functioning), we need to be is able to move in a variety of different directions. We need to flex (bending forwards), twist, extend (bending backwards), and rotate to accomplish daily tasks and activities.

We are going to focus on the flexion and extension of the spine today as it is more difficult to understand how to perform beneficial flexion/extension safely and healthily.


1A – Felxion 1B – Extension


To flex is to decrease the angel between parts. Flexing your muscles usually results in bringing the bones attached closer together. For example, the spine is in flexion when we bend forwards. Extension is simply the opposite, increasing the angel between parts, e.g. bending backwards.

The spine is made up of 33 bones. 24 vertebrae, the sacrum (which is 5 vertebrae fused together), and the tailbone (which is 4 vertebrae fused together). The spine acts as a ‘protective casing’ for the spinal cord which is the information pathway that sends information from the brain to the rest of the body. Perhaps this might make you think how important a healthy/fluid spine can be now?…

Flexing the spine is the more common movement in Pilates. Each time we lift the head neck and shoulders, do the hundred, roll ups, etc.  However, it can be painful and a strain if performed incorrectly. So, we focus more on how to create length in the spine while flexing. For example, spine stretch forward exercise is always taught to ”lengthen forward, pulling the abs back but lifting out of the hips’ ‘… we aren’t “crunching” over to shorten our muscles.

Flexion is also very common in every day life for most of us. Gravity and daily activities such as sitting at the computer, driving, and carrying children have a tendency to pull the spine forward into flexion (hunching). This is something that may not be noticed by many of us until it becomes painful or result in injury. In addition to affecting your appearance, spinal flexion can contribute to postural imbalances such as scoliosis  and injuries such as disc pathologies (ouch!). So it is important to prevent these occurrences; Pilates is your preventative.

Extension may be one of the most important types of movements we do today, due to the above results of flexion. It is important to keep the upper back muscles strong and the spine moving into extension to prevent/counteract these things and improve posture.

Spine extension example in Pilates (Swan and Single Leg Kicks)

Spine extension example in Pilates (Swan and Single Leg Kicks)

Spine flexion example in Pilates (Hundred and Roll Up)

Spine flexion example in Pilates (Hundred and Roll Up)

Let’s never forget the abs…

When we’re standing, we may get lazy and forget to maintain some support through the mid-section. With the abdominals hanging farther out to the front, the lower back will get pulled forward too, creating a more noticeable spinal curve. So even though we are now working on flexion and extension to build strength in the spine, we have to combine this with our supportive abdominal wall to create the ultimate healthy, aligned, strong spine.

Sometimes our abs will take part automatically or be engaged to create the flexion of the spine. Flexion in Pilates is a movement to either strengthen the abdominals or to stretch the back. In The Hundreds, the abdominals have to contract (i.e. work) to flex the spine away from the Mat, thus strengthening these muscles.

An interesting fact is that the abdominals connect all the way up at the 5th rib, right in the middle of your rib cage. Many of us think that the abs stop at the bottom of the ribs. Understanding where this muscle connects can make a big difference in the quality and effectiveness of our ab work while reducing the amount of strain in the neck.

Now, our spine is vital to almost everything we do in life so please keep in mind that not all exercises are safe for every individual. If you experience back pain I recommend speaking with your doctor or physiotherapist before beginning your Pilates journey to a stronger spine.

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