The Anatomy Of the Spine and Pilates Benefits

Woman holding her back
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Your true age lies not in years or how you THINK you feel but as you ACTUALLY are as infallibly indicated by the degree of natural and normal flexibility enjoyed by your spine throughout life. Joseph Pilates

With much of our quality of life dependent upon a healthy spine, it makes sense to take a few moments to get to know this all-important, truly core part of our body:

The Anatomy of the Spine - The Bones

The human spine is composed of 26 individual bony masses, 24 of those are bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae are stacked one on top of the other and form the main part of the spine running from the base of the skull to the pelvis. At the base of the spine, is a bony plate called the sacrum which is made of 5 fused vertebrae. The sacrum forms the back part of the pelvis. At the bottom of the sacrum is a small set of 4 partly fused vertebrae, the coccyx or tailbone. Adding the fused and partly fused bones of the sacrum and coccyx to the 24 vertebrae, the spine has 33 bones all together.

The spine is labeled in 3 sections: the cervical spine, the thoracic spine, and the lumbar spine. Starting from the top there are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, and 5 lumbar vertebrae.

The Vertebrae of the Spine

Anatomy of human vertebrae
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The spinal vertebrae are separated from each other by intervertebral discs. These discs are made of collagen fibers and cartilage. They provide padding and shock absorption for the vertebrae. Each pair of vertebrae creates a movable unit.

The spinal cord runs within the vertebral canal formed by the back parts of the vertebrae. Thirty-one pairs of nerves branch out from the spinal cord through the vertebrae, carrying messages between the brain and every part of the body.

Aging, diseases, accidents and muscular imbalances can cause compression and thinning of the intervertebral discs. This results in pressure on the spinal nerves and wears on the bony vertebrae, conditions that are common sources of back pain.

Also see:

The Natural Curves of the Spine

There are four natural curves in the spine. We usually speak in terms of the 3 that comprise the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar portions of the spine; but as you can see, the sacrum and coccyx form a curved section as well.

The spinal curves provide architectural strength and support of the spine. They distribute the vertical pressure on the spine and balance the weight of the body. If the spine were absolutely straight, it would be more likely to buckle under the pressure of the weight of the body.

When the all the natural curves of the spine are present, the spine is a neutral position. This is its strongest position and usually the safest to exercise in. When we have perfect posture the curves of the spine are helping us balance. We are meant to walk and stand in the neutral spine position. In Pilates, we work a lot with developing the musculature in a way that supports the neutral spine position.

See also:

Curvature of the Spine - Kyphosis and Lordosis

Views of the normal curvature of the spine
Normal curvature of the spine. Raycat / Getty Images

Two common excessive curvatures of the spine are kyphosis and lordosis. Kyphosis is when the upper back and shoulders are overly rounded forward. Lordosis is when the bones of the spine appear to be forward when seen from the side; this is most commonly seen in lumbar lordosis where the concave part of the low back has too much curve.

Kyphosis and lordosis have a variety of causes, but in today's world many of us sit too much and exercise too little, so muscular weakness and the resulting physical imbalances contribute greatly to these problems.

Computer and desk worker hunchback is an example of a kyphosis-like problem that reflects a weakness in the back muscles, especially the back extensor muscles that hold the upper back upright. Swayback is a layperson's term for lumbar lordosis. It is often associated with weak abdominal muscles that are not able to hold the low back and pelvis in their neutral position where the pelvis is like a level bowl. Instead, weak abdominals allow the pelvic bowl to tip forward creating an excessive curve at the back.

Pilates Exercises and the Spine

Instructors helping students with pilates moves
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Many muscles work together to move and support the spine. You can see some of the surface back muscles in the diagram above, but there are deeper layers of back muscles like the multifidus, that play important roles in supporting the spine. And the back muscles don't work alone. They work in concert with the abdominal muscles in a complex dance of contraction, release, and counter balances that keep us erect or lets us bend and twist.

One of the great benefits of the Pilates method of exercise is that it is designed to promote a healthy, strong, flexible spine. In Pilates, the core muscles of the back and abdomen are trained to provide strength and flexibility for the spine. There are exercises that stimulate the spine, and an overall focus on balanced muscular development and skeletal alignment that helps keep the spine long, decompressed, and protected.


The Anatomy Coloring Book, Kapit and Elson

Structure and Function of the Body, Thibodeau and Patton

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Ogle, Marguerite. "The Anatomy Of the Spine and Pilates Benefits." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Ogle, Marguerite. (2020, August 27). The Anatomy Of the Spine and Pilates Benefits. Retrieved from Ogle, Marguerite. "The Anatomy Of the Spine and Pilates Benefits." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 20, 2021).