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How to Modify Your Pilates Practice to Avoid Pain and Strain

Fitness | Pilates

Pilates is for every body. Just because you can’t do an exercise the exact way it is set or described in class, doesn’t mean you can’t do the exercise at all. There are always ways to modify an exercise to suit you, making it easier or more challenging, depending on your needs.

Let’s run through some common ways you can modify your Pilates practice to help you build strength or avoid pain during a class.

1. Tight Hamstrings

tight hamstrings1

Exercises like the Saw and Spine Stretch Forward require the legs to be extended along the mat whist sitting upright with proper Pilates posture. It can be impossible and rather uncomfortable, or even counter-productive, if the hip flexors have to grip and hold on for dear life just to allow you to sit up straight if you have tight hamstrings.

Modification: The best option is to sit on a folded towel, cushion, yoga block, or folded end of your mat. It allows you to still keep the legs straight and continue effectively working on increasing hamstring flexibility.

If those props are not available to you, you can also simply bend the knees enough to allow the back to be straight. Make sure the feet are still flexed and still try to avoid moving the legs during rotation exercises.

2. Neck Strain

neck strain1

Exercises that involve holding the head up unsupported from the floor, as in the Hundred and the Abdominal Series, can cause some people to experience tension in the neck muscles. If the head and neck are correctly aligned, the strain is usually then caused by weak neck muscles.

Modification: Place one hand behind the head to support the weight of your head as you continue the exercise. Change hands halfway through to balance the body.

3. Lower Back Ache

lower back ache1

If you regularly experience aching in the lower back when doing exercises such as the Hundred or other long abdominal exercises, it could be an indicator that your core and abdominal muscles have not yet built enough strength in endurance, and they begin to slack off.

Modification: As soon as you begin to notice that your posture has slightly changed, your abs are no longer staying flat, or your lower back begins to ache, bring the legs in to less challenging position. That might mean you lift the legs higher, bring them in to table top position, or place the feet on the floor.

4. Wrist Pain

wrist pain1

Placing load on hands when the wrists are extended 90 degrees, (as in exercises like the Plank on the hands, or 4-point kneeling), can be extremely painful for people with wrist issues. Depending on the exercises, there are different modifications you can use.


  1. Making a fist and placing the knuckles on the ground can be helpful in exercises that don’t require high load (e.g. knees are also down on the floor), such as in exercises in 4-point kneeling.
  2. Place the elbows and forearms on the ground for exercises such as Plank and Side Plank to avoid any load on the wrists.
  3. Decrease the angle of the wrist by placing a folded edge of a towel or edge of the mat under the heel of the hand. This is useful for exercises such as push-ups which require full use of the arm.

5. Knee Pain

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Some people experience discomfort in the knees when they are deeply flexed/bent, for example, in rest position (Child’s pose). Also, kneeling on the knees can also be uncomfortable for some people.

Modification: Place a rolled-up towel, yoga block, or a soft air-filled ball under your seat when in positions like rest position, to keep your bottom lifted off the heels. This reduces the flexion in the knee joint and therefore, the strain.

When kneeling, place a folded towel or folded edge of your mat under the knees to create more cushion and less discomfort.

6. Head Support

head support1

Sometimes, lying down positions on the back and sides can be uncomfortable in the neck for people with certain posture types. The head may feel very far back and the chin pointing upward, when lying on your back

Modification: When side-lying, place a small, firm cushion or small folded towel between your arm and your head to bring the head straight in alignment with the rest of the spine.

When lying on your back, place the cushion or towel under the head to allow the neck to be properly aligned (not over extended) and the gaze to be straight up.

Note: When using this modification, it is very important to always remove the cushion or towel before doing any exercise that require you to lift your pelvis off the ground, like in Pelvic curl, Bridge, or Roll Over. Neck alignment changes during these exercises, and a support under the head over-corrects the problem, leading to extra strain on the neck.

Pilates is about improving the functionality of your body. Challenging yourself is what will create change, however creating unnecessary tension, strain, and pain will only hinder your practice and your ability. Try these simple modifications to help make sure your Pilates practice stays safe and effective.

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