Side bend Pilates prep is a great way to strengthen your shoulders and relieve back pain. Here’s how to get the most benefit from this awesome exercise.

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The Pilates Side bend prep exercise is one of my absolutely favorites. Sometimes, I do it when my back is feeling junky. Other times, I do it when my shoulders are achy. But, my favorite time to do this exercise is when I’m feeling down + grumpy.

Side bend prep isn’t just a strengthening exercise, it’s a mood-lifting exercise.

As your hips lift off the floor, so will your mood. I challenge you to still be grumpy after you’ve done a couple reps of this exercise!

Plus, when you lift yourself off the floor, you’ll feel strong + powerful. After all, you’ve just lifted your body off the floor. That’s no small accomplishment.

In this post, I’ll let you know:

  • why I prefer people start with the Side bend Pilates prep before moving on to the full version,
  • how to use this exercise to relieve back and shoulder pain, and
  • how to do this exercise so perfectly that you’ll be left feeling strong and confident.

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Which should you do: Side bend prep or Side bend?

Both exercises are wonderful and have their place. However, I always have my clients and new students start with Side bend prep.

And, honestly, when I’m doing my own workouts, I tend to do the Side bend Pilates prep exercise more often. This is because when I do the simpler exercise, I’m better able to focus on what exactly I’m supposed to be doing.

But, if you have tried Side bend prep several times and are confident your shoulder is strong enough to stay in place while you lift your body, give the classic Side bend Pilates exercise a try.

How does the Side bend Pilates prep exercise relieve back pain?

Whether you’re practicing Side bend Pilates prep or the full Side bend exercise, you’ll do a movement called side flexion. This is when your spine bends straight to the side without rotating your chest forward or backward.

You just bend straight to the side.

This type of movement is perfect for relieving back pain for several reasons.

  1. Your spine needs to bend forward, reach back, rotate to each side, and bend to each side in order to be totally healthy and well-balanced.
  2. In day-to-day life, we don’t tend to bend straight to the side very often. Therefore, when you find a good side bending exercise that you like, it’s good to incorporate it into your exercise program a few times a week.
  3. Several of your major, pain-causing back muscles are responsible for helping you bend to the side.

So, which low back muscles are the trouble-makers?

When you’re trying to figure out exactly which of your low back muscles is causing your issues, you want to check out the

Cool fact: All three of these muscles work in a similar way. When one side of the muscle works, you bend to the side of the working muscle. But, when both sides of the muscle work, you reach back (kind of like when you stretch back in your chair).

How does the Side bend prep exercise relieve shoulder pain?

For many people with shoulder pain, the answer to feeling better is to practice strengthening exercises with correct form. This means you must be diligently monitoring your form as you do your exercises.

In Side bend prep, you want to start with an open chest (which puts your shoulders and shoulder blades in neutral on your back). Then, as you move, you strengthen your shoulder muscles from this neutral position. This makes your shoulders:

  • happy that they’re working from their favorite position–neutral,
  • more likely to stay in neutral when you’re done exercising, and
  • feel stronger + have less pain.

Unless you have a tear or separation, you should be able to relieve your shoulder pain with exercises. If your pain doesn’t go away or (God forbid!) gets worse, you need to call your doctor.

How to do Side Bend Pilates Prep

Side bend prep teaches us to lift with our obliques as we support ourselves with our knee, foot, and a neutral shoulder. As you do this exercise, feel:

  • your internal and external obliques working,
  • your strong shoulder lifting + supporting you,
  • how easily you can lift your hips away from the ground, and
  • a deep bend to the side as if you’re making a sideways “C.”

Side Bend Pilates Prep (Version 1)

getting ready to lift into side bend pilates prep
Start your Side bend prep like this…

lifting into side bend pilates prep
…and look like this as you do it.
  1. Use traditional Pilates breathing to inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips.
  2. Have a seat on your bottom.
  3. Bend your right leg, and place your right foot on the floor. Tuck your left leg under you so your left heel comes close to your bottom. Your left knee and your right foot should be in about the same line.
  4. Make sure you can still feel both SITs bones on the ground.
  5. Place your left hand on the ground in line with your left knee. Roll your left shoulder blade onto your back. Push the floor away.
  6. Lengthen your spine and engage your abdominals.
  7. Reach your right arm out, palm up. Let it briefly rest on the top of your right knee.
  8. Inhale to lift your arm and hips. Press into your left hand, left knee, and right foot to help you lift. Reach your arm straight by your ear.
  9. Exhale and really try to create a curve at your waist.
  10. Inhale and reach your arm toward the ceiling.
  11. Exhale and lower yourself back to your starting position.
  12. Do 3-5 reps.
  13. Switch sides.

Side Bend Pilates Prep (Version 2)

  1. Use traditional Pilates breathing to inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips.
  2. Take a seat on your bottom.
  3. Move your legs to the right, so they neatly stack on top of each other.
  4. Place your left hand on the ground in line with your knees. Roll your left shoulder blade onto your back. Push the floor away.
  5. Lengthen your spine and engage your abdominals.
  6. Reach your right arm out, palm up.
  7. Inhale to lift your arm and hips. Reach your arm straight by your ear.
  8. Exhale and really try to create a curve at your waist.
  9. Inhale and reach your arm toward the ceiling.
  10. Exhale and lower yourself back to your starting position.
  11. Do 3-5 reps.
  12. Switch sides.

For Visual Learners…

Sometimes, it’s just easier to watch someone do an exercise and then follow along to their verbal directions.

Want to learn more exercises to relieve your back pain?

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About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.