The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

pilates back bend

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Welcome to the third installation of The Shape of All Things Pilates, exploring the organization of the Pilates exercises into Body Shapes, as taught by Karen Frischmann and Sandy Shimoda of Vintage Pilates in Los Angeles.

3. The Arched Back

Within the Pilates exercises there are 2 arches to be found:

  • The Upper Back Arch is found in exercises like Pull and T on the Reformer, Spread eagle on the Cadillac and Arm Circles on the Small Barrel
  • The Full Back Arch is more advanced and includes Backbends on the Ladder Barrel, High Bridge and Tree on the Reformer

Both arches can be found in the Swan on the Ladder Barrel: a Full Back Arch followed by an Upper Back Arch.

The Upper Back Arch

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

You can learn to cultivate and perfect your Upper Back Arch on the Small Barrel with the Arm Circles series.

Your head may not be in contact with the barrel at first, but as you begin to move and stretch the back up and over the barrel your position will change allowing even more of your upper back and head to be on the barrel.

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Reach both arms overhead at the same time to create a shape reminiscent of the Swan exercise. Be sure to anchor all of your back into the Small Barrel as your Upper Back Arch requires a lot of support from the stomach and the seat. Your tailbone must root into the mat to enable the back to lift up and away from it.

A case for the Tall Back

Remember that the Tall Back is inherent in all the other Body Shapes including the Arched Back. Finding length and lift ensures that your arch does not ‘dump’ into one area of the back, commonly the low back, but is evenly distributed along the entire back as much as possible.

Take it to the Mat


So all your hard work on the Small Barrel ain’t been in vain fer nothin’…

Let’s see if you can recreate the Arched Back for the Swan on the Mat.

When you need the most help.

Summon all your forces from the Small Barrel and throw in a little Down Stretch from the Reformer to boot.

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Again, what goes on in the lower body can help the upper body. Use the reaching away of the lower body as you lift up and away into your imaginary Small Barrel.

The Full Back Arch

The Full Back Arch is a more advanced position. Backbends can be very beneficial for the back. However, backbends require strength and length in the back to feel their very best.

I have always been able to do a backbend – I can get it done, but don’t hate me too much – but the strength that I gain and apply from all the other Pilates exercises improves my backbends to the point where they feel so good to do. They felt okay before, but using the support of the Barrels to tap into your *gasp* stomach makes them feel delicious.

Next Stop: The Spine Corrector

After the Upper Back Arch at the Small Barrel, you can use the Spine Corrector in a couple different ways to work on the Full Back Bend. Different positions on it will work better for different backs.

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

The Shapr of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Which one do you think works best for me?

I feel best in the position in the 2nd photo. This orientation on the Spine Corrector allows the arch to be exactly where I need it most, in the upper back. It is a more challenging position and if you’ll scroll up to my Swan on the Mat photo you’ll see why.

The other orientation on the Spine Corrector in the 1st photo only helps me flare my ribs out more…not necessary.

Backbends on the Ladder Barrel

The Ladder Barrel is a wonderful, fully-supported place to work on your High Bridge. Even if you’re not interested in High Bridge the backbends here are still good for you. Hold onto whichever rung you are able to reach.

*Safety note: Place your Ladder Barrel against a wall to do this exercise. My carpet is very secure. I had to be careful while taking the photo. The wall will ensure the Barrel does not move when you are in mid-backbend.

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Well, If you’re like me your fingertips may barely graze the ladder.


If you are taller you can progress and hold onto a lower and lower rung as you do each repetition.

Reach to the lowest rung and make all us shorties jealous.

The Barrels: So easy to love

The Barrels are a wonderful help in perfecting the shape of the Arched Back. With several barrel choices: Small Barrel, Spine Corrector and Ladder Barrel, you can choose the one that is best for your particular back.

Use them well and they can be your inner guide and always be with you, especially in the Mat exercises Swan Dive, Swimming and Rocking and OMG even the Pull Straps and T!

Questions about The Arched Back? Leave a comment below, we’re happy to help.

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Andrea Maida

Andrea Maida

A native of Pittsburgh, Andrea began her study of the Pilates method in 2000. She holds two comprehensive certifications from Romana’s Pilates in New York and Excel Movement Studios in Washington, DC.  Andrea continues to study with numerous world-class instructors including Romana Kryzanowska, Jay Grimes, Sari Mejia-Santo, Junghee Kallander, Cynthia Lochard, and Kathryn Ross-Nash whenever possible. Andrea was privileged to be in the inaugural class of The Work at Vintage Pilates under the direction of Jay Grimes, 1st Generation Master Teacher and student of Joseph Pilates.

From the Community

  1. Avatar


    Member since 2016

    Thanks Andrea. Really helped me to think about how each barrel affects spinal extension & thereby use them more effectively with my clients.

    • Andrea Maida

      Andrea Maida

      Member since 2012

      Hi there –
      Thanks so much for reading and for reaching out here to connect and share your thoughts. So glad you found this post to be helpful to you in your teaching 🙂 Keep up the good work!xo

  2. Andrea Maida

    Andrea Maida

    Member since 2012

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your questions.

    My understanding is that the closed up positions of the exercises you mention are uncomfortable for your client. And the legs want to grip.

    Rather than modify the exercises, I might only adjust the Stomach Massage slightly – either have her sit back further or put the Reformer in 2nd gear for a while. The other exercises I would either continue to do, or if you feel she does not get the benefit of them see what you would add elsewhere that would help to stretch out the tightness in the hips, legs and psoas. Spine corrector, a thigh stretch standing at the Ladder Barrel, leg springs, anything that would whittle away at the tightness over time will make the exercises that you mention gradually get better. Maybe Spine stretch you could omit for a bit if it is too uncomfortable, but the Saw – because of the scoliosis would be beneficial. See if you can refocus her seated position on the inner thighs in this one… I sometimes place my hands just on the insides of the heels and tell them to press inward like they would use a Magic Circle (an imaginary one) – may help to turn on the inner thighs and ease up the leg tension… Hope this is helpful and let me know how it goes 🙂

  3. Avatar

    linda nottberg

    Member since 2014

    I have an intermediate client with some scoliosis as well as an extra tight psoas. How could I modify exercises like Stomach Massage or Spine Stretch Forward, or The Saw, so that she can access them. I’ve tried raising her up onto the box but she still has severe gripping in her legs.
    thanks so much.
    I love your site and get a lot of good information.

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