Learn the Cat and Cow Back Stretch Exercise

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Cat and Cow Back Stretch Instructions

Woman on red background in cat yoga pose.
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Cat-cow back stretch and extension is a wonderful, balanced exercise for the back because it is both a stretch (cat), and an extension (cow) exercise. It tones and stretches the abdominal muscles as well. Cat-cow develops flexibility in the spine, and is one of the exercises often recommended for back pain.

If you have taken exercise classes in the past, chances are that you've been introduced to cat-cow. It comes from yoga and is one of the exercises that Pilates and yoga share.

Cat-cow is really a combination of two yoga poses, cat and cow. It is often done as a warm up exercise. However, once you understand the support from the abdominals, and the length of the spine in action, you might want to do it with more energy later in your practice.

What You Need to do the Cat and Cow Exercises

The cat and cow are mat exercises. All you need is an exercise mat for comfort. You can do this exercise anywhere you can lay down your mat.

Moving into Cat Pose

Let's start on the feline end of the exercise. How often have you seen a cat with a high, arched back? You'll be imitating a cat, however, we hope you aren't a 'fraidy cat, this will be a nice stretch. Like a cat that just got up from a warm bed and is getting ready to prowl.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees on your exercise mat. Your hands are directly under your shoulders, and your legs are in a true hip width apart position, putting your knees directly under you hips. Your toes can be curled under if that is comfortable.
  2. Engage your abdominal muscles to support your spine so that you have a straight line from your ear to your hip.
  3. Inhale.
  4. Then, on your exhale, pull your abdominal muscles in and up as you arch your back way up like a stretching cat. At the same time, let your head and tailbone drop down toward the floor.
  5. Take the stretch further by imagining that you are bringing your head and tailbone together, as if you were going to make a big circle of your body.

Next, move to the cow pose part of this exercise.

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Cow Pose Part of Cat - Cow Exercise

Woman does cow pose
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Moving into Cow Pose

Now we head out to the barnyard and the benign bovine. This is the extension part of the cat-cow.

  1. From cat pose, use an inhale to reverse the curve of the spine.
    Your tailbone moves up and your chest moves forward and up. Your neck is a long extension of your spine. Don't let the head fall back. Be sure to support this move with your abdominals.
  2. Imagine that your head and tail are moving so far away from each other that at a certain point the only thing they can do is start to curve up.
  3. This is a lengthening move for the spine. Please don't collapse like an old swayback horse!
  4. Repeat the exercise - going from cat to cow and back - slowly, with the breath at least two more times.

Learn more exercises that Pilates and yoga share.

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