Pilates for NSmen


Pilates? It’s an exercise for your mother, sister, wife or girlfriend, not for you. Don’t be too quick to give Pilates a miss. If you are a young man, heading for National Service or starting your first job, Pilates is actually a good exercise to build core muscles. Core muscles are the type of muscles to prevent back pain and keep your lumbar spine healthy.

Statistics show young men are most likely to suffer from work-related back pain than the rest of the workforce, which makes core exercise one of the best exercises to pick up if you are young, male and on your first job.


In Singapore, young male workers took the most medical leave (MC) from work due to back pain than any other workers. Some 76% of the back pain cases involved men, and 65% were young workers from 21 and 40 years old, according to data from the Workplace Safety and Health Institute. 

The data is based on cases of back pain reported to the Ministry of Manpower from 2013 to 2015, where the worker took three or more days of MC from work. About half of the reported cases took a longer MC of four to seven days.

Some 8 out of 10 workers who hurt their back were manual workers, and nearly four of the 10 affected workers were from transport and storage, construction, and accommodation and food service, the data showed. 

“More needs to be done,” the WSH Institute said in an overview of the cases.

“As affected workers are relatively young, the risk of recurrence and disability would affect their future work ability,” the agency said.


Why are young men most at risk of injuring their back? A plausible reason is young men often take a larger share of physical work than women and older workers. They are tasked to carry the heaviest items. This is also the case outside of work where they are often expected to do the heavy lifting at home and for friends. We expect our young men to be the Hercules at home and work, but sometimes they are not physically prepared for it. Our sedentary lifestyle is a factor. 

Being sedentary is a key factor for back pain among young men, as well as women, according to a 2017 study in India. The study surveyed 1,355 young adults who were preparing for entrance examinations to the civil service and medical schools. 

Young adults of 18 to 35 years old who spend more than five hours a day studying have “significantly” more back pain than those who spend less time at the desk and are active, the study showed.

Back pain at an early age is a prognosis for future back pain. Having your first back pain when you were a teenager at 14 years old increased your risk of back pain in adulthood, the researchers said citing an earlier study.


Core exercise is highly beneficial for young men, given they are at a high risk of developing back pain. Strengthening core muscles  prepare them for the rigours of National Service. For most new recruits, NS is likely the first time in their life that they have to carry and lift heavy loads. Running with a rifle and a full backpack for example, is a big change from the long hours spent studying for exams.

Core muscles are deep muscles of the trunk. As core muscles are located proximally to the lumbar spine, they play an important role in lumbar stability. Transversus abdominis and multifidus are two key core muscles. 

A 2011 study, published in the Manual Therapy Journal highlighted the importance of the TA and multifidus muscles in the prevention of back pain. Patients with chronic back pain were 4.5 times weaker in the contraction of the TA and multifidus when performing normal activities, compared to individuals with no back pain, the study showed.


Core muscles not only prevent back pain, but also allow the large back muscles to perform optimally. The multifidus muscle for example, helps maintain inter-segmental lumbar stability. Most types of back pain occur at certain section of the lumbar and sacral spine. The tightness for examples, may occur on L3 and L4 , or L5 and S1, or on the coccyx bone rather than on the entire low back. Strong core muscles prevent segmental tightness or compression.

Another benefit of core training is it helps prevent abdominal injuries. Diastasis recti (DR) is a common abdominal injury where there is a separation at the middle line of the rectus abdominis or the “six-pack” muscle. Heavy weightlifting and doing too many sit-ups are common causes of DR among active young men. DR is not a life-threatening condition, but someone who suffers from DR often feels a lack of abdominal strength. 

Strengthening core muscles help prevent and treat DR. Core contraction creates an intra-abdominal pressure which extends to the thoracolumbar fascia, the large connective tissue of the low back. The effect is a tightening of the trunk which protects the abdomen when doing weightlifting, sit-ups and other activities.


Pilates is one of the best exercises to do to improve core strength. Most men won’t have considered doing Pilates, as the exercise is often associated with women’s fitness. The bias may be due to how Pilates has been marketed, which has been primarily to women. But the bias is changing, as more people become aware of the benefits of core exercise, and more men are attending Pilates classes than before. 

The Pilates reformer — the most iconic equipment for core training — is not only found in Pilates studios today, but also in gyms and fitness centres. Cyclists are also interested in core exercise. For example, Pilates is an exercise USA Cycling — the American governing body for cycling — has endorsed since 2020. The cycling body encourages cyclists to do Pilates for strength and conditioning.


Core muscles are stabilising muscles of the lumbar spine and trunk. They help prevent back pain, and allow the back muscles to perform more optimally by preventing inter-segmental tightness. They also prevent abdominal injuries and compression to the low back when doing weight lifting, sit-ups and other activities which require trunk flexion or extension.

A sedentary lifestyle, where young adult spent a lot of time at the desk studying is a cause of back pain. Young men are more at risk of developing acute back pain than young women, as they bear more of the heavy lifting whether in NS, at home or at work.

When you first do Pilates, there is a high chance you may not like it, particularly if you are more familiar with gym exercise. Training stabilising muscles unlike big muscles of the body requires a different technique. With big muscles, the weight used needs to be more, and the time spend on each exercise repetition is shorter due to the weight. In contrast, with stabilising muscles, the weight is less, but you would hold longer and do each repetition at a slower pace to improve stability. 


At first, Pilates exercise may seem slow and deliberate. But give it a chance. Do Pilates a few more times. You may find that you actually enjoy the exercise, and enjoy having good control over your trunk muscles. Don’t let back pain affect the best years of your life.

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    The Best Part, My Lower Back Pain Has Gone Away

    I attended Pilates classes because of my lower back pain that came about after National Service. I had fears prior to joining May’s Pilates session as the only guy in class, but her non-judgemental attitude very quickly eased my worries and concerns. I started to enjoy the sessions more and more each week with her patient guidance. The best part is that now my lower back pain has gone away!

    Less tired after a long day at work

    I am in my 40s. I can feel that my lower back and kneecap are starting to weaken. After I attended May's Pilates lessons, I can feel that I have improved in terms of strength, fitness and balance. I have learned to strengthen and stretch certain parts of our body muscles that we rarely work on in our daily life. My body posture has also improved tremendously, and I feel less tired after a long day of work in front of a computer.


    "I'm in my early 20s. Having a lower back strain for close to 3 years, I can really feel the difference after attending May's Pilates group lessons. I’ve been attending for 10 weeks. I can feel that my posture has improved significantly and my back doesn't hurt as often as before. Thank you!"

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