Use the Cat/Cow Exercise to Relieve Back Pain and Strengthen Your Core Muscles

When you’ve got back pain, the Cat/Cow exercise can help you feel better immediately. Plus, it strengthens your core muscles to ensure you won’t hurt later.

cat/cow exercise

Although they are technically two different yoga poses, the Cat/Cow exercise is normally done in one seamless flow. These two yoga classics go together better than peas and carrots — and not just because I’ve never met anyone who likes that vegetable combination.

In fact, when you smoothly move from spinal flexion (like when you’re in Cat pose) to spinal extension (like when you’re in Cow pose), you’re doing a ton of good for your spine. You’re strengthening it, stretching it, and relieving back pain in the process.

Truly, this is one of the most magical yoga pose combinations because of its ability to relieve aches + pains in your whole back.

Here’s more about Cat pose, Cow pose, and how to merge the two together into the Cat/Cow exercise to relieve your back pain and strengthen your core muscles.

So, How Does the Cat/Cow Exercise Relieve Back Pain?

The Cat/Cow exercise is a fantastic way for people of all fitness levels (and in varying amounts of pain) to practice in-home pain relief.

When you arch your back toward the ceiling (for the Cat portion of the exercise), you are strengthening your abdominals and stretching your spinal muscles. This is called spinal flexion, and it’s one of four ways your spine needs to move to be healthy and pain-free.

Then, when you extend your spine, you are strengthening your spinal muscles and stretching your abdominals. This is called spinal extension.

So, in this little yoga combo, you move your spine in two of the four directions necessary for a healthy, pain-free back.

But, the real beauty of this Cat/Cow exercise is that when you move carefully, it’s virtually impossible to hurt yourself.

Truthfully, I love Cat pose so much that it’s one of the staple pain-relieving exercises in Spinal Rejuvenation, my online video course which teaches people everything they need to do for immediate + permanent pain relief.

Plus, Cat pose is an excellent exercise for folks who are trying to relieve hip pain. Here’s more about how Cat/Cow exercise strengthens your core.

What’s Your Core?

Your core is a small word used to describe a sort of large group of muscles that work together. The muscles included in your core are your:

  • 4 abdominal muscles. From deepest to most superficial, your abdominal muscles are the transverse abdominisexternal obliquesinternal obliques, and rectus abdominis.
  • erector spinae group muscles. The erector spinae is a term for several muscle groups that run along your spine. These muscles fill approximately the middle half of your back.
  • 5 adductor muscles. Your adductors are another word for your inner thigh muscles. All along your inner thigh, you have your adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, pectineus, and gracilis.
  • gluteus maximus. Plain and simple, your gluteus maximus is the large muscle in your booty. (Yes, there is a muscle there.)
  • iliopsoas group muscles. The iliopsoas group is a collective term for your iliopsoas major, iliopsoas minor, and iliacus. These muscles work together to flex your hip. (This means they’re the ones responsible for lifting your leg in front of your body.)

How Does Your Core Work?

All of the muscles listed above work to counter-balance each other. Often the muscles on the same side of your body work together.

For example, your abdominals and psoas muscles often do similar jobs. When these muscles work, the gluteus maximus and erector spinae muscles often need to stretch to keep everything balanced.

Similarly, your gluteus maximus is often involved when you work your erector spinae muscles. When these muscles work, the abdominals and psoas muscles need to stretch to keep everything balanced.

The adductors aren’t really on the front or the back of the body. However, they work with all the other core muscles—depending on the exercise. They’re sort of a wild card here because there’s no 100% rule about when they work.

Why Should You Have a Strong Core?

When all of your core muscles are balanced and working correctly, your body moves as it should. This makes you less likely to get hurt.

If you are already in pain and start strengthening your core muscles, you can find some pain relief as your muscles start to re-learn how and when they’re supposed to work.

For this reason, strengthening your core muscles is beneficial for anyone wanting to relieve back pain and for anyone wanting to stay pain-free.

What You Need to Know About Doing Cat Pose

cat cow exercise

When you do Cat pose, you’re going to roll through your spine so you arch your back toward the ceiling. This stretches the spine and strengthens the abdominals.

Although this seems really easy and straightforward, many people don’t make the most out of their Cat pose.

In Pilates, we learn that with mindfulness and intention, you can craft different feelings in your body as you move through Cat stretch.

For example, you can choose to start rolling up from your pelvis, from your head, or from a combination of both. You’ll notice that making a choice about how you want your body to move changes your entire experience.

Then, once you are arched up, you have to decide how to lengthen out. Do you want to come out head first, tail first, or from your mid-back out? It’s up to you.

What You Need to Know About Doing Cow Pose

cat cow exercise

When you practice Cow pose, you have two basic versions to choose from. First, you can decide to just open your upper back—meaning your abdominals help hold your middle and lower back in neutral.

This version is great for anyone who is particularly tight in their neck, shoulders, and upper back. Plus, it’s a wonderful way to prepare for the second version of Cow pose.

I always have folks start with this version of Cow pose if they’re struggling with back pain.

In the second version of Cow pose, you let your whole spine move into extension. When I practice this version, it reminds me of when you’re really searching for something and have to turn your purse all the way out.

Here, you’re doing the same thing but with your spine. You’re allowing your spine to completely move into extension.

How to Do the Cat/Cow Exercise

  1. Use ujjayi breathing and inhale and exhale through your nose while you move.
  2. Begin on your hands and knees in Table pose with your hands under your shoulders and your hands under your hips. Take the time to ensure everything is in good alignment. You want to particularly make sure your pelvis is in neutral and you’re pushing the floor away from you through your hands and the tops of your feet.
  3. Draw your abdominals to your spine.
  4. Inhale here.
  5. Decide how you would like to round your spine for Cat pose.
  6. Exhale and round up. Feel how your spine is completely flexed and curved.
  7. Decide how you would like to lengthen your spine and which form of Cow pose you would like to do.
  8. Inhale to lengthen to a long spine then allow your heart to rotate forward as you move into your preferred version of Cow pose.
  9. Exhale to lengthen to a long spine then round up to Cat pose.
  10. Practice several rounds of this Cat/Cow combination.
  11. When you are finished, end with a long spine.

A Free Cat/Cow Exercise Video

Sometimes, it’s just easier to watch a video and have someone talk you through it.

Before You Do the Cat/Cow Exercise, Don’t Forget…

Before you practice the Cat/Cow exercise, don’t forget that this shouldn’t cause any back pain. If you start feeling pain, stop.

Any pain you might feel in your shoulders, hips, or spine is probably from abdominal disengagement. This simply means that your abs decided to take a break when they shouldn’t have.

Try again, making sure to keep your abdominals lightly engaged while you move.

If this doesn’t fix your pain, stop doing this exercise for today. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do the yoga Cat/Cow exercise; it just means that today isn’t the right day for it.

Is the yoga Cat/Cow exercise your favorite way to strengthen and stretch your spine? Let us know in the comments below.

About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! After experimenting with the very best and easiest ways to relieve hip + back pain, I figured out a powerful combination of exercises to ditch pain and get back to living a completely active life. Are you ready to get started?