Pelvic tilts. Performed on the back with feet flat on the floor, pelvic tilts are a basic, yet incredibly useful exercise for drawing awareness to the client’s pelvic region and the musculature that supports it. While it’s a very simple movement, the pelvic tilt still can be difficult for clients with less body awareness. For stronger, more experienced clients, though, this exercise can feel like down time (even though it’s not!).
Here’s a solution to the latter problem. Add a tad more difficulty and deepen the abdominal work by performing pelvic tilts in a modified teaser. With the client seated, legs bent to 90 degrees, hands behind the knees, feet flat on the floor, ask the client to find their longest and tallest neutral spine. Then prompt the client to maintain that axial elongation while tilting off the sit bones and lifting the legs to a tabletop position.
Once the balance point is reached at the back of the sit bones, cue the client to begin moving through the forward and back motion of the pelvic tilt. The key with this version of the exercise is isolating the movement to the pelvis only. Just like in the traditional version, you want only the pelvis to move.
Remember that top hat cue from ages ago? Reintroduce it here but alter the cue to encourage the client to maintain contact with the top hat throughout the exercise and not let the height of the head and shoulders change.
Try it yourself first while looking in the mirror – it’s an incredible challenge to maintain the height of the head and shoulders. Not only do you feel intense engagement through the low abdominals and counterwork through the glutes, but the exercise is a great balance and stability challenge as well.
Take the challenge a step further by releasing the hands from the backs of the knees or even attempting pelvic tilts while is full Teaser!
Hip disassociation is a common theme across many Pilates exercises. We as instructors can often be heard asking clients to “isolate the movement to the hip joint” or to “reach out of the hip socket.” How many clients are really absorbing from that directive what we really mean? How many clients even know what that hip joint feels like in isolation? Hopefully more than a few, but to really illustrate this for your clients, especially those with less body awareness, try out this simple movement before you get them started on hip disassociation exercises.
With the client lying in a prone position, forehead on mat, arms long by the sides and legs straight and long on the floor, ask the client to prepare for the exercise by engaging through the abdominals and feeling the tripod of the hip and pubic bones pressing firmly into the mat. Begin the exercise by lifting one leg, keeping it as straight and as long as possible, until it is separated from the
mat from toe to upper thigh. Next, ask the client to begin rotating the leg in the hip socket, journeying from internal rotation to external rotation and back again, as if turning a key in a lock. Continue this movement for a count of 5 or 10 seconds before returning to a neutral leg position and returning it to the floor. Repeat on the other leg. Remind the client that through this movement, the goal is still length through the leg – always reaching for the wall beyond.
For added challenge, you can ask the client to float both legs off the mat and rotate them simultaneously. Another option is to add thoracic extension to this exercise by maintaining moderate height through the chest (to the base of the sternum) and lifting the arms off the floor while executing the rotation. And finally, create a coordination challenge to the last variation by adding internal and external rotation of the shoulder to match the hips. Again, always reaching long through the extremities.
Stretch, stretch, stretch. That’s what we have been conditioned to recommend when a client wants to lengthen their hamstrings. But what if that was all a myth? Well, it is. There are many studies and papers and articles (this one on livescience.com explains the misconception particularly well) that delve into the detail of why stretching is neither good for the muscle fiber, nor will it make the muscles permanently longer.
The illustration that is used over and over again (as Jules Mitchell of California State University, Long Beach does in the above mentioned article) is the rubber band. If you stretch out a rubber band to the point that it is permanently longer, what happens? It loses its durability and elasticity. That’s not what anyone is going for!
So, what’s the solution? Strength. A lot of perceived “shortness” in the hamstrings can be attributed to an imbalance of strength between the heavy-lifting quads on the front of the thigh and the hamstrings at the back.
Pilates has so many ways to approach the rebalancing of this strength dynamic. To get started on the mat, try bridging with a greater than 90-degree angle behind the knee and/or the feet perched on a box (use like the foot bar on the reformer). Bridging on the reformer adds an extra element of challenge, particularly with light spring resistance, as you challenge clients to keep the carriage in the “home” position throughout the entire movement.
A multitude of Pilates movements is likely popping into your heads as you read this – go with them. Pick some of your favorites that work the backs of the legs and add them into your regular repertoire. See if, over time, your clients make more progress towards a proper long-sit position with the legs straight than they did with traditional “stretching.”
A word about modifications. Modifications (namely, regressions) are vital to an instructor’s ability to cater to clients of varying abilities and most importantly to keep clients safe and prevent injury. But at what point are they actually hindering progress instead of just keep clients safe? If you always have your clients do The Hundred in a tabletop position, will they ever progress to the full exercise? If you always have a client perform Single Straight Leg Stretch with a bent leg, will their hamstrings ever lengthen?
As instructors, we have a duty to keep our clients safe, while, at the same time, managing expectations of improvement. Without progress, clients can become disheartened and unmotivated, and often miss the subtle benefits they are achieving along the way. We walk a fine line trying to balance a client’s needs with his or her goals. Don’t get me wrong, “Safety First” must be the motto, but how do you know when a client is ready to progress? Let’s look at a tactile cue that can help us understand how far a client has to go.
Today we’ll focus on The Hundred – a quintessential Pilates movement that gives clients a real sense of satisfaction when they can attain the full exercise.
Stand at the feet of your client while he prepares for the exercise in tabletop. Ask him to extend his legs to straight and to rest on your thighs with the balls of the feet in a “Pilates V” – like the first position of footwork. Adjust the distance you are standing from the client so that his feet are able to just contact your legs at a reasonable angle (the legs 45 degrees from the floor is a good place to start).
At this point, the client should begin the exercise. During the 100 counts, ask the client to lift first just one leg and perform a whole set of breath (5 counts in, 5 out) and then switch to the other leg. If this goes well ask for both legs to lift for a whole set of breath. As the client proves to himself and you that the elevated leg position is sustainable, increase the breath cycles to 2 and/or move your body away slightly to bring the legs closer to the floor. Continue this, over time, until the client can lift both legs from resting on floor to a sustained elevation of a few inches from the floor for the full 100 counts.
You can substitute your legs for a wall or box or chair if you have a larger group, but if you are able, the information you receive from the client’s contact with your body will be valuable in assessing how much you can safely push your client– How often do they rest their feet back down, even for a second? How heavilyare they resting their feet on you? And so on…
Rolling like a Ball, Seal, Crab, maybe even Open Leg Rocker have a few things in common, but today we’re going to focus on just one: momentum – how to cut out the bad habit and harness it for the good.
The fix for cutting out momentum serves a dual purpose of giving clients tactile feedback they can utilize to engage the proper forces to get back up withoutmomentum. The cue for today is actually a prop: the Pilates ball, about 8-10 inches in diameter and partially inflated.
Start with Rolling like a Ball (the learning here in Rolling can then be transferred to the other related exercises). Place the Pilates ball between the heels and the back of the thighs and ask the client to keep it there as she rolls back and then up again. If your client relies heavily on momentum and the classic “throwing the legs” cheat, she will struggle to get back up from the mat now that you’ve taken away the ability to open and close the angle behind the knee (or she’ll drop the ball). Allow this struggle to happen to illustrate to her just how much she has been depending on the swing action.
Then give her the cue to use the heels to squeeze the ball into the backs of her thighs as she begins the ascent back to the top of the movement. This allows the client to maintain the intention of the “leg throwing,” without actually using the common cheat. The mere intention of pulling the legs back toward the sit bones will create enough “force” for the client to use to complete the movement.
As with any new movement patterns, this one will take a few times to master, but successful mastery of it will enable the client to perform the many Rolling variations without the aid of momentum – opening up a whole world of benefits they were missing out on before.
A lot of times when we work with the hands behind the head, elbows bent and out to the side, we talk about “cradling” our head in our hands. It’s time to get away from that, and I’ll tell you why. First, it implies that the hands are going to do all the work and the head just lays limply like a newborn baby. Second, it encourages the cervical spine to come into exaggerated flexion as we rely on the hands to do the “pulling.”
Both of these habits take away from the main objective in most flexion-centric Pilates exercises – maintaining or moving into and out of asmoothcurve of the spine. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. Remember the push-pull action that we’ve talked about a few times? Today’s cue is a new application.
The pushing action comes from the head and neck, firmly pushing back against the hold of the hands. Give it a try. Just sitting in a chair create that classic, laid back image. Lean back, clasp your hands behind your head, thumbs pointing down, elbows to the side. Adjust the placement of the hands so that the thumbs are resting just below the base of the occiput and press firmly into the muscular insertion there with your thumbs. Finally, push the head back into the hands while firmly resisting (the “pull” of the push-pull in this scenario) the head with your hands. Immediately, your cervical spine lengthens.
Recreating the reciprocal forces while lying supine is a bit more subtle, so if your clients struggle to find the cervical length here, sit them up and walk them through the seated, leaned back process. Once they feel it in this more exaggerated scenario, they will have a better chance of utilizing the subtle push-pull to find the length while lying down.
The Rolldown is a part of nearly every Pilates class I’ve ever taken or given, sometimes twice in one class. This latest cue is one I’ve used a lot lately as I’ve tried to really emphasize to clients the space we want to create between our vertebra as we perform a roll down and the smooth, even curve we are going for over the length of the entire spine.
Bending over is such a standard movement – and one that people do every day. It’s so common, in fact, that I find clients struggle to grasp the ‘why’ of this exercise in the Pilates repertoire. It’s so natural to throw your hips back and reach down towards the floor – it’s a habit that needs to be broken, like biting your nails.
I’ve used the more common “dive up and over a beach ball” cue for ages without making much progress with regard to the hips specifically. Without a wall (or me) behind them as a tactile reference, clients tend to just resort to the known movement pattern of sending the hips back. Clients hear the “dive up and over” cue and are able to envision the roundness in the back and thus create some space between the thoracic vertebra, but what about the lumbar spine? Hinging at the hips to bend eliminates the ability to maximize lumber spine curvature. So let’s edit out that urge to hinge.
Try this cue: Have your clients walk up to an imaginary fence that reaches just a smidge over waist-height. Then imagine it’s wrapped in barbed wire (for added motivation). Now ask your client to reach over and pick up an imaginary ball (or flower or candy bar) on the other side of the fence, without touching the fence rail. Now, the key to this cue is the height of the fence…if it is at waist height or below, you can just hinge at the waist and reach over. The little bit of extra height is what requires the body to go UP and then over the railing, engaging strongly through the low abdominals and creating space and curve along the whole spine. The barbed wire…that’s just sadistic 😉
In Pilates we talk a lot about length and “reaching into length.” In fact, length is touted as one of the MAJOR BENEFITS to a regular Pilates routine. So, is there a place for plugging in and staying put?
I’d argue that “plugging in” is key for one joint in particular: the shoulder. We want the shoulders, no matter the body’s set up, to be plugged in. For exercises when the body is lying in supine, shoulders down and shoulder blades hugging towards the midline offer stability to and length through the spine. For exercises lying in prone, same thing – shoulder heads rolled down and back, shoulder blades hugging towards the midline. Weight-bearing exercises? You guessed it, shoulders square, engaging through the shoulder and across the shoulder blades to reduce winging and create a stable place for the arms to bear the weight. Arms in straps? – good luck trying to get that right if you’re not “plugged in.”
So what does “plugged in” mean, muscularly? I like to tell my clients to use their armpit muscles. Sometimes I poke them just under the armpit at the ribs to help them find their latissimus dorsi or teres major. The pectoral muscles are also involved. But let’s simplify the cueing for today and see if we can get our clients to “plug in” to their shoulders like a plug into an electrical socket, instead of dangling off of them.
After the month-long Pilates-exercise-per-day intensive that was March MATness, we’re going to chill out, hang ten and talk surfing.
I just got back from holiday and while away, I tried surfing for the first time. I was amazedat how much I referenced my Pilates knowledge to help me learn this new skill.
Actually, forget the surfing, let’s talk about the paddling. Oh, the paddling. It turns out you are meant to catch waves rather far away from the shore. This was by far the most unexpectedly difficult part of the whole endeavor for me!
What would have helped? – more prone exercises on the mat and definitely pulling straps on the reformer, among other things. The key was being able to sustain thoracic extension, while paddling with the arms for an extended period of time, without falling into the lower back or cranking the cervical spine out of fatigue. There’s actually a spinal condition specifically related to this called Surfer’s Myelopathy. It might be named for surfers, but it can be caused by any activity where hyperextension in the back is reached (read: Pilates and yoga).
So, what’s my point? Well, there’s the age-old criticism that Pilates has too much flexion, but the extension work has been there all along. Sustainably building stability and strength during thoracic extension has always been a cornerstone of Pilates work. So get your clients to work in extension and help them envision the correct position by cueing them to mimic the Surfer’s Paddle. Maybe you’ll even save someone from developing Surfer’s Myelopathy (not that it’s all that common…).
For our very last day of March MATness, the very bottom of Pilates’ list of original exercises, I give you a cue from the very bottom of our bodies. Think TOES.
When your client has found his or her perfect plank position, remembering the pelvic tilt and glute wrap from our previous post, draw the attention to the toes. Cue the client to use the toes to initiate a slight forward movement so that the body shifts forward an inch or two. Then initiate the pushup with a suggestion that the client try to touch the elbows to the hip bones. The slight forward shift of the body makes this elbow-hip connection plausible in the client’s mind and the attempt to create the connection ensures that the client is using the proper “elbows back” technique for the Pilates Pushup.
Phew! We made it! Are you as exhausted as I am? Turns out, Joe’s original mat work is just as awesome as we’ve always known it to be. Why else would there be so much interest and study around his work? I hope everyone has enjoyed the daily cues this month. I have loved getting back to the root of it all and understanding a bit more about the movements and exercises that have inspired so so many since the mid-20th century. Not surprisingly, I need a little break – as I’m sure you do too! – so hang tight and keep an eye out for the next cue in a week or two!
Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@worldisyourstudio) to find yours truly taking on the March MATness challenge day by day and on our usual hunt for hardcore Pilates and awesome views. And sign up for our Cuesletter to get these cues sent directly to your inbox and be the first to hear about them!