Changing Up Pelvic Tilts

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.

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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!

Lengthening through the Cervical Spine – Using the Push-Pull Strategy

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.

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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.


Forget the Crunch, Smoothly ARC Your Way to Stronger, Longer Abs

Let’s talk about the crunch.  The term brings to mind workout videos (VHS, of course) from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  It conjures images of a pinched face and a million reps.  Outdated, right?  Well, not really.  The crunch is still part of almost every exercise repertoire.  It may not be called a “crunch” – we certainly don’t call it that in Pilates – but let’s be honest, the movement of lifting your head, neck and shoulders off the floor while at the same time decreasing the distance between your nose and your knees, is what, traditionally, has been called a “crunch.”

Why are fitness disciplines, including Pilates, shying away from the term “crunch?”  Quite possibly because a “crunched” body is nobody’s goal.  So, how do we get clients to do this quintessential ab workout without “crunching?”  How do we stay true to a goal of elongation and space between the vertebrae while tapping into one of the most traditional and effective abdominal exercises?

First, cue bones.  To avoid the “crunch” of the cervical spine coming into extreme flexion as the chest lifts, initiate the movement by cueing the rib-hip connection.  The rib-hip connection can see us through almost any supine abdominal challenge.  It can help initiate the movement and it can also give us a reference point as we try to maintain the chest lift position throughout certain exercises – “maintain the distance between your bottom rib and your hip bone…”  This also works for cross body supine ab work such as the Criss Cross.  Cue the right rib to left hip bone and vice versa.

Second, cue smooth arcs.  The traditional crunch is rather staccato: Up, down.  Up, down.  Up, down.  If we tweak the cueing slightly, we can create an arc of movement, rather than a crunch.  With a smooth arc of movement, the exercise is effective in the upward movement as well as on the return, through eccentric muscle contraction as the muscles elongate.


To help create a visual for your client, you can use any arc that feels relevant to you.  A rainbow, the St. Louis Arch, the Kintai Bridge of Japan or a more humble crust of a slice of pie (if you’re like me an just finished gorging over the holidays, a slice of pie is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an arc).   In the start position, with your head resting on the floor, imagine the arc is hovering just above the head, one end resting on the floor and the other end hovering knee-height above your pubic bone.  Ask your client to elongate the crown of his or her head to the edge of the arc, creating length in both the spine in the abdominals.  Then have him or her begin to trace the inside of the arc, maintaining that length and connection with the arc to the top of the movement and again on the way back down.

Don’t give up on the crunch!  Just slow it down and smooth it out.  And give it a more apt name.  Ab Arcs anyone?


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Growing Taller From the Ground Up

Imagine…a woman puts one leg up to rest on a plush chair, then she begins pulling up her silk stockings, slowly and seductively, inch by inch, all the way to the top of her thigh.  We’ve all seen that scene in a movie.  What does this have to do with Pilates you ask?  Well, a lot.

It gets at the question: how do we stand taller and create length from the ground up?  Whether planting the foot firmly on the mat, or the foot bar or whatever surface we’re working on, we are working with more than just bones stacked neatly upon bones.  Our legs are literally stockings of muscle.


Stand up.  Take a moment to bring awareness to the feet.  Focus that awareness on your toes, the blade and heel of your foot.  Feel them firmly pressing into the mat.  Now shift the awareness to the arches of your feet.  Begin the lift here.  Lift through your arches and feel the muscle engagement travel up the leg in slow motion.  Mentally “pull up” your stockings of muscle, inch by inch, just like the woman in the movie scene pulling up her stockings.  Continue all the way up the thigh to the pelvic floor.

This chain of engagement naturally continues from the pelvic floor to the TA, all the way up the spine to the crown of the head.  Until you just might actually be that elusive inch taller – not to mention properly aligned and ready to get the most out of the exercise.


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Happy Halloween! Reach for Your Inner Witch!

At the end of a class, many Pilates instructors tout the line “feel that you’ve grown an inch taller today.”  What’s more accurate, probably, would be to say “feel that you’ve found and extra inch in your height today.”  And that might actually be possible for some.

Consider for a moment, sitting up straight, as tall as you can.  Could you possibly sit up any taller?  Most likely, you could.  If you were told to hug into your midline, lift your pelvic floor and create space between your vertebra.  All fine and good, but what about your clients?  Would that granular instruction work for them?  Where is the midline?  And how on Earth do we find the pelvic floor (more on that here)?

Today’s cue has the purpose of giving the client a goal when it comes to axial elongation; something they can reach for, quite literally.  Ask the client to imagine a witch’s black, pointy-tipped hat (still going with the season here, but a top hat works just as well) hovering just above his or her head when she’s seated.  Ask the client to sit up straight and reach the spine into length in order to fit the hat onto her head.

I find this is most effective at the end of a movement.  For instance, as the client comes to the top of Assisted Rollup and is meant to find a neutral spine and pause, give the cue as she is reaching for axial elongation and neutral spine.  You’ll find that the client will give you a little extra reach, possibly that elusive extra inch, if you give her a something to reach for!


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Pelvic Floor and the Use of Cues to Illustrate the Purpose of a Movement

So we’ve all been that new person in the class who looks around to see if the instructor is kidding when he/she tells us to engage or lift the pelvic floor.  We try squeezing our glutes, sitting up taller and generally just squirming and hoping to hit the general vicinity of the pelvic floor. It’s clear we have no idea what to do.

But what is also clear, is that it’s really hard for instructors to help us with this “engagement.”  There are zero tactile cues to help us locate this muscle that could be considered appropriate and I’ve heard any manor of cringe-worthy verbal cues.  My personal favorites include “lift your lady parts” and “squeeze the muscle that you would use to keep a tampon from falling out.” That last one came from a male physio, beet red with embarrassment!

This gets back to the fundamental issue – cues need to be relatable and accessible, maybe even universally so.  If a cue makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably making some others in the class feel the same way.  Cues need to serve a purpose: ask yourself why is it important for the client to be aware of a certain muscle or chain during a particular movement?  Analyzing the purpose behind movements and muscle groups can help us come up with great cues.

Back to the pelvic floor – engaging through the midline (including the pelvic floor!) in a seated position can add inches to a client’s seated height – in other words, it is integral to axial elongation.  Even though we know this, locating and isolating the pelvic floor is no easy feat, and describing it to a client is even more challenging.


The following cue helps illustrate, not just the muscles you’re interested in drawing attention to, but also their purpose.  Imagine that the trunk is an elevator shaft and the spine is the thick cable that the elevator car runs along.  Now imagine that the elevator car is on the ground floor.  Ask the client to steadily move the elevator up to the crown of the head, along the cable, or spine.  This is a challenge – mentally and physically – when you first set out, but once the imagery is in place, the movement becomes much more accessible.  For added benefits and challenge, have the client return the car back to the ground floor, gradually and with control.  Moving the elevator up and down the cable will increase awareness of those deep muscles so that the next time the client is asked to use them, they are easier to locate.


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Pilates Reference Cues – Using Hundreds to Cue the Pilates Repertoire

Earlier this week, we talked about how Pilates exercises themselves are sometimes the best cues for more difficult or complicated movements in the repertoire.  Bridging came to mind first, but there’s another that is imbedded in SO many exercises.  The Hundred.


The Hundred teaches us a ton about how to organize our whole bodies, including the breath.  Many clients think about this as an intense, nearly impossible ab workout, but what’s really going on is a lot more central to Pilates and the overarching benefits we preach about.

The Hundred is all about organization of the body and recruiting the total body, including the breath to perform an incredibly difficult task.  The Hundred cannot be performed without the body engaging toward the midline from the toes all the way to the neck.  Try it.  Attempt Hundreds without hugging the legs together, without lifting through the pelvic floor and lower abdominals and without using the oblique slings to pull it all together.  Now try it without organizing your head neck and shoulders.  Now try breathing into your abdomen instead of into the sides of your ribcage.  It’s near impossible.  Your legs won’t lift, your lower back arches, your head seems to weigh 100 pounds and it all falls apart even further when you try to inhale.

Mastering body organization and breath is imperative for the success of Hundreds, but it is also necessary in order to gain the most from other exercises as well.  Referring back to the body organization and muscle recruitment that made clients successful with Hundreds, can help them understand the proper organization and alignment that many other exercises require.

These exercises run the gamut from the obvious – other supine abdominal exercises (Chest Lift, Assisted Roll Up and Roll Up, Single Leg Stretch, Single Straight Leg Stretch, Double Straight Leg Stretch, Criss Cross, Neck Pull) to full body (Teaser and Leg Pull; you can even make an argument for Leg Pull Front, Push Up, Plank) and inversion (Jack Knife, Controlled Balance, etc.) exercises.

It all comes back to Hundreds.

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Perfecting Posture – The Occipital Touch

So your client can get to a neutral spine no problem.  He or she has just the right amount of kyphosis in the thoracic curve, lordosis in the lumbar curve and the chin tucked back and in to create the optimal cervical curve to perfectly perch the head at the top of the vertical gravity line.  Whew!  Your client can do neutral.

But there’s more to posture than just a neutral spine.  This is where axial elongation is key.  Achieving this requires engagement all the way from the arches of the feet, up the inner thigh and pelvic floor to the front and back of the trunk.  But there’s more.  Try it.  What’s missing?  How can we cue the client to engage and elongate through the cervical spine?

One-on-one with a client, the occipital touch cue is magical and immediately effective.  To do this, put the pointer finger of your hand on the neck, behind the earlobe, just where the jaw bone comes in (this is where the occiput bone of the skull ends).  Put your thumb on the neck, just where it begins to spread out to connect to the shoulder.  Then spread these two fingers gently, maintaining contact with the client’s body (It helps to employ both hands so you can do this on both sides of the neck). The effect is direct and instantaneous.  The client’s neck will grow an inch in length and any slight inconsistencies with the posture lower down on the spine will be corrected.  Try it – on yourself, as you read this.


Unfortunately, as many of us teach in a larger class setting, there’s no way we can walk around and employ the magical occipital touch on all the students.  Here’s where the imagery cue comes in.  Imagine you are wearing long, dangly earrings.  They are so long that they just touch your shoulders.  Create enough length through your neck and cervical spine to lift the earrings off your shoulders so they can dangle freely.  Et voilà.

This is also a really effective cue (both the corrective touch and the imagery) for clients who tend to tense their shoulders and let them creep upwards.

Copyright © 2017, Cueing Theory, All rights reserved.

Sit Up Taller – Axial Elongation is Key

Joseph Pilates said, “Good posture can be successfully acquired when the entire mechanism of the body is under perfect control.  Graceful carriage follows as a matter of course.”  In other words, when axial elongation is achieved, the body’s alignment allows for greater freedom and efficiency of movement.  The problem is, how do we get our clients to that point?  How do you explain that perfect posture isn’t just unhunching your shoulders?

Try this: Imagine someone holding a bunch of balloons on a string that is attached to the crown of your head.  Now imagine that the person lets go.  As the balloons float upwards, the string pulls your crown with it and forces you to sit up very straight – inches taller than you were.  You call upon your cervical, trunk and pelvic floor musculature in order to eek a bit more height out of your spine and pelvic skeletal structures.  This lengthening creates more space between your vertebra, also known as axial elongation, allowing for that increased freedom and efficiency of movement, or “graceful carriage.”

This cue can be used to correct positioning during specific exercises (spine twist, mermaid, standing balance, etc.) where the posture is meant to be maintained throughout, or we can use this to properly set up for other exercises that begin in or pass through this position (rollup, standing roll down, spine stretch, saw, and so many more!).

See if this cue doesn’t help your clients feel just a tad bit taller when they leave class!


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Just Smile

Imagine the worst shoulder posture you can think of.  See it? Now what does it make you think of?  It looks sad to me, like a frown.  If you can picture the collar bone in this position, it is downturned, just like a sad face.

Now, turn that frown upside down!

Imagine a smile spreading across the collarbones and watch shoulder posture transform from sad and limp to happy and purposeful and upright!


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