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.”
We are all taught to ask our clients to “use the breath.” But what do we really mean? What do we want our clients to do with the breath? We can recruit the breath to either increase or decrease intra-abdominal pressure to either support a movement or increase the challenge of the movement. That’s a lot to think about for a client. Can we cut the client a break and just relax?
Let’s use the breath to unwind. You know, take a deep breath, chill. Take the Bridge as a simple example. Lie on the mat, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, then let it out. Slooowly. Repeat. On the third breath, with the eyes still closed, as you exhale, imagine that the spine is heavy. So heavy it sinks into the mat, pulling your ribs and belly button with it. It’s weighted there, each vertebra. One more inhale and on the exhale, keeping the feeling of weight in your spine, use your hamstrings and glutes to do the “heavy lifting.” Inch by inch, bone by bone, send your tailbone towards the back of your knees and knees over toes. As each bone follows the vertebra before it and lifts off the mat, it is freed of its weight. Complete the movement with an inhale at the top and a long exhale as the vertebrae reconnect with the mat (and their weight) one by one.
Placing this breathing sequence with Bridging at the front of your class plan can also really help clients gain mindfulness and prepare them to approach the rest of class with an elevated level of body awareness.
One of the most common mistakes with beginning Pilates students is flaring or popping the ribcage during supine integration exercises. Flaring the ribs indicates a loss of control of the core abdominal muscles. For example, during bridging flaring the ribs can indicate that the student is using the lower back to maintain the bridge instead of the glutes, hamstrings and abdominal muscles. With an exercise incorporating arm arcs, ribcage flaring often means that the student is not maintaining awareness of the core during the exercise and he or she is not getting the true benefits associated with the cross body and muscular sling engagement that makes these exercises so beneficial. With a lower extremity, long-lever supine exercise, flared ribs indicate that the client should shorten the lever to regain control and remove undue stress and work from the lower back.
We can use many tactile cues to help clients be more aware of this common mistake, but in a larger class, it’s much harder to reach each student for tactile cueing without sacrificing class flow and momentum. In that setting, try asking the class to imagine that they have sandbags on their ribcage. This imagery can help a student to “feel” weight on his or her ribcage to remind them to use the abdominal muscles to keep the ribcage pulled tight and engaged.
Do some of your beginner students have trouble moving smoothly and segmentally up and down through the Pilates Bridge? I find that many clients want to lift their whole torso into the bridge and then put it back down in one swift, flat movement. By doing so, they lose all the spinal mobility benefits that can be gained from this staple exercise. Here’s an imagery cue that can help them understand both what you want from them, as well as how the spine is constructed. Knowledge is awareness is key!!
Picture an escalator. It moves smoothly, step by step; each piece fits into the one that precedes it and if one stops, the entire unit stops. Now imagine the boney segments of your spine as you move up and down through your Pilates Bridge. Each vertebrae must follow the one before it. From the top of your bridge, as you lay the thoracic vertebra back on the mat, beginning with T6 or T7 (usually the last one lifted off when at the top of the bridge) the next one follows in its path and lines up to be the next one to impress into the mat…all the way through the spine until your tailbone releases onto the mat. In the reverse, as the tailbone lifts to begin the movement, each lumbar vertebrae must follow in order before the thoracic vertebra have their turn.
Try the escalator cue next time you’re going through the bridging sequence with your client. See if you don’t get smoother, more segmental movement!
Create more effective pelvic awareness and hip disassociation during bridging with this Cue of the Day.
At the top of your bridge, imagine your pant pockets are full of heavy sand. To empty them out, drop first your right hip, then return to the top of your bridge. Now drop your left hip in the same way, maintaining height through your opposite hip. Alternate this way until every last grain of sand has been emptied. Center yourself at the top of your bridge and roll back down out of your bridge.
This cue allows for an intense variation on the basic Pilates bridge. By isolating one side and then the other, you create the opportunity for the client to mentally isolate the pelvis and gain awareness through the transverse abdominus while at the same time moving through an intense gluteal fold (glute shelf) workout.
Clients will benefit from coordination efforts, pelvic stability and tone through each of the gluteus muscles, as well as through the hamstring muscles and contralateral adductors.