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.
Today we’re channeling the alphabet. Specifically, the letter P.
A lot of Neck Pull can be likened to the Rollup, in fact, you can use the arm positioning of Neck Pull to progress the Rollup for advanced clients (hands cradling the head instead of straight overhead, increases the difficulty significantly). What really differentiates the Neck Pull for me is the goal of incredible spinal flexion at the top of the movement.
The final shape of Neck Pull is something like the letter “P” lying on its side. – head kissing the knees, if possible. This is clearly a stretch (pun intended) for hamstring length, but more importantly, creating a smoothly rounded spine from tail to crown of head is an immense challenge for even the most flexible of spines. Often clients feel that this is a completely unattainable exercise – giving them the visual of what the goal looks like (the letter “P”) helps to ground their efforts in something solid and relatable.
Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@worldisyourstudio) to find yours truly taking on the March MATness challenge day by day. And sign upfor our Cuesletter to get these cues sent directly to your inbox and be the first to hear about them!
Rollup, Rolldown, Rollover. How do we help clients flow these exercises? What will help them see these as smooth, continuous movements? Do you see them this way?
Let’s take a step back. When performing these exercises, we can invoke images of diving up and over a beach ball, pumpkin, Pilates circle, [insert your favorite round object as space-holder here]. These cues get us the proper form on the end of the exercise where our spines are in the most flexion. But, what about the rest of the movement? Should it be staccato and choppy? Does it have a clear starting and end point? Well, maybe, but I’d argue that you can get more out of the exercise by making it a smooth, flowing, continuous movement.
So, how do we create this smooth, continuous flow and help clients see the segmental spine movement in these exercises as fluid? I like the image of a pulley system. The most recognizable example of this is a bike chain. Have the client imagine that his or her entire body is the chain and it is continuously moving around the cogs of the bike (for those into cycling, you will most definitely take offense to me saying cog here – chain ring and cassette are the proper terms). Each of the vertebrae is a link in the chain and the cogs take the place of the beach ball in our earlier discussions, maintaining space in the vertebrae as the client reaches the point of where the spine is in the most flexion, and then moves away as the direction of motion is reversed (backpedaling on the bike, in case anyone needs further imagery). The chain is always in motion, either forwards or back, throughout the entire exercise, bringing rhythm and flow to these full body exercises. You could even try flowing two of these exercises together: Rollover to Rollup and back again.
Maintaining space and length in the spine during thoracic flexion is a challenge. Teaching a client to do the same is even more difficult. When the exercise calls for the client to reach over straight legs (either seated or standing), ask them to imagine a beach ball is placed right at the crux of the hips. Then ask them to curve their spine up and over the beach ball. This emphasizes that the hips should not hinge and that the lumbar remains long as the thoracic spine curves up and over the ball. Once thoracic mobility improves, this cue will facilitate the client’s attaining the desired “U” shape at the end of the movement.
Another thing to note is that if you happen to have an appropriately sized ball in your studio, using this as a prop to physically illustrate this cue is incredibly helpful.