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 😉
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.
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.
A seasonal visual today…I’m going to harken back to a previous post and update it for Halloween…because I’m sure your clients are begging for some Pilates images to go with their Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
Remember that beach ball? We were diving up and over it to maintain space in our vertebra as we isolate flexion in the thoracic spine. Embrace the season and imagine instead a big, fat jack-o-lantern. Check back to the beach ball post for all the juicy details, but for quick reference, use this one for Rollup, Standing Rolldown, and Spine Stretch.
One of the most pertinent reference points for Pilates students is Pilates itself. So many of the exercises build on each other and it is a great tool to be able to refer back to some of the movements achieved in an exercise the client knows well, in order to set the stage for a new or more challenging sequence.
Let’s start the discussion today with a gimme. Bridging. It’s one of the first exercises we learn and a staple in class planning. I’ve mentioned the escalator cue for bridging in an earlier article, so let’s build on that. As a client becomes more familiar with the segmental spine movement inherent to bridging, it is an easy one to refer back to when we introduce a new exercise or help the client improve upon an exercise that they find more challenging.
Any time we want the client to move bone by bone through the spine, we can always refer back to bridging. The examples are diverse and plentiful. To start with, this referral cue translates for Roll Down and Roll Up. It’s great for seated exercises such as Spine Stretch, Saw. It’s great for exercises that require movement from seated to lying down: Assisted Roll Up, Teaser. It’s even key to getting the most out of the descent of inversion exercises: Roll Over, Corkscrew, Jack Knife.
I could probably go on and list most exercises in the whole of the Pilates repertoire, but you get the point. Use the Bridge.
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.