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.

Photo by runnyrem on Unsplash

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.


March MATness Day 7: Double Leg Stretch

Coil, outstretch, recoil. Coil, outstretch, recoil.  Coil, outstretch, recoil.  What do you picture?  I know, me too, a New Year’s Eve party with party blowers and confetti.  Can you hear it –  that festive, yet incredibly annoying kazoo sound?

Source: @TeamUSA The Official GIPHY of the United States Olympic Committee.

What on earth is she talking about, you say?  7 Days of March MATness and she’s lost her mind!  Maybe, but think about the symmetry between the party blower and Double Leg Stretch is worth mentioning.  The body is curled up (“doubled-up” as Joe Pilates puts it) and then, as the legs and arms extend, the muscles along the entire body become engaged and firm, just like the party blower when you fill it with air.

A quick technical note: the metaphor of the party blower will initiate breathing sequencing like this: exhale to extend, inhale to recoil.  This is opposite to what Joe Pilates prescribes in his original text.  I suggest trying both breathing patterns to see what works best.

Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@worldisyourstudio) to find yours truly taking on the March MATness challenge day by day.  And sign up for our Cuesletter to get these cues sent directly to your inbox and be the first to hear about them!

Copyright © 2018, Cueing Theory, All rights reserved.


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.

Source: pexels.com

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?


Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved. Cueing Theory.

Cutting Out Momentum in Challenging Supine Exercises

When it comes to Pilates and results, momentum is not usually our friend.  Momentum allows us to more easily complete some movements without having to utilize our bodies in the proper way – in other words, to cheat.  With momentum, we can fight against gravity with more than just our muscular recruitment and skeletal positioning.

But cueing to discourage using momentum is difficult and can sometimes be disheartening to a client who feels that it’s the only way they can accomplish the movement.  So, use this cue with a grain of salt.  If your client is ready to execute more challenging, gravity defying supine exercises, specifically, Roll Up, Neck Pull, and Teaser, then go ahead and challenge them with this cue.  If your client is just starting to get to these exercises without modification, try adding this cue to applicable modifications or regressions (Assisted Rollup, Teaser with bent knees, etc) prior to asking them to do the full exercises in slow motion.

The cue is simple: sticky tape.  Imagine that your spine is lying on a track of very sticky tape on the floor.  You must peel your spine off the sticky tape, vertebrae by vertebrae.  Imagine struggling against the sticky tape to free each knob of the spine.  This cue works a little bit like my previous post about moving through honey: it creates an imaginary hindrance to the client’s movement.

See if that cue doesn’t cut out momentum, slow things down, enhance segmental spine movement – all the while creating a crazy burn in the process!

Copyright © 2017, Cueing Theory, All rights reserved.

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.

Source: giphy.com

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.

Copyright © 2017, Cueing Theory, All rights reserved.


Setting Up for Supine – Don’t Drop the Box

Setting up properly for many supine exercises (Dead Bug, Femur Arcs, Arm Arcs, Side-to-Side, modifications for Hundreds, Chest Lift, Criss-Cross and others), requires the legs to be in a 90-90, or table-top position.  This is pretty self-explanatory – 90 degrees at the knees and 90 degrees at the hips or, the shins are the table and the thighs are the table legs.  The challenge comes when we call on the client to maintain this position throughout the exercise.

As the client focuses more on the movement and the effort required to perform it, he or she often struggles to maintain positioning.  As the repetitions increase, heels drop towards the floor and knees creep closer to the face, effectively disengaging the lower abdominals and inner thighs.

Sure, all of the exercises can be performed without these engaged, but to get the maximum benefit from each exercise, stability and periphery muscles need to be employed.  So let’s keep that 90-90.

Here’s a cue to help out: have the client imagine a large cardboard box underneath the crook of his or her knee as they are in table top.  Maintaining the perfect 90-90 will keep the box in its place.  Dropping the heels or pulling the knees closer to the face will squash the box.  Raising the toes towards the ceiling will cause the box to fall.  Have the client focus on keeping the box in its place during the entire exercise.

If you have an appropriately sized box in the studio, you could even put it to use to illustrate the correct positioning at the start.


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Common Supine Mistakes: Arching Backs and Flaring Ribs

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.

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