I am really honored that Pilatesglossy has asked me to blog for them. A blog can be anything, really, that the writer wants it to be, but evidently the more specific you are, the more apt people will be to read, and come back to read again. Also, they are supposed to be a more personal way of writing than writing for an article. Good thing I knew right away what I wanted to blog about — Pilates —- and how I wanted the blog to “feel” —- like I was having a conversation with the reader instead of writing about a subject in a boring clinical way. So I hope that you enjoy the blog, and that you take my writing as if you and I were working out together, and we were just co-teachers sitting around picking the exercise apart creating more precision within our work. You will notice that I sometimes use the strike-through key to be a little tongue in cheek. Or may sarcastic. (No, really.) When you see that you will know that the comment is meant in fun teacher-to-teacher or with a little cheekiness. Sometimes I’d like to have a little bit of fun, not be so serious, please, and to let everyone know that they are not the only ones out there who are rolling their eyes in frustration struggling while teaching Pilates.
My plan is to start with The Matwork which everybody loves to hate is the Method. One by one I’m going to be going through each exercise and picking apart discussing the various precision points of each exercise, talking about imagery, spotting/assistance, and maybe even figuring out what exercises you have to master before you can do the one we are discussing. Hence the title of the blog “Pilates Deconstructed”. And remember that I’m looking at the Work from a Classical point of view—please don’t get all insulted or hop on the Classical vs. Contemporary “this is the only right way” bandwagon because my version of execution doesn’t match your version or does match your version and you still hop on that bandwagon. If you read my interview, you will remember that I think that is crap counterproductive. Let’s just say that you will be kayaking in my kayak, and you can go back to sailing your boat later. Just enjoy the kayak trip and don’t make a big deal about the lack of a sail and I won’t push you overboard with my paddle.
Why is this the first exercise? Seriously? This is the warm up? The Hundred is ridiculously very hard to do correctly. Especially right off the bat. So how about teaching some Fundamentals before you teach The Hundred. As, you know, a warm up. Can the student curl their head up safely and hold it there over the shoulders? Teaching them the Fundamentals Head Nods and Neck Curls, and making sure they actually understand how to do that and aren’t kind of doing it then slowly letting it go is an important skill. How about seeing if the students can hold the weight of their legs from their Powerhouse before we force encourage them to go straight and low. Iso-Abs, Pelvic Clock, and Lolita’s “bend and stretch” warm up are great to warm up lower back, get the abs ready to work, and start to coordinate breathing with movement (which the goals of The Hundred). Single and double knee folds will show you (and them) whether or not they can control the pelvis with only half the weight of the legs pulling on it. Because bent legs are less weight than full legs (a common regressor of an exercise is to shorten the levers).
Teach The Hundred as a Progression
This is the only way I will teach The Hundred these days. Regardless of the admonishments from teachers to go at their own level, to modify as needed which actually means “I will let you decide how to do that class, because I’m not going to cue it.” I’ve seen too many people take a look around and I can just tell they are thinking, “Hmmm Mary’s legs are really low to the floor. I think my legs should be lower to the floor, too.” And what comes next? “Owwww! My lower back! Pilates hurt my lower back!” You know it. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that.
When you have the luxury of teaching one-on-one, it is so much easier to make sure that your client is safe. However, most of us teach multi-level group classes and we never know who is going to be able to do what and who will crash and burn as soon as we turn our backs. So it is imperative to know how to teach The Hundred as a progression in a group class.
For beginners, start with feet on the floor. Yes, that is allowed.
- For everyone else including the self-professed “advanced”: Knees into chest. I know, I know, let’s teach to the ideal and make them catch up. What, that doesn’t make sense to you?
- Progress to: legs straight up to the ceiling. If they can’t keep their back on the floor with their legs 90 degrees to gravity (which pulls the leg weight straight down, into the pelvis, assisting with anchoring said pelvis), they shouldn’t extend their legs any lower where gravity is now pulling the legs straight down to the floor regardless of whether or not the pelvis is holding them or not. That’s what gravity does. Pull straight down. On the entire length of the leg. Which then act like crow bars to lever that pelvis right along with the legs.
- Progress to: legs out to 45 degrees (which is technically where the abdominals can hold the legs, without involving the hip flexors and/or back too much.) If it looks like they are doing a good job of anchoring the pelvis and keeping the lower back on the floor, before you tell them to lower their legs, make sure that the head and neck aren’t really the things that are holding the legs in the air. If the head isn’t over the shoulders, with it’s weight being held by the upper body curl over the Powerhouse, then the legs shouldn’t go any lower. That leverage will be pulling on the neck, which is trying to hold the head up against gravity just like the lower back is holding the legs up against gravity, and the head and neck will then act like ballast to counter-balance the legs. Ouch. Another great thing I hear a lot — “I can’t do Pilates. Pilates hurts my neck.” Yes, bad Pilates will hurt your neck. For sure.
And now let’s talk a little about the neck. I’ve heard this for years: “once the neck is strong enough, it will be able to hold the weight of the head if it is proper alignment over the shoulders, while the Powerhouse holds the upper body in flexion.” Can I just say that that is crap not necessarily true. If the neck has been injured in any way, if the shoulders are holding a lot of tension or if there is kyphosis, there may be a great deal of bracing and forcing going on in that neck. Which isn’t good. Don’t even get me started on forward head syndrome. And it’s not always “releasable” by the student. It is a sub-conscious protective measure that makes sure that the head doesn’t fall off because gravity is pulling it down. Which wouldn’t be good. And there are days when it is possible to hold the head up, and there are days when it isn’t. Stress is not our friend when it comes to the neck. And if you have EVER woken up with a migraine because you didn’t realize that your teacher was making you were holding your head up funny in Pilates class yesterday, you know exactly what I mean. And let’s look at it this way: holding the head up is isometric—you are holding a weight still against an outside force, kind of like holding a 15 lb dumbbell and not moving it with your arms positioned at 45 degrees. How long before those biceps start screaming? And they are large muscles. Just think about those tiny little muscles in your neck crying out for mercy. So let people have a rest. On good neck days, lift the head. On bad neck days, keep the head down. I’m climbing off my soap box (for now).
Props for The Hundred
A great prop is a small wedge-shaped pillow that is placed behind the shoulder blades, the student rests their head on it or not, depending on their strength. This wedge helps to put the upper body in slight forward flexion in order to get the student to understand the proper alignment. You can also position the upper body using a small soft ball behind the shoulder blades. The head will not be supported, but that may not be needed if the student is positioned properly.
Holding a Power Circle or small soft ball between the ankles or knees helps to remind the student to hold the Centerline and to keep the legs active.
A smaller ball, or rolled up hand towel, can be placed between the upper inner thighs to facilitate finding the Pelvic Anchor that holds the weight of the legs. Surround the prop with the legs, press in actively, and suck it up and into the lower belly. Don’t be shy.
What is the Powerhouse doing in this exercise? 1. Curling the head forward and then holding it’s weight. 2. Forward flexing the upper body a bit (up over the lower ribs). 3. Stabilizing the length of the back and the pelvis. 4. Holding the weight of the legs. And most importantly, assisting with the breath. There’s a lot going on there. And if one of those skills is lacking, then compensation will happen in order to put that body in the supposed position. So what cues can
we use to assist our students in mastering these skills (or remembering to do them at all)?
For curling the head forward, chin to chest comes to mind. This has been a cue that has been really criticized lately. If you have taught them Head Nods/Necks Curls properly, this isn’t a bad cue. If they don’t know how to articulate their head on their neck, it’s a terrible cue which serves to jam their head into the neck and creates lots of tension. And remember, endurance is built, and this endurance is dependent upon another skill: forward flexing the upper body over the lower ribs, while keeping the bottom tip of the shoulder blade on the mat and collar bones long to either side, while breathing deeply and not letting go of the curl. Again, a lot going on. So, cues that I’ve found that work: soften the sternum, eyes into the belly (more on this soon), reach the collar bones long, curl up and over the lower ribs, reach your pits towards your hips, fold at the lower ribs, funnel the lower ribs, knit the ribs, lace the ribs blah blah blah. Decide which of those cues resonates with you and that you don’t feel ridiculous saying and stick with one or two of them. Your students will immediately know what you are talking about, and there won’t be too much confusion. They don’t get sick of you cueing the same thing over and over, they are too busy thinking about their screaming abs, you get sick of yourself saying them. That doesn’t mean you have to change the cues just because you’re bored with yourself.
Holding the weight of the legs without pulling the pelvis into an anterior tilt and cranking the lower back off the floor is important. Anchor your hips, pull in your stomach, abs in and up, abs in opposition to the legs, narrow your waist are good cues to create the length and stability of the back into the floor. Images that work well are put an iron bar between your hips, or an anvil on your stomach. But holding the legs into the pelvis is a totally different skill. For that you need to establish the connection of the legs and pelvis with the Powerhouse. The Three Anchors of the Pelvis, or what I call The Golden Triangle, does this. My next blog will explain this critical connection. Cueing the Centerline keeps the thighs pressing together and isometrically holds the legs still. Length of the legs and opposition/anchoring with the pelvis is another precision point to work with. Reach your legs long, and pull back up into the abs.
Other Precision Points
- Once the legs are reaching long, they stay there and don’t move. And they stay pressing together. Parallel, Pilates Stance, flexed feet, feet pointed. Who cares. They are variations, and are fun to play with. Traditionally, Pilates Stance, Pilates Point.
- Arms are right by your side. The reach and movement of the arms comes from the back and armpits. The arms should be straight really straight and not like a gorilla’s. The palms face down. Fingers together. Everything connected from armpits to finger tips.
- The movement of the arms are large, vigorous pumps. They aren’t humming bird-like pumps. Think eagle wing pumps. And nothing else moves, except the arms. No really, not even the shoulders, and certainly not your head.
- The Breath: since this is a breathing exercise, the breath needs to be focused on. Deep and full inhalation to the count of 5 hopefully, and deep and full exhalation to the count of 5 more importantly. While breathing, the abdominals do not pooch out, they pull in and up, making your body look kind of like a Nike swoop.
- This shouldn’t be a frantic race to the finish. Although yes, I do want to get to the finish as quickly as possible because my abs are screaming, but I will make myself take my time. and focus on taking my deep breaths to get my circulation going.
Spotting for The Hundred
- Hold and support the head to take strain off the neck, and to give the student a little taste of how it feels to safely hold their head up.
- Support the legs by providing them with traction by gently pulling out on the legs to create the length we’d like to see.
- I swear, all I have to do is put my hand (and eventually just look) near their abs and they will pull those babies in. That is called a “Moving Away From” touch to create in this case a no-way am I letting you touch my stomach abdominal activation.
Here is an example of cueing The Hundred:
For The Hundred curl your head and neck up and over, knees to chest, reach your arms long and begin pumping for The Hundred. (And no, I didn’t make a mistake, I do actually cue the name of the exercise, usually twice, so that my students remember the names of the exercises and eventually I won’t have to talk so darn much to get them into position and performing the exercise.)
Inhale for 5 counts, and exhale for 5 counts (make sure you are actually giving them the space of 5 counts to breathe and not cueing too quickly through this).
Inhale anchor your hips, exhale into the floor.
Press your legs to the Centerline.
Scoop your abs in and up.
Do you get the idea?
As I wrote this, it became apparent to me that I will have to go backwards for the next post and talk about the critical connections, key concepts, and Fundamentals a little bit more in depth. But for now, this was The Hundred Deconstructed.