Anatomy of a Pilates Session: “This is for you.”

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

For Jodie

One of the best things about a Pilates workout is that it thoroughly conditions the entire body. With the Pilates Method you are guaranteed a full-body workout.

Reputedly, Joe Pilates treated everyone like an Olympic athlete. Clients would move on the Reformer, move on the Mat and then when the body was fully warm and invigorated Joe would give you a specific exercise:

“This is for you.”

Not because you had a broken this or that, mind you. Joe didn't waste time talking about what your ailments or weaknesses were, he just had a few extra moves to target your specific needs.

Because talking doesn't change the body…

Something for Every Body

The Pilates Method is versatile. There's always something for the body in front of you, whatever their ability, whatever their fitness level.

As Pilates instructors, our purpose is not to stampede toward the injury, this is the job of Physical Therapists.

The Pilates instructor must workout the whole body, avoiding or omitting what is not available or not possible. Our student is more than just a weak ankle or a disc problem. Without minimizing the pathology, we must strive to give the student a full-body workout.

And yes, this may be challenging.

We want to keep our student safe, erring on the conservative without being alarmist or overly cautious. It can often be a fine line.

But! We've got our “this is for you” section of the workout to infuse a bit of Pilates magic.

Thanks again Jodie, for your request of this post:

“I was thinking [about a post on] the best exercises to strengthen and stabilize the ankles. Thanks again and looking forward to the post.”

Serendipity abounds!

I am literally in the midst of ankle/foot exercises with clients who have restricted movement in their ankle and/or foot due to old injuries, tensions and health conditions.

So my mind has been awash in the “ranking” – if you will – of just such a group of exercises.

Which exercises are the most manageable to begin?

Which ones will build strength in an advantageous position of the body (maybe lying down)?

Which require strength and balance and supporting your own weight?

And the beat goes on…

But let us begin at the beginning…

Regardless of the issue, the client must get their workout, with allowances made for what is not available or not possible.

Both of my clients have been working steadily on their list of Reformer exercises, a few Mat exercises, a bit of “this is for you” and an ending.

Please note that my specific individuals were reasonably fit women who walked into the studio just fine on their ankles and feet. They let me know about their physical history, but they were not so limited as to not be able to use the Reformer for Footwork, Stomach Massage, etc…

Working on their Reformer and Mat exercises gave me the chance to watch them in motion. And I could see that in both cases, there was a considerable amount of tension in the ankles and feet. Those ankles wanted to do everything!

Over time, as I watched I also planned my strategy…soon, as they build strength I will seize the moment to unleash more “this is for you” brilliance on them.

I include the exercises I've chosen from most fundamental to most challenging.

The Plan in Action

Remember, the workout is tantamount to addressing the issue, in this case, a weak ankle.

Currently only one of the fundamental series on the Reformer is not possible: the Knee Stretch Series. The position of the feet for this series was too much for one ankle.

No worries. We've got lots of exercises 🙂

So the first of my “this is for you” exercises will stand in for the Knee Stretch Series for now: Pumping on the High Chair.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

A similar movement pattern in a different orientation, Pumping on the High Chair is even more supportive and nurturing of the stomach/bottom strength I am after.

Soon I began to notice that as the body got stronger, most of the ankle tension subsided. It did not disappear entirely, but so much improvement was made by simply doing the workout: focusing on the strength of the center of the body, getting more flexible and strong in the back, and essentially lightening the load of the body on those ankles.

OMG tell me it doesn't all come back to lift!

Now I must seize the moment. There is strength growing steadily and more “this is for you” can happen.

Stretchy Band Exercise

One basic and accessible exercise is a simple stretch of the leg/foot/ankle done lying down and using a stretchy band.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

These 2 particular cases didn't need this exercise, but I have used it with success with an older lady who had LOADS of tension in her ankles/shins and calves. It made her very happy and appeared to ease the tension in her limbs as well as her mind.

  • Assume a Single Leg Circles-esque position.
  • Alternate reaching the heel, then reaching the toes. Use your stomach to hold that leg up as much as you can. This is not an arm exercise.
  • Alternate moving the foot to each side, stretching the outer side of the calf/ankle and then the inner side.
  • Repeat 5-8x.

The Towel Exercises

These 2 simple exercises feel so nice and can be a gentle way to get more movement into stiff feet and ankles.

1:

  • Sit up with the feet on a towel on the floor or a box, feet together, knees together.
  • Press feet firmly into the towel and open up the toes into a v-shape with the feet.
  • Lift up the toes and front part of the foot as much as possible.
  • Bring feet together and then put them back down onto the towel. Repeat 3x.
  • Reverse: Lift toes and front of foot up together, open to the v-shape, place the feet down in the v-shape, press onto the towel and drag feet together to the starting position.

Note: when dragging the feet together, the towel may get crumpled. At this point the teacher can hold the towel in place for the student.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

2:

  • Sit up with the feet on a towel on the floor or a box, feet about hip-width apart in parallel.
  • Lift up the toes and front of foot spreading all the toes wide.
  • Grab the towel with your toes and pull it down and towards you (you are attempting to pull and gather up the towel underneath your feet).

Note: If you cannot actually pick up the towel itself and move it, not to worry. It's the trying that counts. You are essentially trying to make a little “fist” with your toes.

  • Once you let go of the towel, spread the toes wide again and repeat 3-5x.
  • Reverse: Curl the toes under in your little “fist” and push the towel away.
  • Lift up the toes and spread them wide. Repeat 3-5x.

You are gathering the towel towards you and then pushing it all away again on the reverse.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

2×4 Exercises

Now that I have experienced the magic of this little apparatus, it's just my favorite thing in the Pilates Universe.

At first, we have the standing version of the Tendon Stretch from Footwork.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

They have already done this lying down. This exercise can help them to find more powerhouse in the lying down version as well. More importantly we can work on using more center (which they have to use because they are standing up) than ankle.

And here's where they figure out you can't just fall down into your heels, you must stay lifted, up and forward!

Always a good lesson.

Later we can add a more challenging variation, which I like to call Standing Foot Exercise. This is a combination of Tendon Stretch-esque movements: bend the knees, lift the heels, straighten the legs, lower the heels, and its reverse.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

The Achilles Stretch

The Achilles Stretch can be done on the Wunda Chair and the High Chair (Electric Chair).

I find the full-body challenge of this exercise feels so good and thorough while it works to strengthen and stretch the ankle/foot.

If you have a weaker side, this is for you!

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

On the Wunda Chair, if necessary, you can select an appropriate spring tension for your student. I like 1 top + 1 bottom spring.

The Wunda gives more of a manageable spring tension and then later when the student is stronger you can challenge them with the stronger springs on the High Chair.

  • Stand with toes very close to the Chair.
  • Use a pad and the cradle of your hands to support your knee. Keep foot and knee in front of the corresponding hip, not in the center.
  • Keep your knee still and stand strongly in your position.
  • Work to use your stomach and seat to extend the foot and then control the lowering of the heel. Only the pedal and foot position should move.
  • The position of the body is reminiscent of the Elephant. Use all those same muscles.
  • Repeat 3-5x on each side.

The One Leg Push Down

The One Leg Push Down feels like the standing version of the Pumping on the High Chair or the Footwork on the Wunda Chair. You gotta use all the same stuff!

Watch the student do this one and see everything you need to know about the alignment of their hip, knee, ankle and foot. It is a simple move, but not easy to do well.

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

On the Wunda Chair, the spring tension can be adjusted. I enjoy using 2 bottom springs, and then for a challenge I use 1 top + 1 bottom spring. A long pole can be used for balance here as well, if necessary.

The High Chair gives you the help of holding onto the handles, however the spring tension is considerable. Despite this tradeoff I love the version done on the High Chair as well.

It feels like the TRUTH!

Although you may want to avoid sitting down the following day…

Part 1:

  • Stand very close to the Chair.
  • Use all of your standing strength to push the pedal down with the heel lifted. This is a stomach and seat exercise.
  • Stand evenly in both legs when you get the pedal down. See if you can feel both sides of the buttocks at work.
  • Don't change anything and use your seat and your lift to control the pedal up all the way. It should close quietly.
  • Repeat 3-5x each side.

Part 2:

  • Stand very close to the Chair.
  • Use all of your standing strength to push the pedal down with the heel lifted. This is a stomach and seat exercise.
  • Stand evenly in both legs when you get the pedal down. See if you can feel both sides of the buttocks at work.
  • Hold the pedal down firmly as you lower the heel.
  • Lift the heel.
  • Bring the pedal up and repeat.

Both of these versions of the One Leg Push Down require control, balance and strength. Whoever you are they are a great refinement and challenge of your standing position.

Going up Front

Anatomy of a Pilates Session: "This is for you."

Perhaps requiring the most strength, control and balance for the entire body – not to mention the ankles and feet, Going Up Front is a wonderful exercise for so many reasons.

And for so many people.

It promotes a length in the entire back of the body, as well as an opening of the front of the hips and thighs. It's just so good for everything we work on in our Pilates workout.

And it makes a great ending to a session.

Once you get really super-proficient in this exercise you can add one element that takes it to the next level.

  • When the pedal is down, keep your lift and length in the back and reach the heel down.
  • Lift the heel again and proceed with the next repetition. You can do 3-5x per side.
  • As you lower that heel DO NOT GET ANY SHORTER!!!

Ultimately Going Up Front can also be done on the Wunda Chair where you must create the stability of the standing leg without the support and parameters of the High Chair.

Use your Experience and Intuition

Try out the above exercises on your own body. In this manner, you'll feel their effects and challenges for yourself first. In taking the photos for this post I realized just how tough these exercises can be to do properly.

Straightforward. Yet challenging.

Knowing the exercises deeply in your body will assist you in selecting the appropriate exercise(s) for a specific student.

Use just one or a few in your “this is for you” section of the workout.

See what you think.

Have questions? Let's chat in a comment below.

Thank you so much for reading!

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Comments

  1. Andrea, I heart you so much.

    Brilliant post. Most immediate takeaway is that I’m using your “No worries. We’ve got lots of exercises” comment. When I’m working with a client toward, say, knees off on the reformer, and their curve looks questionable, certain folks don’t want to hear that it’s just not working out today. They’ll power through. “No worries; we’ve got lots of exercises” is a great way to steer them toward a different approach to help them get connected.

    • Thanks so much Crystal! I love your take away. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here – I hope we can see each other next time I am in NC. Have a great week 🙂

  2. Super hearty post Andrea; chocked full of sooo much nerdy info! Love those “how to” bullet points! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Thanks Corrie – those exercises really kicked my butt – I have so much more “respect” for them after having taken the photos for this post! No Pilates exercise is a walk in the park LOL!

      Thank you so much for always following the blog and for sharing your much welcomed nerdy thoughts! xo

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