Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

For Nan-Young

Recently on the blog we've examined the value of categorizing the exercises in the Pilates Method.

We took a look at the labels “basic”, “intermediate” and “advanced” and how they apply to the body in front of us.

The Shape of Things

In 2012 I completed The Work, the phenomenal program of study at Vintage Pilates‘ in Los Angeles.

Through my study at Vintage (and beyond!) we learn to look at the Pilates repertoire through the lens of Body Shapes.

In the Pilates method we have 5 archetypal shapes of the body (the back):

I find using the body shapes to be a wonderful teaching tool.

We can convey complex exercises to clients by reminding them of skills they've achieved in simpler exercises that share the same shape.

With this POV and the body in front of us, let's ask ourselves some questions based on the evidence of the exercises.

Here are our “basic” exercises:

Basic Reformer Exercises

  1. Footwork
  2. Hundred
  3. Frog/Leg Circles
  4. Stomach Massage Series
  5. Short Box Series
  6. Elephant
  7. Knee Stretches
  8. Running
  9. Pelvic Lift

Basic Mat Exercises

  1. Hundred
  2. Roll Up
  3. Single Leg Circles
  4. Roll Like a Ball
  5. Single Leg Pull
  6. Double Leg Pull
  7. Spine Stretch

1. What body shapes are most prevalent in the “basic” exercises?

I spy mostly the Round and Tall shapes, with a few moments of the Arched Back in our Stomach Massage Series and Knee Stretch Series.

The Short Box gives us one moment of Side Bend and we have a couple Twists in Stomach Massage Series and the Short Box.

2. Why is this?

Pilates begins in the very center of the body.

We'll concentrate on the scoop only for a while. Only when the center is strong can you build up other solid strong things on top of it.

We'll get to the fingertips but it's gonna take a while.

3. What does this say about the organization of the order of our Pilates method?

The order of the exercises is our teacher – make no mistake.

Moving through our “basic” Reformer exercises, our scoop in the Round and Tall positions will strengthen the center the most.

I think about the Round and Tall shapes as familiar, pedestrian movements. Yes, we must learn to find lift in our center, but these 2 shapes promote a deepening in the center.

We are required to pull in and up, but our body parts are not reaching away from center yet in these 2 basic shapes.

Later we begin to reach away from the center more deliberately with Arched, Side Bend and Twist positions.

Our Tall shape is also the foundation on which we'll build our Side Bend and Twist. If our Tall back is not strong and solid, it's only gonna fall apart when we try to Side Bend or Twist, both of which take us away from center.

The Order of the Universe

Joe Pilates trains our bodies over the full repertoire and also within each of his exercise series in the same manner.

Within each series we also find our theme of Round/Tall positions first – strengthening and solidifying the center – before adding Arched, Side Bend or Twist positions which reach away from the center.

Our series in the basics:

Footwork: only in the last of the 4 Footwork exercises, Tendon Stretch, do we reach away from the center. After we've built in the skill of Footwork over 30 repetitions.

Stomach Massage Series: Within this series we reach a bit more away from center as we move from Round to Hands Back, which takes us more upright in the upper body.

From Hands Back we move to the Reach, a position identical to the Teaser exercise.

Finally we'll move the farthest away from center when we add the Twist.

Short Box Series: The exercises in this series progress us systematically from Round to Tall, and later into Side Bend and Twist.

Eventually our Twist will progress to Around the World, perhaps the ultimate in reaching away from center with the upper body.

The Tree is our first exercise done one side at a time and reaching away from center, and over time it will take the position of our first High Bridge.

Knee Stretch Series: Our Round position must stay intact when we change to the lift of the Arched Back.

In these 2 first exercises our range is modest. Finally the Knees Off takes our solid scoop and reaches long and away from center and back again.

4. Why so much Round?

In our foundational exercises, we are quite scoop-heavy. The body is learning and building strength. Yes, there is a predominance of Round shapes and support from the apparatus in our Tall shape.

Read more info on these Round exercises and discover what they teach us about training the body.

But I want it all!

An example of how internal strength and the eventual reaching away from center work in tandem is found in one of the most iconic exercises in the Pilates method:

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

The Teaser requires a deep scoop in the center making this a Round exercise.

However, as you become more and more proficient your strength of center will support the upright lift of the chest and upper back to challenge the position further.

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

But this lift away from the deep center in the Teaser will not happen on day one.

This is the challenge.

Ideally you want both a lift up in the upper body and a deep scoop of the lower body, but the strength of center must take precedence and be cultivated first.

Out in the Field

See what you think in your next workout.

Notice when you find yourself in a Round position and see where you go from there. You'll begin to notice larger sequences of exercises that start out pretty tame and soon blossom into an extravaganza of Body Shapes.

Here's a sneak peak into one of my favorite sections on the Reformer. It's a long one but such a lovely progression of skills and shapes.

In the middle of the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises we have:

Thanks so much for reading. Have a great workout.

If you'd like to see this final list of exercises in a post of its own or in a video tutorial, leave a comment below and let me know!

The Pilates System: Beyond Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

The Pilates System: Beyond Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

For Nan-Young

At Vintage Pilates in Los Angeles, passionate Pilates students convene from all around the world.

We Pilates teachers seek intimate acquaintance with the source of our beloved Pilates method: Joe.

How did Joe Pilates look at the body in front of him?

One student in particular, Nan-Young, inspired this post. Originally from South Korea, Nan-Young is a delightful fixture at Vintage Pilates. It's a pleasure to witness the amazing work and progress she puts in every day.

Make no mistake, she's a Pilates bad ass.

I hope you find this post to be of help, it was a fun one to create.

Exercises for the Body in Front of You

Jay Grimes tells us “Joe Pilates would take one look at you and know your whole life story.”

Joe Pilates knew what your body needed and would give you a vigorous workout plus some exercises ‘just for you.

In Joe Pilates' studio there were simply “Men's exercises” and “Women's exercises.” Along with Joe's order of exercises on the Reformer and Mat, teachers would consider the body in front of them and select appropriate exercises.

Circa late 80s-early 90s

With the advent of formalized teacher training programs, exercises came to be classified as ‘beginner,' ‘intermediate' and ‘advanced.' The labels were added in an effort to codify the broad range of material and teach it precisely and efficiently.

I have now come to understand these labels as guidelines or as a stepping-off point. As you continually observe your students, keep asking yourself questions about what you see (or don't see) in the body and what exercise you might choose to address this.

Basic Pilates Exercises

The Pilates System: Beyond Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

In Pilates there are no black-and-white hard facts.

We learn rules and guidelines in our training programs, but real-life clients rarely fit into neat and tidy categories like ‘basic,' ‘intermediate' and ‘advanced.'

Everything exists in a gray area. As a new teacher, this can be a scary prospect.

Persevere.

Within the murkiness you'll find liberation. Many options exist and our expertise helps us to choose the most effective exercises for any given individual.

That said, let's first consider the basic exercises done on the Reformer and the Mat.

Basic Reformer Exercises

  1. Footwork
  2. Hundred
  3. Frog/Leg Circles
  4. Stomach Massage Series
  5. Short Box Series
  6. Elephant
  7. Knee Stretches
  8. Running
  9. Pelvic Lift

Basic Mat Exercises

  1. Hundred
  2. Roll Up
  3. Single Leg Circles
  4. Roll Like a Ball
  5. Single Leg Pull
  6. Double Leg Pull
  7. Spine Stretch

What makes an exercise “basic?”

When working with new clients – even those with prior Pilates experience – we often begin at the beginning. Sure they've taken Pilates classes for years somewhere, but in that first lesson we're checking them out to see just what Pilates skills they've got in place.

A basic exercise offers support for the body. Looking at the list above, 5 out of 9 Reformer exercises are done lying down. 5 out of 7 Mat exercises are also lying down. Lying down on either the Reformer or the Mat you are fully supported by the apparatus.

On the Reformer even your head is supported.

How nice.

At the basic level only 1 Reformer exercise has us touching the apparatus with hands and feet only: the Elephant.

Basic Exercises offer straightforward and simple movement patterns. Only 1 of our Reformer Basics works on 1 side at a time: the Tree on the Short Box. There are 2 one-sided Mat Basics: Single Leg Circles and Single Leg Pull, although here you've still got that lying down aspect goin' for ya.

In a basic exercise the body shape is consistent throughout. Nearly every basic exercise on our list keeps the body in the same shape for the entire exercise.

A basic exercise puts the body in pedestrian positions. Lying down, sitting up, standing and kneeling are the only demands of our basic exercises. Most people will be able to do them. We're accustomed to these positions of the body regardless if we've done Pilates or not.

Real-World Basic: Now what?

Armed with your order of exercises and our basic exercises, look at the body in front of you. As the student begins to move through these first Pilates exercises you'll assess the body.

Some questions may arise:

  • Is it appropriate for their head to be up for the whole Hundred?
  • Is the individual in control enough to deal with their feet in unstable straps?
  • Are they stiff?
  • Can they sit up with their feet on the Footbar?
  • Do they feel unsafe sitting on the Short Box?
  • Are the first exercises done on the Short Box already so challenging that you'll leave Side-to-side and Twist out?
  • Should they stand on the Reformer?
  • Can they kneel?

Whew! That's a lot of Pilates problem solving.

Questions like these allow you to determine the appropriateness of even these basic exercises for an individual. Your questioning mind will serve you well as we examine our next tier of exercises: intermediate.

Intermediate Pilates Exercises

The Pilates System: Beyond Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

Many exercises are in the intermediate category. It's huge! I've included the full list with the basics in here too. Intermediate exercises are in orange.

Intermediate Reformer Exercises

  • Footwork
  • Hundred
  • Frog/Leg Circles
  • Coordination
  • Pull Straps and T Straps
  • Backstroke
  • Teaser
  • Long Stretch
  • Down Stretch
  • Up Stretch
  • Elephant
  • Stomach Massage
  • Short Box – Twist/Reach
  • Short Spine Massage
  • SemiCircle
  • Knee Stretches
  • Running
  • Pelvic Lift
  • Side Splits
  • Front Splits

Intermediate Mat Exercises

  • Hundred
  • Roll Up
  • Single Leg Circles
  • Roll Like a Ball
  • Single Leg Pull
  • Double Leg Pull
  • Single Straight Leg Stretch
  • Double Straight Leg Stretch
  • Criss Cross
  • Spine Stretch
  • Open Leg Rocker
  • Corkscrew
  • Saw
  • Swan
  • Single Leg Kicks
  • Double Leg Kicks
  • Thigh Stretch
  • Neck Pull
  • Side Kick Series
  • Teaser
  • Seal

What makes an exercise “intermediate?”

The Intermediate exercises are many and varied. Some are simpler and less complex than others.

An intermediate exercise will incorporate skills you achieve in the basic exercises. The Pilates method has a POV that's unique. With focus, repetition and consistency you'll accumulate skills to serve you as your workout progresses.

Intermediate exercises include potentially unfamiliar body positions. Now our exercises will include twisting and back extension. You must also lie on your side and be upside down. The rolling exercises are more elaborate than our basic rolling exercise, Roll like a Ball.

Intermediate exercises demand considerable coordination and balance. At the intermediate level our balance will be tested in several body positions and orientations to the apparatus. We'll be standing up on the Reformer for two exercises done kneeling and standing on 1 side. 

Real World Intermediate: Now what?

As you work your student through the manicured paths of the basic exercises you'll make some decisions about moving their workout into the prickly landscape of intermediate exercises.

Let's think of this a little differently. Collect all the skills your client possesses and see what you come up with.

  • Can he lift his hips?
  • Does he roll well?
  • Is he stiff or flexible?
  • What skill is missing that you want to see? What are some things you might use to address this?
  • What does your student do exceptionally well?
  • How about the mental component of the student? The more challenging the exercise, the more the willpower of the student must be present.

Now looking at our 2 groups of exercises, the basic and intermediate, you'll notice basic exercises that may serve as prerequisites for the more involved and challenging intermediate exercises.

This is the key to moving beyond the labels of ‘basic,' ‘intermediate' and ‘advanced.' What does the body need? What is the body capable of currently?

The progression of skills may fall along the lines of our basic, intermediate and advanced distinctions, but maybe not depending on the body in front of you. Assessing your student's skills will aid you in adding more complex exercises over time until they may be able to accomplish all of them and beyond.

Again, much of this depends on the student.

For example, if a student struggles with the Roll Up, you may choose to delay adding the Neck Pull until the Roll Up skill is secured. And why can't they Roll Up? Find some exercises for that.

Perhaps your student rolls very well but is stiff. Open Leg Rocker might build on his rolling skill and challenge/address his flexibility.

Keep thinking about the skills we'll build on as we move from basic to intermediate. Now get ready for taking those skills to the next level when things get crazy in the advanced exercises.

Advanced Pilates Exercises

The Pilates System: Beyond Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

Some students may not do every exercise labeled ‘advanced.' Many of the advanced exercises depend on the strength, control and stamina that must be cultivated from the very beginning.

These exercises are not just going to happen. The student must be disciplined and will themselves to rise to the challenge.

It's not unusual to work for many years to accomplish these exercises. It's taken me considerable time to feel proficient at many of the advanced exercises. And by considerable I mean over a decade…

I've included the full list with the basic and intermediate exercises in here too. Advanced exercises are in orange.

Advanced Reformer Exercises

  • Footwork
  • Hundred
  • Overhead
  • Coordination
  • Rowing 1-6
  • Swan
  • Pull Straps and T Straps
  • Backstroke
  • Teaser
  • Breaststroke
  • Horseback
  • Long Stretch
  • Down Stretch
  • Up Stretch
  • Elephant
  • Long Back Stretch
  • Stomach Massage
  • Tendon Stretch
  • Short Box
  • Short Spine Massage
  • SemiCircle
  • Chest Expansion
  • Thigh Stretch
  • Arm Circles
  • Snake/Twist
  • Corkscrew/Tic Toc
  • Balance Control
  • Long Spine Massage
  • Frog/Leg Circles
  • Knee Stretches
  • Running
  • Pelvic Lift
  • Control Push Up Front
  • Control Push Up Back
  • Side Splits
  • Front Splits
  • Russian Splits

Advanced Mat Exercises

  • Hundred
  • Roll Up
  • Roll Over
  • Single Leg Circles
  • Roll Like a Ball
  • Single Leg Pull
  • Double Leg Pull
  • Single Straight Leg Stretch
  • Double Straight Leg Stretch
  • Criss Cross
  • Spine Stretch
  • Open Leg Rocker
  • Corkscrew
  • Saw
  • Swan Dive
  • Single Leg Kicks
  • Double Leg Kicks
  • Thigh Stretch
  • Neck Pull
  • High Scissors
  • High Bicycle
  • Shoulder Bridge
  • Spine Twist
  • Jackknife
  • Side Kick Series
  • Teaser(s)
  • Hip Circles
  • Swimming
  • Leg Pull
  • Leg Pull Front
  • Side Kicks Kneeling
  • Side Bend
  • Boomerang
  • Seal
  • Crab
  • Rocking
  • Control Balance
  • Push Ups

What makes an exercise “advanced?”

Within our beloved Pilates method you'll find exercises that speak to your strengths as well as those which challenge and exploit your shortcomings. Revel in your ability to do the former and doggedly practice the latter for years until you whip your body into compliance.

Adding these exercises into your students' workout is very individual. Some you may add quickly and others they may never see…although I never say never.

An advanced exercise is complex, usually including 2 or 3 body positions in the same exercise. Think of your Snake/Twist which requires the body to be round and then arched and then a combination of round and twist.

In an advanced exercise you will be minimally connected to the apparatus. The number of exercises done with just hands and feet connected to the apparatus increases significantly. The student must have a strong center to survive and support the weight of their body while performing the exercise.

Advanced exercises continually place the body in unfamiliar and challenging positions. You'll be upside down now for many exercises. You'll also be rolling off the Reformer and getting back on again.

In advanced exercises you must lift yourself off the apparatus without the assistance of straps. On the Mat we have the Roll Over and on the Reformer we have the Overhead. These are at the beginning of the workout and will continue throughout.

And perhaps most importantly…

An advanced exercise requires a complete focus on the exercise at hand. These exercises are no joke and if the mind is not focused to control the body they can be dangerous. If your student is mentally out to lunch, these exercises may not be for them.

Real World Advanced: Focus and Control

Just like some of the intermediate exercises, we've got several options around the studio to address the demands of these challenging advanced exercises.

Sure the student needs the skills of, for example, Chest Expansion, but maybe not on the Reformer just yet.

What a brilliant system!

Using all the apparatus to build the student's program will progress their workout slowly and steadily.

For example, the Arm Chair will teach 4 of the Rowing exercises brilliantly. The Cadillac can address Chest Expansion and Thigh Stretch (which they'll also be doing on the Mat).

The Spine Corrector will take care of the High Scissors and High Bicycle as well as train your body to be a mean rolling machine. It's just such a perfect apparatus!

The Breaststroke can be developed on the Cadillac as well and there's nothing Tower and Monkey cannot address. Remember lifting the body off the apparatus? Here's your training ground.

Life Beyond Labels

Keep the qualifications of the exercises foremost in your mind as you move past the “rules” and learn to look at the body deeply and effectively.

Keep the student safe and err on the conservative side.

Work to understand the thought behind the labels of ‘basic,' ‘intermediate' and ‘advanced.' With practice and getting the exercises in your own body, you'll begin to see how the exercises early in the workout progress and transform into exercises of great complexity.

Questions or comments about progressing your students? 

Leave me a question and I promise to answer in a followup post 🙂

Stay tuned!