Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

The Thigh Stretch is a straightforward and elegant exercise.

We find it all over the Pilates studio on every apparatus.

I'm hopelessly in love with the Thigh Stretch on the Reformer, it's true.

You can also enjoy the Thigh Stretch on the Ladder Barrel, the Spine Corrector, Cadillac and Mat.

Everybody Thigh Stretch

Make no mistake about it, the straightforward exercises in Pilates – you know, the ones in which you have to hold yourself all together in a nice long straight line – are very challenging to do well.

It behooves us to get everything working to ensure an effective stretch and opening of the hips and thighs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone can just lean back and play thigh stretch for a bit.

But how to really get the job done?

You know the drill: low belly in and up, ribs in and working and the long downward reach of the tailbone to activate the under part of the seat. Awesome.

No biggie.

Who you callin' a “big chunk?”

Wait.

Let's think about the body.

Take a good look at the body.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

I do realize this dude is perfection, but I wanted to make it worth the look…

Back to business!

Unlike the eyelashes, the hips, thighs and buttocks play a significant part in connecting the lower body into the center.

Strong and potentially overdeveloped leg muscles can impact the low back, can impact the way the upper body sits on top of the waist, can impact the placement of your head on top of your body (where DOES that go anyway…).

With this in mind, perhaps it's not by accident that we find so many opportunities to find a Thigh Stretch exercise all around the Pilates studio.

Sage advice to me from Sandy Shimoda:

Never miss an opportunity to get a thigh stretch!

Yes, please.

I'm a leg man, myself…

The muscles of the legs can turn into the real workhorse of the body. The thighs, often the shoulders too, are big muscles that are right on the front of the body where we can see them. And use them.

A lot.

In my experience both as a teacher and a practitioner with a gymnastic background, the thighs and the low back can impact one another greatly.

Tight hips and thighs often come along with a tight low back.

I use the Thigh Stretch often as a touchstone exercise.

I can use the verticality here to help with other similarly shaped exercises like Shoulder Bridge on the Mat, Rolling Stomach Massage on the Cadillac, Chest Expansion anywhere, Swan, etc…

You get the picture.

The hips can often be difficult to parse out. How much seat to use to not get all clench-y and pushy with the hips? And old habits die hard…

Luckily we have the Thigh Stretch and our dear old friend:

Thigh Stretch

Thigh Stretch is a great teacher of length actually. It is a huge boon to your backbends for sure.

What is a backbend other than a big ol' thigh stretch?

You see what I mean.

Use length from your Thigh Stretch and you'll give your Backbend a strong support from the seat and lower body. What a nice treat for your back!

Thigh Stretch is a huge component of every Backbend in the Pilates Method.

Wanna better backbend? It's only a Spine Corrector away…

But for now, let's start simply.

Ladder Barrel

The most basic version of the Thigh Stretch is done simply standing at the Ladder Barrel.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

You've got to love the Pilates Method: how else would we know that stretching the thighs is a good stomach exercise?

The Ladder Barrel provides support for any individual, even the very tight-thighed ones. Adjust the placement of your foot/leg on the barrel to get the perfect stretch for your body.

It's really a lovely place for the Thigh Stretch.

Cadillac

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Thigh Stretch on the Cadillac is a wonderful precursor to the Reformer and Mat versions.

Here you've got help from the springs and a stable non-moving surface to get your act together.

All-in-all a lovely place to begin your Thigh Stretch journey.

Add in a little Chest Expansion here as well and you have the tools necessary to prepare you to work on these same 2 exercises on the Reformer.

Spine Corrector

Don't forget the Thigh Stretch inherent in the Spine Corrector exercises Leg Circles, Scissors, Bicycle, Shoulder Bridge. These exercises are a great place to find length over the hump of the corrector.

Even if you don't want to get so fancy so quickly, you can enjoy just a bit of inversion with a simple Thigh Stretch.

It's another great way to get at the lower body connection just like you did standing at the Ladder Barrel.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Most importantly, the Thigh Stretch exercise, as well as the more elaborate exercises done here, provide us with feedback from the Spine Corrector.

Often a template to inform the back position, the Spine Corrector gives us information about how successful we are in opening the hips, thighs and low back.

The ribs and low back must be fastened into the apparatus to ensure maximum stretch and opening of the front of the body.

‘Cause then you'll take it vertical!

Reformer

The Reformer version of Thigh Stretch is your preparation for the next exercise, (you guessed it) the Backbend.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

However, the Reformer version of the Thigh Stretch begins just as simply as its Cadillac counterpart.

Keep the body as one solid piece of steel as you lift back into the exercise. No wiggling!

The moving carriage and strong springs (3!) up the challenge on the Reformer and dare you to lean back and just pull with your arms.

Don't be seduced! It is not a backbend yet!

Connect your low stomach to the straps in your hands: reach the straps out and lift the stomach in and up in opposition.

The spring will not move easily but be patient and keep your position strong.

Be Your Perfect Z

Imagine the length one must cultivate in the Thigh Stretch as the shape of the letter ‘Z'.

The fingertips and toes are reaching away in opposition (hey there's your 2-way stretch!) and the body must lift up ever taller.

Give it a try.

Dare I say 3-way stretch?

You may be surprised by how much your toes reaching away can make your bottom wake up and do something.

To quote the amazing Karen Frischmann:

This workout brought to you by the letter ‘Z'!

Mat

Now let's look at the ultimate version of the Thigh Stretch, sans any help at all, done on the Mat.

Yay!

See the ‘Z'?

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Jay Grimes used to encourage us to sit all the way back to our heels.

In the past he promised a free dinner to those of us who could go all the way back and return successfully.

We must be getting better as there has been no talk of a free meal as of late 🙁

You know how I feel about food and Pilates…

and given the incentive of free food…

Yes!

The goal is to keep your position solid and go back as much as possible.

Just remember that though this may be the goal, it may not be today's goal.

Patience, friends.

And many joyous Thigh Stretches to you!

Got an exercise that shows up again and again in your workouts?

Tell us all about it in a comment below.

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

This one's for Anouk. Thanks for reading my mind 🙂

First off, these 2 exercises really need new names.

Referring to Mat exercises #29 and #30 is a bit of a kerfuffle:

  • Leg Pull
  • Leg Pull Front
  • Leg Pull Up
  • Leg Pull Down
  • Leg Pull Back

Seriously, WTF?

Joe Pilates named them thusly:

#29: The Leg-Pull – Front

#30: The Leg-Pull

Lately I have found all of these labels supremely unhelpful in the understanding and execution of the exercises.

Frankly, they kinda suck.

Too much emphasis on the ‘Leg' part makes my body unwilling to find its center.

And I could do without the Yoda syntax.

Oh, but I digress…

Yay! A Pilates Project!

The Leg Pull exercises demand the full-on Pilates Project treatment. I've chosen 3 exercises for each of the Leg Pulls to aid us on our quest. Feel free to add/suggest other exercises that speak to you that I may not include here.

(We only have one exercise!)

The plan:

  • Use your stomach to pull your leg into the center.
  • Reach your leg all the while in opposition to your lifting the waist up and out the top of your head.
  • I. Smell. Two. Way. Stretch.

Don't all my plans start with ‘Use your stomach?'

#29 The Leg-Pull – Front

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

Fave correction to date courtesy of Sandy Shimoda:

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

Oh, I'm all for it.

1. Long Stretch

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

In the Long Stretch we find ourselves in the same position as the Leg Pull – Front (LP-F) and on the Reformer it's clear how to use your stomach to move the carriage.

Pay attention to the trunk of your body as the carriage closes and the arms draw in slightly underneath the body.

Feel yourself getting longer and more lifted like the top of your head could reach all the way to the wall in front of you.

Feel your feet firmly attached and “holding onto” the carriage.

This connection to your lower body is what you'll need for the LP-F on the Mat.

Make no mistake: this is a lower body exercise.

2. Tendon Stretch (Footwork series)

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

This wonderful exercise is a great one to mine all you can out of the low stomach. Give yourself the luxury of working on your Leg Pulls lying down, and use just 2 springs if it's hard to get in touch with your scoop.

In the LP-F, often as the heels reach away the low back can be compromised, the hips can lift, there's no telling what may go on.

In the Tendon Stretch you can work on the control of the back, seat and hips with the feedback of lying down on the carriage.

Grow tall as your heels reach under the footbar with control.

Push into the footbar with the balls of the feet and lift the waistline in and up.

Great control here = greater success for when your hips, back and seat must find the long shape of the LP-F.

3. SideKick Series

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

Lately my favorite exercise to reference, you can find myriad benefits in the Side Kick series. Here we are faced with a similar challenge as the LP-F, how to keep the back long and solid as one leg moves behind us.

Super!

Being on our side offers slightly more feedback about how the back (mis)behaves as we reach our leg behind us.

Keep the trunk of the body long and strong. No wiggling!

Concentrate on the (potentially) wonderful stretch across the front of the hip, thigh and stomach as you control your leg reaching back. A nice reward for keeping the shape of the back solid.

Reach equally into both legs because that's what you'll be faced with in the LP-F.

#30 The Leg-Pull

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

If you have any tendency whatsoever towards hyperextended joints, nothing dumps you faster into your knees than this exercise.

Ha, Ha, Ha! I dare you to lift one leg, my knees sneer at me.

Finding lift in the back and support from your seat will help keep you above the fray and make you master of your destiny (and of your knees).

1. Shoulder Roll Down/Sari on the Cadillac

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

You gotta love this exercise: super similar/more manageable to work on the needed strength to reach one leg up without dropping the hips.

Connect your feet into the push-thru bar at every point leading up to when you will lift your hips off the Cadillac. You can do this by pushing into it as it comes toward you.

Don't let it push you.

Control the push-thru bar and you'll get strength and support from your stomach and bottom to stay lifted in the position.

Concentrate on the reach of both legs evenly – the one that will stay on the bar and the one that will reach up.

I know this (almost) goes without saying, but pull your stomach in fiercely as you reach the leg up. Consider it a reach rather than a kick and you'll be halfway to using your stomach already.

2. Double Straight Leg Stretch/Double Leg Lower-Lift

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

The Double Straight Leg Stretch gives me a great assist in connecting my upper stomach all the way to my toes. In other words, I can really get my lower body connected into my center. Because I simply must. It is this connection that you will need in the Leg Pull. The Double Straight Leg Stretch can make it much more tangible.

Keeping your upper body circled up into the position can be a challenge all by itself. You can find more of your upper stomach and seat here by curling up as though you could “lean” your upper body on your legs as they lower. Almost like the upper body follows the lower body as it moves.

Caution: a will of iron may be necessary!

Really reach the legs long and away from you – keep them light and reaching up, up and away!

You can give yourself an extra help on the inside (your stomach) by increasing your reach away from the center.

3. Table on the Wunda Chair

6 Crucial Exercises to Survive Pilates Mat Exercises #29/30

The Table on the Wunda Chair is yet another gem in the ‘Lower Body Exercise' department. I must note that all of the exercises I have included here with the Leg Pulls – as well as the Leg Pulls themselves are lower body exercises. This theme in Pilates truly deserves its own post as I have spent years trying to do these exercises with my upper body – well maybe not all of them…

See what you think.

When you begin to lift into the position for the Table, is your first move to shift backward and push with your arms?

Guilty.

Now let's focus on the lower body. Gather your stomach and seat and reach your knees away from you and forward as you lift up into the position. Shift more forward than you think necessary and you'll have your shoulders right over your wrists.

Worst-case scenario, the pedal goes down. No big deal, thank God it's not Opening Night 🙂

If you have managed to keep the pedal closed, your feet on the pedal will feel like they are way behind and underneath you.

That's a whole boatload of work to do. Let's make pumping the pedal optional.

Make a strong Table position first.

So many exercises, so little time…

Even as I finish up this post my mind swarms with other potentially helpful exercises…

Have a go.

See what you might add to the list as we work steadily toward our goal of Leg Pull Virtuosity.

You're awesome. Thanks for reading!

Share your successes in a comment below.

The Universal Reformer: The Spring Remains the Same

The Universal Reformer: The Spring Remains the Same

I was fortunate to be in the inaugural class of The Work, a wonderful, thorough and humbling program of study under the direction of Jay Grimes offered by Vintage Pilates in Los Angeles.

Jay, Karen Frischmann and Sandy Shimoda helped me to understand and utilize all that the Reformer and the other springed apparatus have to offer as you make your way along your Pilates path.

The support, muscular action and connection you'll discover with the apparatus will be your best friend enabling you to take your workout to the Mat, bereft of springs, straps, handles, sans everything but you and your Mat.

Yup.

The Premise of the Pilates Method

What can take years to correct on the Mat alone, you can address more directly and successfully through the use of the entire Pilates system.

OMG this just in from Benjamin Degenhardt:

In an interview from 1946 Joe Pilates discloses the purpose of the apparatus. He explains: “Of course you can exercise without machines. But it’s not as efficient – would take longer. With them, three or four hours work a week is enough.”

In the same interview, he further implies that one of the many purposes of his apparatus was to provide tactile feedback, much like a teacher’s hand:

“I invented all these machines. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movement in just the right way so those long inner muscles really have to work against it. That is why you can concentrate on movement.” (Read the full article here.)

Use it or Lose it

Recently I sat down with Karen Frischmann. Karen teaches an amazing workshop with the above title. Sadly I cannot claim that one…

The purpose of the apparatus is to offer support and resistance so that you can get deeper into the body.

You can find the connections more readily if you are reaching into something that offers you support or resistance: the spring and the straps and the handles.

The classical Reformer has a very solid wooden handle to offer you secure and supportive connection to the apparatus.

The Universal Reformer: The Spring Remains the Same

The footbar is a solid and unforgiving piece of metal. Sometimes it is covered with a pad. But I believe a firmer connection is gained when you ride bareback.

The Universal Reformer: The Spring Remains the Same

Everything about the Reformer, despite its moving platform, is stable, solid, giving you assistance and resistance.

You are being reformed!

The Reformer allows you to get deeper into the body with that kind of support so that when you do go to the Mat and we take that support away, you can still access the depth that you are getting on the apparatus.

Moreover,

The Reformer is there to offer you both assistance and resistance and if you are not fully using it, then why bother, just do the Mat.

We also discussed the value of Reformer work and how its effects can be found all around the studio, notably on the Mat.

The apparatus offers you opportunity for correct placement of the hands and the feet.

There's a lot of information that you can receive from how you hold the handles, how the feet are placed on the bar, how the foot gets placed on the carriage.

Whereas on the Mat there could be variances in the way the arms work, the Reformer helps to correct imbalances just by the nature in which you use the apparatus.

The Reformer can give you great information about your position in the exercise. Generally if a strap or handle is in your way (Frog and Circles) or you have slammed into the little wooden block at the back end of the Reformer, the Reformer is sending you a message:

Hey. Don't do that.

Karen Frischmann maintains that “you can learn from the Reformer, but it's not a replacement for a teacher. You need the eyes of the teacher and you need the understanding of how to correctly use the apparatus in order to allow it to teach you. It will inform the body, it will not teach you.”

The brilliance of the Reformer

The Universal Reformer: The Spring Remains the Same

What goes into the design and construction of this amazing apparatus?

Gratz Industries continues to make all the Pilates apparatus according to Joe Pilates' specific designs.

Comparable equipment is currently being manufactured by Pilates Designs by Basil, Tirado apparatus and Pilates Scandinavia.

I spoke recently with Fredrik and Elisabet Prag of Pilates Scandinavia. Fredrik and Elisabet, both Pilates teachers and beautiful practitioners, have operated their Stockholm studio for the past 40 years.

Pilates Scandinavia initially endeavored to create their own classical apparatus to offset the extreme cost of importing equipment from the US.

Fredrik Prag: 

We are Scandinavians and artists. I did 4 years in art school and became a graphic designer and artist. For some years I made my living as a painting artist. So this is of course a big influence in the process.

Elisabet is all about movement as a former dancer and has 3 decades of experience in Pilates and movement. All these experiences manifest in our line of equipment and of course we are also deeply inspired by the simplicity of the complex and powerful work of Joseph Pilates.

As a Pilates purist, it's hard for me to wrap my brain around the process of constructing a Reformer: to find the right mix of craftsmanship and humility to replicate this brilliant apparatus. 

Fredrik:

The Reformer was the first apparatus we started on. We also did Mats, Wall units and the Wunda Chair. It was very, very difficult to put the reformer together! It felt like building a cello or something, it took years.

If you change 2 mm in one place it could completely change something else in a totally different place and/or exercise. Joe truly created a masterpiece in the Reformer. It is very complex and again extremely difficult to create one.

I believe from the experience of trying many different Reformers that the thought behind the Reformer is crucial. From all the information we gathered, in our opinion a Reformer that truly reflects the method does not exist today. Now it does.

Our Reformer, as we see it, is the only ‘old new' one on the market and absolutely one of a kind.  It took us around 10 years from the first idea to actually get it materialized.

I was excited to speak with Fredrik about the springs: how he selected them, where one finds them, etc… They are a crucial aspect of the Reformer's perfection.

And it's fun to nerd out and talk about springs, yes?

Fredrik:

The springs we have made in Sweden and throughout the years we gained considerable experience. I remember a Reformer Elisabet got from England, a homemade one and the springs where so tough you did 10 repetitions of the first Footwork and your legs were burning.  

Today we are working more with the intention of the spring and what does it do? Today I know that due to the design of the spring I can bring life into the Reformer. The spring does not just pull the carriage back hard or soft. The spring gives space and time to the body and mind.

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

The spring gives the mind time to reflect upon what is happening. It's a very subtle but true sensation. So we have made the springs in this way to invite the body to move. 

But the spring all alone can’t do anything. This kind of spring needs the support of the wheels and the carriage. There is a fine-tuning aspect of all the aspects of the Reformer carriage that makes the spring ” sing” and the body can ”follow” into a new experience of resistance and support. 

In my opinion and experience the apparatus exists to bring a higher sense of presence into the body.

It enhances the vectors and directions and can bring more power into the body and break up the weakness of the body. One of our customers said after buying our Reformer “Its great! Now I don't need to explain everything they have to do, this Reformer teaches it to them and I can save my voice.”

For more information, visit pilatesequipmentscandinavia.com.

A big thank you to Karen Frischmann and Fredrik Prag for their contributions to this post.

Reformer word cloud created at tagul.com

Read Alycea Ungaro's 3 Pilates Blogs to Follow.

Guess who made the list?

7 Spot-On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

Literal. Clear. To the Point. I love it when a Pilates teacher does not mince words.

I thought I'd share a few of my faves.

1. My personal favorite and a Sandy Shimoda special.

7 Spot- On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

I have heard this one many many times. Weekly actually. Making the exercises as painstakingly perfect as you possibly can makes for a tense, slow turn of events. Oops, almost forgot Sandy has another fine quote for that too.

The suspense is killing me.

This one popped out due to the glacial pace of my Thigh Stretch on the Reformer. Her comment was memorable. And my Thigh Stretch is the better for it.

2. My own commitment to connection.

7 Spot-On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

It's easy to poop-out in the middle of the exercise.

To anticipate the lying down in the Roll Up. Oh, mat so comfy

To rest when you roll up to sit in Spine Stretch. Cause sitting up tall is soooo easy…

To lie down for a little too long between reps of the Teaser.

Whaaaaaat??

Oh you know you've done it. We've all been there. I'm aghast when my teacher points up a little secret rest that's crept in unbeknownst to me. Gah!

My quote takes inspiration from Kerry DeVivo who was the first teacher to explain an ultimate goal of the Pilates workout. Use the exercises to find connection when you begin your workout and never let it go until the workout is finished.

Yup.

3. Karen Frischmann of Vintage Pilates fame in top form.

Lessons with Karen are jam-packed with revelation. This one pertains specifically to the action of the upper back in the 2nd of the Stomach Massage Series on the Reformer. Mostly we (I) want to squeeze the shoulders together and back, essentially squishing the upper back.

Squishing is not really engagement.

It's just squishing.

7 Spot- On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

Long the Back! Yes!

Squish the Shoulders!

I don't think so.

In the 2nd of the Stomach Massage series as well as its other exercise friends (Reverse Push Thru and Long Back Arms on the Cadillac, Backward Arms on the Wunda Chair) there is more to be had in the broadening of the upper back effectively relaxing the shoulders (in lieu of the squish) which will result in greater more yummy stretch across the chest.

And don't forget to Long the Back!

4. Kathi Ross-Nash gets extra points for gravitas.

I just think this one is hilarious.

7 Spot-On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

I've tried to steal it, but I don't quite own it and it falls flat… But when it comes from Kathi I have to giggle. She says it in a sweet and gentle (mocking?) voice of false comfort while you wrestle with an exercise of outrageous proportion.

Reformer on the Mat anyone?

5. Cynthia Lochard gets right to the point.

7 Spot-On Quotes to Keep you Honest

I am guilty of this myself (of course) and it's a wonderful mantra for clients. It may seem like you need to take a moment to rest.

But maybe you don't.

What would happen if you willed yourself to continuously move for the entire hour?

Endurance. Stamina. Perseverance.

Tenacity. Grit.

Not too shabby.

 6. Jay Grimes always has a gem at the ready.

7 Spot- On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

It's one of my favorites, really and it's always delivered in a silky-soft soothing voice while you sweat it out doing no less than the Twist with One Arm on the Reformer – ALL of it mind you.

 7. Romana quoting Joe Pilates. This one's a keeper.

Pilates is hard, yo. And full of tough love.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger…yes?

7 Spot-On Pilates Quotes to Keep you Honest

Heard any Spot-On Quotes that really upped your game?

Leave a comment below and keep us in the loop. Then go workout. You know you want to.