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!

SemiCircle on the Reformer: What’s really going on here?

SemiCircle on the Reformer: What's really going on here?

SemiCircle on the Reformer is definitely a new favorite of mine.

I recently remarked to Jay Grimes about several exercises I truly dreaded… until recently.

“You know, I've really been enjoying the Grasshopper lately…”

To which he responded: “Well, the better you do them…”

It's no surprise that Jay is spot-on. Greater proficiency in an exercise makes it feel so good in the body. Even if the exercise is still challenging and difficult to repeat with connection, it just feels so good.

In a “Hey, I needed that,” kind of way.

Et tu, SemiCircle?

I've always enjoyed the SemiCircle on the Reformer. It's got such a unique starting position. When else do you get down into the bowels of the Reformer and commune with springs?

Not that I really knew what all the fuss was about…yes, I knew it was a thigh stretch and hip opener…but mostly I thought it was about arching my back.

Let's be honest, I want to arch my back in every exercise. It's what I do…

In the last few years at Vintage Pilates, I've been learning to do the SemiCircle more properly and not only am I getting an awesome thigh stretch, but my back feels fantastic!

The Major Tenet of the Pilates Method

I'm a firm believer in Joe Pilates' dream for humanity: to achieve both a strong and supple spine.

If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.

The SemiCircle is just one of our exercises which features spinal articulation and length in the back.

(We've got over 500…)

Set Up

  • The Reformer must have 2 springs on the outside. Remember your hips will reach down to touch the springs and you want some room to get down there. #nomiddlesprings
  • The headpiece is up – find out why in the video below…
  • The footbar is down. SemiCircle can also be done with the footbar up. For our purposes here we'll focus on the version with the footbar down.

Move yourself into the starting position for this exercise with minimal moving of the carriage. Do your best.

Hands, Feet and Heels

  • Place the palms and heels of your hands firmly against the shoulder blocks. The thumbs will be with all the fingers toward the outside of the Reformer.
  • Place the balls of your feet, heels together and toes apart on the footbar. Use pads for security if necessary.
  • The heels should never touch the frame of the Reformer. Remember Pilates is up and forward…
  • Begin the exercise with the carriage closed as much as it is possible.

Ok, now what's really going on here?

We'll work on the SemiCircle to serve the objectives of the exercise:

  • articulation of the spine
  • length in the back
  • thigh stretch

Take a closer look at the thigh stretch aspect of the SemiCircle in a related post.

The Order of the Universe

Post-Short Box we're off to the races in a series of exercises which will strengthen the entire back of the body including the bottom.

Short Spine Massage immediately precedes SemiCircle.

Short Spine and SemiCircle share the same kind of spinal length and articulation. Joe Pilates gives us both a nice position to accomplish this (Short Spine) and also a disadvantageous one (Semi Circle).

Remember the role your bottom must play in finding length in the back?

Post-SemiCircle with your supple back and strong seat you're ready to tackle the Headstands and then take it more vertical with the Chest Expansion series (Chest Expansion, Thigh Stretch, Backbend, Arm Circles, Snake/Twist, Corkscrew, etc…)

A Reformer Love Fest

If you simply cannot get enough of the Reformer and its amazing exercises, check out my most popular post On the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises.

I thank you, dear readers for your devotion to all things Reformer.

My Universal Reformer Poster is now back in stock!

A BIG thanks to all who have purchased…and stay tuned for another Pilates poster in the near future.

xox

Enjoy this short video tutorial.

Want more videos like this one? Let me know in a comment below.

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

Thanks for joining me in the 4th and potentially last installment of this series exploring components and strategies for finding length in the low back.

Welcome new subscribers!

It’s lovely to have you.

In the first installment of this series we looked at 2 major skills which create a long, open and strong low back: the engagement of the ribs (a gateway to the opening of the middle back) and the crucial use of the seat.

The second post in this series examined the first of the oppositional forces: the skill of finding the ribs/upper stomach.

In the third post I answer a subscriber question about finding length in the low back in one of our most infamous Pilates exercises, the Teaser! Check it out.

This week we’ll look at the 2nd oppositional force – often an elusive one to find  – and discuss strategies for finding and engaging…

the bottom.

Our seat.

Popo (Romana's word).

Butt (Jay's word).

Derriere. Buttocks.

And away we go!

Full Disclosure

For me, the seat struggle is real.

I am happy to share with you some of the exercises and strategies that have helped me wrangle my popo in my Pilates workout.

It's just so easy to randomly squeeze the bottom, but remember we're after an oppositional force here…so the name of the game is a familiar one:

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

That being said, it's really just the lowest, underneath part of the bottom we're after.

It's my hope that you'll find each of the following exercises as helpful as I have found them.

Here's to a high bottom and a supple low back 🙂

Footwork/Pumping on the Chairs

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of ItStrategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

Let's begin at the beginning.

Lying onto the Reformer to begin the Footwork we will warm up the lower body. But how to use the center far more than the legs can be challenging.

On the Gratz Reformer you can use 2 springs only – or even drop down to just 1 spring – and find more of your stomach and seat without the legs leaping at the chance to fight some springs.

This is one option and a great place to start.

However, we need several strategies here to outsmart our bum.

Taking the Footwork vertical on the Chairs is an advantageous shake-up for the body. Control the pedal up with your seat and stomach and your bottom will soon be on fire!

Standing Pumping!

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of ItStrategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

Another of my favorite vertical options for finding the seat, the Standing Pumping gives you 2 more places to find the seat exercise that's perfect for you.

And some exercises may speak to you (and your seat…) more than others…

On the Wunda Chair you can start with a lighter spring – the same strategy we employed for our Footwork on the Reformer. I like to use 2 springs on the bottom, and then as you get stronger and find the seat more efficiently you can change to the heavier spring setting of 1 top + 1 bottom.

On the Wunda Chair you must balance on your own.

On the High Chair the spring is considerable, but you do have a nice place to hold onto and gather yourself (and your butt).

Try this exercise on both of these apparatuses and see what will work best for you.

When pressing the pedal down, hold it down for a moment and distribute your weight evenly on both legs. This will help you find the seat on both sides, the working leg and the standing leg.

We need a better distinction than ‘working leg' I think…I mean, what's not working?

#fullbodyworkout

Single Leg Spring on the Cadillac

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of itStrategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of it

Leg Springs on the Cadillac have been one of my most hated exercises. I know I have professed to love them now, but it has taken me nearly 16 years to feel like I do them even reasonably well.

It has been a combination of the Single Leg Springs on the Cadillac and the Spine Corrector that has made all the difference for me.

The Single Leg Springs are a great way to whittle away at overworking legs and hips in the Leg Spring Series. These are simple exercises that pack a big wallup connection-wise.

I like the spring coming from the opposite side, but you can use the spring on the same side too.

I also enjoy using the lighter arm springs for a while because I know my strong leg muscles will want to fight the heavier spring.

Using the lighter springs will allow my legs to chill out and pretend we are on the Spine Corrector!

There are 4 parts that I find to be effective:

  • Frog-ish – the leg goes out and in – a la Frog – but the orientation of the leg is parallel, therefore Frog-ish
  • Straight Leg Lower Lift – the Walking and the Scissors build on this one
  • Bicycle – this one builds on the skills of the previous 2.
  • Single Leg Circle – yup. Just like on the mat. Great for peeps that don't use their stomach when they do it on the mat…

Thigh Stretch

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

Think of this one less like an exercise and more like a way of life.

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

The Thigh Stretch is a recipe for finding length in the front AND the back.

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

And we find this exercise ALL OVER THE STUDIO.

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

There's an appropriate Thigh Stretch for everyone.

Wow. Something for everyone?

What a system!

We also find ourselves in the position of Thigh Stretch in countless other exercises: Chest Expansion, Semi Circle, anything done kneeling really, anything on the stomach…you see where this is going…

The Thigh Stretch is a lesson in how to negotiate this body position.

It's the verticality of the Thigh Stretch that helps me to find length.

L-E-N-G-T-H!

It's truly a combination of my 2 favorite Pilates words: Lift and Length.

So for your next Thigh Stretch play with both of these: lift up in the waist and lengthen the tailbone down toward the apparatus.

The verticality + up in front + down in back = some sign of life from your bottom.

Seize the day!

Wait for it… the awareness will build over time and you will become master of your own popo.

And wouldn't you know I can't say enough about the Thigh Stretch?

The Spine Corrector

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of it

Thank you so SO much Joseph Pilates for your brilliant invention the Spine Corrector.

The Spine Corrector is one-stop-shopping for your body.

It also covers everything mentioned in this post!

Need a thigh stretch? We've got it here.

Trouble finding your bottom? Welcome…

Need to open up the low back?

Yup. This is the place.

Every time I use my Spine Corrector I think “My God, why do I not do this every day??”

Oh yeah, it's that good.

Always remember the purpose of the Spine Corrector apparatus.

It's nice to play on and do lots of things…but it's genius at what it does best: opening up the back (correcting the spine). Opening opening opening…the front and the back.

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of it

Big kisses to you JP.

Have some tips to share to get your butt in gear?

Leave me a comment and let's have a chat!

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box SeriesIt's come to my attention that I have yet to create a brief video tutorial on the Short Box Series on the Reformer.

How can this be?

It's one of my favorite topics – I am obsessed!

There are quite a few posts here on the blog and elsewhere:

From Pilatesology.com

Let's dissect the Short Box Series further, shall we?

The Key Players

The Short Box Series is comprised of at least 5-6 exercises:

  • Round (Hug)
  • The Reach
  • Side-to-Side
  • Twist and Reach
  • The Tree

There are a few other variations you can add in as well, and several iterations of the Tree to explore, but these are the 5 major exercises we'll address in this post.

First: What's really going on here?

The Short Box Series is one of the first times you will be on the Reformer without the assistance of the springs. You are now attached to the Reformer only by the 2 straps on your feet.

This is significant.

Once we're seated, often we just consider our body from the hips up.

Don't forget about the lower body!

We will work diligently to perfect the shapes of the body as we sit atop the box, but let's pay even more attention to what's going on in the lower body.

The strength of the lower body will give us a firm foundation from which to soar even further upward.

At first it may be hard to exert sufficient tension on the straps to keep them tight and quiet.

You will get better with practice.

For now if the straps go slack or you scoot further forward on the box as you work the exercise, just back up and make the straps tight again. Over time you will work the straps more consistently.

For further info about the straps check out a related post on Pilatesstyle.com:

Let us begin at the beginning…

At first you may not even do all of these exercises – maybe for now it's best just to work on the basics:

  • Round
  • The Reach
  • The Tree (the first part of it)

Sometimes it's helpful to shore up the first 2 exercises (Round and Reach) before getting all fancy and bending to the side. Remember the Reach is inherent in all the other exercises especially Side-to-Side and the Twist.

Round

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

Also known as ‘The Hug,' the Round exercise on the Short Box is exactly the same as our old friend the Roll Up on the Mat.

Oh yes, now there's that box underneath your Roll Up

Other exercises in the system that share the round shape can assist you here to perfect this Round exercise. Helpful exercises include Rolling Back on the Cadillac, The Elephant on the Reformer and the Push Down on the Wunda Chair.

The Reach

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

First a word about the name of this exercise…

Lately I have been chewing on the name of the second exercise in our Short Box Series.

The Reach is the name Vintage Pilates and Jay Grimes use for this exercise. I am guessing it comes from Joe Pilates…but that remains uncertain at the time of this writing.

Originally I learned this exercise as “Flat Back.”

What a kettle of fish that word can unleash! I'm quite happy with The Reach.

This name is also helping me teach the exercise better.

The Reach is an exercise that we often teach to brand new students in the very first lesson. Now we have a name that implies action, not an elusive state of being.

They won't know how to be Flat, but they may know how to Reach.

Side-to-Side

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

The Side-to-Side exercise in this series was on the top of my list of most hated exercises for the first 10-or-so years of my Pilates practice.

In the previous exercise you've gotten the Reach in your back. Now you must lift and reach both sides evenly to bend to the side.

Not so easy to do for some folks…most folks…well, me.

I've found it helpful to lose the pole for this one and concentrate more on the center.

For a while.

Pole or No Pole?

Yes, traditionally a pole is used for the Reach, Side-to-Side, Twist and Reach and Around the World.

However, know that using the pole inherently advances the exercise as you will now reach further away from your center.

Losing the pole for a bit can be a great help in perfecting the Side-to-Side exercise.

Figuring out the Twist and Reach

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

Another multi-tasker is the Twist and ultimately the Twist and Reach.

Start with the simple Twist and if necessary you can lose the pole for this one too.

Soon the strength you will gain in your center will allow you to add the pole effortlessly as well as keep the all the work you've done sans-pole.

The Many Iterations of the Tree

Fundamental Reformer Exercises: The Short Box Series

The Tree is a glorious exercise. Often hated and sometimes loved, the Tree will change as you change providing new challenges as you progress on your Pilates path.

Versions of this exercise include the following:

  • Sitting up for just the seated initial stretch
  • The stretch and tipping back into position 3 times
  • The stretch, tipping back and climbing up and down the leg a little 3x
  • The stretch, climbing up and down the leg until you're nearly parallel to the floor 3x
  • The stretch, climbing up and down 2x as above and then going all the way back on the 3rd
  • The stretch, climbing up and down all the way 3x
  • Same as above now adding a reach back to hold the frame and/or the Leg Circles and a foreshadowing of the High Bridge

Enjoy this 15 minute vlog on the Short Box Series. 

Leave a comment if you've got questions and let's chat!

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips For a Full Body Workout

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

One of the very first things I noticed as a beginning Pilates student (way back in the day) was a newfound integrity in motion.

I am not a runner, but I'm spritely and often I'll break into a sprint just to get somewhere faster. If I could cartwheel there I just might…

One day – just a few months of Pilates under my belt – I broke into a run and felt my whole body hang together with a strength that was new. And different. And that had an ease of motion.

Fast Forward…

Last Sunday during a group workout at Vintage Pilates, Jay gave me a (seemingly) tiny correction.

Single Leg Circles on the Mat: Jay suggested that as my right leg circles I should strive to keep my left heel constantly pressing into the mat.

Simple enough, right?

Amazingly challenging for me to do. It at least tripled my effort in the exercise. Left side = lazy side for me.

Surprised, I had to ask:

“Why is that so hard?”

Jay's response spoke to the premise of our beloved Pilates Method.

“Now you've got everything working.”

Of course. Nothing working too hard and nothing getting a free ride. Balance in the body.

A full body workout.

A New Obsession

I'm happy to share 3 of my favorite ways to coax ourselves (and our clients!) into experiencing the Pilates Full Body Workout.

1. The Pilates 2×4

May I present to you the humble Pilates 2×4: one of the best ways to entice the body to find strength in standing positions.

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

It's amazing the amount of feedback this little Pilates treasure will give you. Use it regularly to connect the lower body into your center and it will infiltrate and work its magic when you are bereft of apparatus.

Bereft of apparatus = the Pilates Mat exercises

Trying to figure out how to use your butt when you are upside-down in the Control Balance?

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body WorkoutThe 2×4 has got your back. Literally.

Read more about this little gem in these posts:

2. The Magic Circle

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

One magical Magic Circle moment I dearly love can be found in an exercise we teach every day.

The Magic Circle not only makes the exercise better, integrating the whole body, but it also confronts the student with a glimmer of ‘there's clearly more to be had here with this whole Pilates thing…'

The exercise is the arm spring series done lying down on the Cadillac.

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

People love these exercises – they want to strengthen their upper body, tone the back of the arms, etc… And yes, that's all happening, but gosh darn it, I want MORE!!!!

Plus you're working hard, yet lying down and beautifully supported by the Cadillac. So comfy.

Let's insert a little magic here and the transformation to full body workout will be complete.

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

Let me be clear: this is not a new exercise.

I am not creating a way to incorporate the Magic Circle into the Arm Spring exercises.

It's not to kick your ass.

I am using the Magic Circle for a reason: as a teaching tool.

Using it for a few moments, gently squeezing the circle and pressing into the feet as though you were standing will enliven the entire lower body all the way up into the center and the upper stomach.

You'll get all the bigger muscles engaged to help out with the exercises.

Everything working.

The Full Body Workout!

That's what I'm after.

And you'll know who might benefit from this help. You'll get a sense that your student knows what to do, they just need a bit of resistance to get it all going.

Once they get the feeling, take away the circle and just have the legs in the same position but together. Now they will remember the connection with the circle and fully engage all of the body in these exercises.

This is not simply a series of arm exercises. This is full body integration, friends.

All brought to you courtesy of the Magic Circle.

It's done all your work for you 🙂

I like to call this phenomenon a scrubbing bubbles exercise.

Curious? More deets in these posts:

3. The Order of the Universe

You already know of my love for the Order of the Exercises. Find more intel on Joe Pilates' order of exercises and how it benefits your workout in these posts:

The order of the exercises thoroughly prepares you for what's to come in your workout on the Reformer and the Mat. Learning a skill in one exercise with the help and support of the apparatus may assist you in a subsequent exercise when the support goes away.

My favorite example of this (and there are MANY) is the help you get from the Swan – done on the Ladder Barrel or the Reformer – to get a full body workout in the Pulling Straps and T exercises.

Who doesn't want help with those? Grrr…they used to be decidedly some of my least favorite exercises.

Now with the help of the Swan (and my butt!) I find them to be a welcome challenge.

The Swan

In the Swan the lower body is connected to the Reformer. You can use your feet to get support and engagement from the entire lower body.

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

Let's take this ‘lower body Swan feeling' to the Pulling Straps and the T, where the lower body is not connected to the apparatus and the feet are free.

Pulling Straps and T

Pilates: 3 Quick Tips for a Full Body Workout

Now you can get the big muscles of the stomach and seat (SEAT!!!) to give you greater integrated strength.

Brilliant!

Read more about cultivating the lower body:

The Pilates Exercises and the Lower Body: Strength for Life!

Try out these tips yourself in your next Pilates workout.

Be on the lookout for the part of the body that appears to just be sitting or lying down – the unflashy part of the exercises.

It is these parts “in repose” that ultimately must do the heavy lifting.

Questions?

Leave a comment below and let's have a chat ????