Category Archives: Core

YOU’LL “LOVE” USING TENNIS BALLS TO “ACE” THE PELVIC CLOCK

Tennis balls can add a whole new spin on the introductory Pilates Pelvic Clock exercise.  This basic exercise uses the image of a clock at the pelvis to direct the mover to various points in space that represent the numbers of the clock and illustrates basic pelvic placement positions such as neutral (with lumbar curve) and flat back (no curve). Adding tennis balls to this exercise can improve proprioceptive awareness of pelvic placement and release myofascial trigger points in the gluteus maximus and piriformis muscles leading to better activation of core muscles  (see previous article “Addressing Trigger Points to Facilitate Range of Motion.” ) 

PELVIC CLOCK EXERCISE

The Pelvic Clock (also used in the Feldenkrais method) is a perfect beginning exercise since it illustrates how to initiate movement from the core, but can also be enjoyed by advanced students who continue to garner self-awareness from its repeated practice.  To perform the Pelvic Clock exercise, have your client lie supine with knees bent and feet on the floor (or you can prop the client’s legs on the Reformer Short Box).

 Imagine that the pelvis is a clock with the navel as 12 o’clock and the pubic bone as 6 o’clock. Move the pelvis into a posterior pelvic tilt (flat back) for 12 o’clock and then return the pelvis anteriorly to 6 o’clock (neutral pelvis) where the pubic bone and anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) points are parallel with the floor and a lumbar curve is present. Repeat pelvic shifts 4 times or as many times as needed.

 After returning to neutral pelvic placement, move to 3 o’clock (left lumbar rotation) and 9 o’clock (right lumbar rotation). For example, you could have your client imagine the pelvis as a boat filled with people. Then visualize all the people walking to one side of the boat, so that it dips in the water to one side heavier than the other. Repeat the left and right shifting 4 times.

 The previous practice moves the client’s pelvis in a cross-like shape relative to the clock (up to down 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, and left to right, 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock). Next explore the “X” shape on the clock going from 10 o’clock (weighted right waist flat back) to 4 o’clock (weighted reaching left buttock in neutral) and 2 o’clock (weighted left waist flat back) to 8 o’clock (weighted reaching right buttock in neutral). Repeat each sequence 4 times.

 Finally, have your client use their fingers to palpate each number on the clock starting and 12 o’clock and explore each number individually clockwise and counter-clockwise taking one to two full breath cycles at each number.  Once each number has clarity, sew them together like a plate would spin clockwise and counter-clockwise making sure the core initiates the motion, not the feet or legs. The continuous moving clock does not correspond with the breath—the client breathes when needed, not timing it to any number on the clock.

 Please note that the description of the Pelvic Clock is in the perspective of the viewer of the clock (navel as 12 o’clock).  Personally, I would prefer the clock be in the perspective of the person exercising (pubic bone as 12 o’clock), but it is not generally taught this way.  So as not to confuse people, I have conformed to standard practices.

 BREATHING FOR PELVIC CLOCK

Be sure that your client integrates breathing into this exercise. I choose to move the pelvis on the exhalation, as it is easier to feel the activation of the pelvic floor and the transversus abdominis to assist with the transition through core initiation. Be aware that there is a tendency for the client to move the pelvis from a distal initiation by pushing on the feet or legs, so cue your client to feel the pelvic floor and engage the transversus abdominis prior to moving. For example, inhale at 6 o’clock and move to 12 o’clock on the exhalation using core muscles. Hold 12 o’clock on the inhalation and then move back to 6 o’clock on the exhalation.  You may choose to slow the exercise down spending more time on each number to further activate and deepen the abdominals with a cumulative dropping of the abdominal wall on each breath.

 PELVIC CLOCK WITH TENNIS BALLS

Place a tennis ball approximately 4-5” below the posterior superior iliac spine points (PSIS) on the right and left sides of the sacrum in the fleshy part of the buttocks. The target for the tennis balls is either the gluteus maximus or piriformis trigger points. Ask your client to place the balls so they are placed symmetrically right to left and hit these tender trigger points. I usually stand up and demonstrate the ball placement visually before lying supine. Although the balls will likely be uncomfortable, discontinue if the discomfort is intolerable. Hitting the right trigger points may require a little fishing, so tell your client that they may move the balls at any time. Since there is more than one trigger point to address, suggest that the balls be moved if the initial trigger point becomes comfortable.

 Perform the Pelvic Clock as per the instructions above. The objective is to keep the gluteus maximum muscles relaxed as the pelvis is moved to each number on the clock. This will require breathing, concentration and core initiation.  Many people tighten the gluts for stabilization, which can lead to tension in the low back and hip flexors.  Pelvic Clock with the tennis balls illustrates quickly if the gluts are being used since they dig into the muscles on each movement. This helps the user to let go of the gluts and focus instead on the deeper core muscles of the pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and multifidus muscles. The tennis balls also inform the user when the legs or feet initiate the movement since there is more tension over the balls.

 The Pelvic Clock exercise will likely be slowed down when using the tennis balls since it takes time to relax the tension in the piriformis and gluteal muscles. Have your client imagine the buttocks are like honey melting over the tennis balls. The focus is on the journey from clock number to number feeling the tennis balls almost being absorbed into the gluts.  For example, if an ant were walking across the ball, it would take a lot of steps and every bit of the ball surface would be noticed. That should be the feeling experienced when using the tennis balls with Pelvic Clock.

 Point out to your student that the abdominal muscles play a bigger role in a posterior pelvic tilt (12 o’clock) and the lumbar extensors initiate the movement back toward neutral (6 o’clock). Many people have never isolated and observed these muscles in action. Also cue your client to be aware that the low back should feel a stretch when shifting to 12 o’clock where the tailbone feels as if it is reaching toward the back of the calves.  Often people will just push the low back toward the floor with tension and miss out on the experience of the simultaneous contraction in the front waist and lengthening of the back.

 For a group Pilates mat class, the tennis balls are an inexpensive teaching tool that can multi-task. They release the myofascial trigger points that can often interfere with proper core initiation, and provide improved proprioceptive awareness to the user. Always give the option to students to do the Pelvic Clock exercise without the tennis balls, but my feedback from students has been that the addition of the tennis balls is beneficial.  After doing the Pelvic Clock exercise with the tennis balls, remove the balls and your students will be amazed at how comfortable and easy it is to feel neutral pelvis placement. 

 Once you have taught your students the Pelvic Clock, you can reference the clock numbers for instruction in the Pilates matwork.  For example, during a right Single Leg Circle, you can instruct your students to focus on 3 o’clock to stabilize the pelvis and counterbalance the weight of the right leg.  In Double Leg Stretch you might suggest that the students keep a lengthened 12 o’clock imprint.

 The Pelvic Clock exercise is an effective tool for teaching your students pelvic placement, core initiation and integrating breath with movement.  The use of tennis balls takes the exercise to another level adding myofascial release of gluteal muscles and improved proprioceptive awareness of the pelvic region. Many people are unaware on the tension in the superficial gluteus maximus when deeper core muscles are engaged to shift the pelvis placement. The tennis balls alert the user to unwanted gluteal tension prompting relaxation and proper deep core activation of the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis. Once the gluteal tension is released, the subtle shifts in pelvic motions can be observed and the deeper core muscles identified.  Tennis anyone?

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SENTIENT SITTING STARTS WITH THE PELVIS

Cognitive awareness of the subtle shifts of weight on the pelvis can make a difference between being able to sit upright or collapsing into twisted slumping. Implementing this proper pelvic alignment in a seated position requires each individual to consciously recognize where the weight shifts on each of the ischial tuberosities or sit bones If your client can experience the various options of front/back, side/side, and right/left of the pelvis movement repertoire, then choosing “center” becomes a relative position and easier to replicate. These learned proprioceptive skills can correct dysfunctional patterns, reduce back pain and create body symmetry with improved muscular balance.

SHIFTING WEIGHT ON THE ISCHIAL TUBEROSITIES
Although the following exercises are basic movements of the lumbar spine, I came to understand them better through the Arch and Curl Series in GYROKINESIS® and GYROTONIC®. (Learn more about GYROTONIC® under my blog “Spice Up Your Pilates Palate with GYROTONIC®.” ) The Reformer, rotator disc and dowel are used in the following exercises for improved awareness and feedback. If you do not have these tools, only a firm chair or short stool is needed and hands can be placed on the hips. It is important to sit on the edge of the seat with the knees at approximately a 90-degree angle and the feet and pelvis sharing weight

Yoga blocks needed for shorter legs on Reformer.

Unhook all of the springs on the Reformer and instruct your client to sit on the edge of the carriage on a medium-sized 12″ rotator disc facing the footbar holding a medium-size dowel across the sacrum. Advise your client to be careful when sitting down since the carriage has the potential to slide away without the springs. If your client is too short, you may require the use of yoga blocks or some other prop to bring the legs to a 90-degree angle.

FRONT TO BACK: MOVING ON THE SAGITTAL PLANE
 Eric Franklin instructs how the sacrum moves when shifting the pelvis forward and back in his book Conditioning for Dance (page 92) with helpful tactile cues.

“1. Place a hand on the sacrum, and detect the bumps on the back of the bone. These bumps are the spinous processes of its five fused vertebrae. To feel the movement of the sacrum, it is easier to touch the adjoining bones that are easy to feel under the skin, the tailbone and the lumbar spine.

2. Place the middle finger of one hand on the tip of the tailbone, and place the middle finger of the other hand on the spinous process  of the fourth or fifth lumbar vertebra.

3. Tilt the pelvis forward, and notice how the lumbar spinous processes move forward and the tail moves back. The sacrum is doing a forward rotation movement called nutation (deriving from the Latin for nodding.) At this point the sacrum is only doing the first half of a nod…

4. Tilt the pelvis backward, and notice how the sacrum moves back and up. This movement is called counternutation, the second half of the nod…

5. Tilt the pelvis forward again and notice that nutation is linked with the spreading of the sit bones.

6. Tilt the pelvis backward, and notice that counternutation is linked to the converging of the sit bones.

7. Notice that nutation causes the lumbar spine to extend (the feeling is hollowed spine), while counternutation causes the lumbar spine to flex (the feeling is rounded spine).”

Anterior pelvic tilt.

Posterior pelvic tilt.

To give my clients the feeling of the pelvis as a whole, I describe an anterior pelvic tilt (sacral nutation) as a “Christmas tree” with a wider base at the sit bones and narrower feeling at the top of the pelvis (ilium) and a posterior pelvic tilt (sacral counternutation) as a “funnel” with a narrower base and a wider feeling at the top of the pelvis.

The benefit of being on the Reformer without springs is that the carriage should move slightly backward in the anterior pelvic tilt and forward toward the calves in the posterior pelvic tilt. If the carriage does not move front and back, then the initiation of the movement is incorrectly occurring at the rib cage instead of being driven by the pelvis. The dowel also assists in helping your client observe and feel the shifting pelvis. Notice if your client tends to put more weight on one sit bone or the other when moving, but do not mention it yet.

After moving a few times between the front and back positions have your client find neutral pelvis (in between the practiced positions) with the weight slightly forward on the sit bones (ischial tuberosities) and the feet weighted on the floor. In the neutral pelvis position, there is a equal activation of the transversus abdominis in the front of the waist and the lumbar multifidus in the low back to create an equal supported lift much like squeezing toothpaste from both sides on the bottom produces the lift out the top. This abdomen/low back gentle lifted squeezing can also be felt at the sides of the pelvis. This comfortable lifted synching feeling (much like pulling the string to tighten a duffel bag) is important to hold and maintain the neutral pelvis position once it is located and experienced.

Ask your client to be in this neutral position with the least amount of effort. If there is excessive muscular tension held in the body, then proper placement cannot be maintained over time. Help your client find the relaxed supported placement that can be held habitually. (See “The Use of Imagery to help Your Client Find Lift Through the Core.” for ideas about helping your client feel core engagement through imagery.)

Repeat the exercise again and have your client notice the weight on each sit bone while rocking front to back. Have your client put more weight on the right side, then the left, followed by weight equal in the center. The hard rotator disc makes this easier for your client to feel shifts of weight. If you previously noticed your client shifting more weight to one sit bone in the exercise, ask him/her if one side or another is more comfortable and see if it correlates to your previous observation.

If your client tends to sit toward one side, suggest that he/she check in throughout the day to see if this is a habit. Your client is best equipped to make this correction and develop the new habit through conscious attention and a commitment to change.

SIDE TO SIDE: MOVING ON THE CORONAL/FRONTAL PLANE
Next ask your client to rock from side to side feeling each sit bone (the carriage will be stationary). Have your client push off of the right sit bone to sit up taller moving the head toward the ceiling as if making space for the kidney and notice the activation of the right lumbar multifidus muscles. Raising the arms overhead can sometimes make the firing of the low back muscles easier feel. Repeat it to the left.

Both sit bones weighted with lateral rib shift.

After about 5 sets, have your client now try to lift the ribcage laterally to the right while sitting up tall, keeping weight on BOTH sit bones. Have your client observe now that both sides of the lumbar multifidi are activated—it is like having two “rocket boosters” (one on each sit bone) to lift the ribcage off the pelvis instead of one. This equal activation creates a more powered balanced lift.

It may be difficult for your client to keep both sit bones weighted in the lateral ribcage shift. Suggest that the bones of the pelvis are like a boat weighted in the water. Keep the boat heavy while the muscles and flesh lift upward into the lateral shift much like the vertical mast. You may see a crossover from the previous exercise. For example, if you client felt more comfortable with the weight on the right sit bone moving front to back, he/she may tend to lift the left sit bone as the ribcage moves sideways to the right since it is not used to bearing weight.

ROTATE RIGHT TO LEFT: MOVING ON THE TRANSVERSE PLANE
 

Right lumbar and thoracic rotation.

The client is sitting on a moving rotator disc so that lumbar rotation of the pelvis is proprioceptively accentuated. Driving the disc is somewhat like moving the wheel of a car: pulling down on the wheel to make a right hand turn would cause the left side of the wheel to move upward, much like moving the right sit bone backward to rotate the disc clockwise would move the left sit bone forward to further rotate the disc clockwise. Have your client rotate the disc to the right while keeping both knees still and holding the Reformer carriage in place. Most people will shift to one sit bone on rotation so instruct your client to drop the lifted sit bone (“sit the boat in the water”). Be sure to initially isolate pure lumbar rotation by keeping the chest facing forward in place. Repeat to the other side. Watch to be sure your client keeps weight on both feet as there is a tendency to roll one knee inward during the exercise.

After your client experiences moving the disc in rotation, add the thought of siting tall during this twist and to engage the transversus abdominis (lower abs) and lumbar multifidus (low back muscles) so that there is a feeling of lifting upward through the spine. Just as it is necessary to bend the knees and go into the floor prior to jumping, the pelvis must first be weighted on the disc in opposition to the lifted ribcage. Both “rocket boosters” (ischial tuberosities) should be connected in a centered pelvis giving more power to the lift since both sides of the back will be active.

Incorrect lateral rib shift with one sit bone weighted.

Now move the pelvis, chest and head in succession during the rotation. It should feel like a spiral staircase moving upward. Notice if the ribcage moves laterally off the pelvis during rotation and indicate the necessary correction to bring the ribcage centered over the pelvis—if the ribcage is shifted, odds are that one sit bone will also be lifted. Just as in stacking blocks, the lumbar and thoracic sections of the spine are structurally solid on top of each other, rather than precariously stacking on the counterbalanced edges.

Conscious and attentive self-awareness of pelvic placement in a seated position can improve overall posture. Just as a building needs a good foundation, the spine’s structural integrity is dependent upon a solid base. Your client can create new sitting habits, but must first have the knowledge and experience of how to find center. The best way to experience center is through its contrast of shifting weight off-center. Once the relative position of center is understood, and the weight over the ischial tuberosities felt, your client can consciously maintain balanced alignment through daily practice.

Pucker Up the Pelvic Floor

Many people think of their abdominal muscles when asked to engage the core muscles, but, unless someone has gone through pregnancy or incontinence issues, the pelvic floor muscles are a relatively unfamiliar yet critical component of core activation. Exercises that strengthen these pelvic floor muscles through isometric contractions are commonly referred to as Kegel exercises named after gynecologist Dr. Arnold Kegel. The basic premise is to “contract and release” the pelvic floor muscles, and includes variations that increase the number or duration of contractions. Using imagery and guided instructions can help your client find the core’s foundation.

The following verbal instruction series can be taught individually or in a group environment.

DIAMOND IMAGE: Describe the pelvic floor as a diamond shape consisting of points at the pubic bone  in the front, sit bones or ischial tuberosities forming the sides of the diamond, and the tail bone or coccyx at the back.

STACKING TRIANGLES: Divide the image of the bottom and top half of the diamond into two separate triangles cutting on the coronal plane and approach each section individually.

Back Triangle (both sit bones and tail bone): Instruct your student(s) to engage the anal sphincter without squeezing the cheeks of the buttocks as if stopping gas from escaping and then release. Once the area is isolated, contract with a small intensity, then medium, then large intensity contraction consecutively without release and then let go of the large contraction to start again. Do this twice through.

After this is achieved, try doing the small, medium, large intensity contraction followed by a small release with a “catch” of the contraction three times to create what feels like a small, medium, and large release of the contraction. A conscious effort must be made to reestablish the contraction each time or the release will feel like one action instead of three.

The purpose of the small, medium and large intensity contractions is to make the exercise more precise and challenging. This will make a plain isometric contraction feel like less work and easier to maintain.  Note that if you are teaching this individually, you can hold your client’s hand and mimic the intensity squeeze of the small, medium and large contraction for guidance.

Front Triangle (both sit bones and pubic bone): Instruct your student(s) to engage the urethral sphincter as if stopping urine flow without squeezing the anal sphincter or cheeks of the buttocks and then release. Once the area is isolated, contract with a small intensity, then medium, then large intensity contraction consecutively without release and then let go of the large contraction to start again. Do this twice through. After this is achieved, try doing the small, medium, large contraction followed by the small, medium and large release as done above with the back triangle of the diamond.

SIDE TRIANGLES: Now divide the diamond into right and left triangles cutting on the sagittal plane.

Left Triangle (pubic bone, left sit bone and tailbone): Instruct your student(s) to engage the left side of the pelvic floor without squeezing the cheeks of the buttocks and then release. Once the area is isolated, contract with a small then medium then large contraction consecutively without release and then let go of the large contraction to start again. Do this twice through. After this is achieved, try doing the small, medium, large contraction followed by the small, medium and large release as done above.    

Right Triangle (pubic bone, right sit bone and tailbone): Instruct your student(s) to engage the right side of the pelvic floor without squeezing the cheeks of the buttocks and then release. Once the area is isolated, contract with a small then medium then large contraction consecutively without release and then let go of the large contraction to start again. Do this twice through. After this is achieved, try doing the small, medium, large contraction followed by the small, medium and large release as done above.

FIGURE 8 IMAGE:  Now relate the front and the back to engage the entire pelvic floor in the initial diamond image (pubic bone, both sit bones, tailbone). A figure 8 or infinity sign could be drawn around the anal sphincter and urethral sphincter. Squeeze each opening individually as you would pucker the mouth to kiss or as if tightening the cord on a duffel bag and cinch them together while drawing them upward toward the internal organs as if sucking on a straw. Once the feeling of this is established, try the small medium and large contraction pattern as established on the previous preparatory sections.

Understanding the contraction of the pelvic floor is the gateway to engaging the rest of the core muscles and facilitates the engagement of the deeper transversus abdominnis muscle.  A study entitled “Instructing pelvic floor contraction facilitates transversus abdominis thickness increase during low-abdominal hollowing,” on the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health website concludes that “Instructing healthy subjects to co-contract pelvic floor muscles results in greater increase in transversus abdominis thickness during low abdominal hollowing in four-point kneeling.”

As well as improving core stability, strengthening the pelvic floor muscles can help with urinary incontinence, but should be practiced with an empty bladder. According to the Mayo Clinc website “Doing Kegel exercises with a full bladder or while emptying your bladder can actually weaken the muscles, as well as lead to incomplete emptying of the bladder — which increases the risk of a urinary tract infection.”

Guided instructions using imagery can help your students isolate and contract the muscles of the pelvic floor. Once you have established the muscle memory from the above exercises you can use the imagery in cueing. For example, “cinch your figure 8” or “suck the pelvic straw.” The mind is better able to direct the body when the target is clearly understood. Strengthening the pelvic floor builds the foundation on which the other core muscles can be explored.

Breaking Down the Pilates Hundred

The Hundred (100s) is one of the most widely recognized exercises of the Pilates matwork and also one of the more choreographically complex. It is the first exercise in the matwork series in Joseph Pilates book Return to Life Through Contrology, and its expansive breathing and percussive pumping arms increases oxygen exchange circulating blood and energizing the body for the exercises to follow. The name comes from the hundred pumps achieved through 10 sets of 5 arm pumps during inhalation and 5 arm pumps on exhalation. Breaking down the components of the 100s into individual sections can help students more easily grasp each element as it integrates into the exercise as a whole. This awareness improves mental concentration yielding more fluid and precise movements.

The key elements found in the 100s include quality of breath and its influence on core connection; sequence of abdominal muscle recruitment; and scapular stabilization to power the arms. I have had a few clients who initially expressed a dislike for this exercise, and later changed their minds after integrating the various parts into a more coordinated whole.

BREATHING

The fundamental element in the 100s is breath, and costal (chest) breathing  is necessary to perform the 100s effectively. During a normal breath the diaphragm contracts and descends to make more space available in the chest cavity for the lungs to fill and the belly expands. Although this diaphragmatic breath pattern is oxygen-rich, it is ineffective for the 100s since it does not provide adequate support for the lumbar spine when the legs are in the air. The abdominal muscles must be engaged during the inhalation phase of the breath cycle to counterbalance the weight of the legs. This abdominal cinching action reduces available expansion during inhalation to the chest cavity alone. If your client has only experienced diaphragmatic breathing, it may be difficult to maintain the engagement of the transversus abdominis on the inhalation and she may also feel that she does not get enough air with costal breathing alone. Therefore, proper activation of respiratory muscles must first be explored. Select the exercises most accessible and applicable to your client’s needs.

Exercise 1—Lying in Clay

Have your client lie supine and direct her to imagine she is lying in clay or sand. On the inhalation have her visualize that she squishes the ribcage down and wide making a perfect imprint. The breath should also open the sides of the ribcage so the thought of breathing through gills like a fish can also be useful. Breathe in through the nose for 4 counts and out through the mouth for 8 counts.

Exercise 2—Inner Tube

Note that some people use their facilitating respiratory muscles to do the job of the primary respiratory muscles causing the shoulders to lift and lower during each breath. To prevent this, have her imagine that an inner tube is around the chest and to breathe only in this area. You can wrap a scarf around the ribcage for better feedback. Direct her to pull air through her nose and take as many “sniffing” breaths as possible filling up this inner tube and notice the feeling of the muscles engaging in the chest. The last few sniffs will not yield more air intake, but will feel more like intercostal muscles around the ribcage firing.  After performing this sniffing breath a few times, go back to normal breathing and she should feel that it is easier to expand the chest and fill up the inner tube.

 Exercise 3—One Lung

Have your client imagine that she is breathing only through the right lung. Direct her to feel the breath in the back, front and side of the ribcage. Be sure she feels the expansion of the right ribcage through her focused attention. Then direct her attention to the left side. After feeling each side individually, have her feel the volume available when she breathes into both sides. This exercise demonstrates to your client that she controls muscle activation by thought and that greater attention can lead to an increased reaction.

Exercise 4—Physioball

If your client lacks the proprioceptive awareness of chest expansion, it is helpful to sit next to a physioball and lean into it. The physioball gives better feedback as it “dents in” on the inhalation and “pops back” into the ribs on the exhalation. Assist your client to experience breath in the sideways, dorsal and ventral positions by holding the ball pressed toward her body as she breathes.  Use a smaller ball than the one pictured if your client has shoulder issues and cannot raise the arm comfortably.

 Exercise 5—Marble

Although a full breath in the chest includes breathing into the front of the chest, this can hinder lumbar support when lying supine and holding the legs in the air. When people breathe anteriorly, they often lift the chest off the floor diminishing the supported counter-leverage necessary to hold the legs in the air. Have your client visualize squeezing a marble below the xiphoid process and hold it on the exhalation with the narrowing of the ribs. Suggest that your client take an inhalation without losing the marble. This requires the breath go to the back and to the side of the ribs in a saddle shape. The marble image keeps the thoracic vertebrae pressed into the floor maintaining the strength of the posterior pelvic tilt and support for the lumbar region.

Exercise 6—Elevator

The activation of the transversus abdominis or concept of “navel to spine” requires a cumulative response that evolves and deepens on each exhale. Clients will often tighten the abs in a bracing action as if waiting for a punch to the gut. This is a static engagement and works from the outside in. The transversus abdominis should initiate from the inside, as if the organs are inviting the abdominal wall inward. Guide your client to imagine the abdomen as an elevator. Keep the abdominals engaged holding the elevator level to let the people in on the inhalation (using a costal breath). As she exhales lower the elevator from the 3rd floor to the 2nd floor and feel the navel drop toward the spine in a relaxed action as if a soufflé were to sink in. Hold the elevator still on the next intake of air and exhale again to the 1st floor.

The work phase takes place on the inhalation trying to prevent the belly from expanding and the relaxation occurs during the exhalation deepening the scoop. Any cumulative image will work. For example, deep sea diving going lower and looking at fish; scooping ice cream toward the bottom of the container, etc.

Exercise 7—Segmented vs. Nonsegmented Breath

The 100s breathing can be done in either a continuous regular breath or a segmented breath. The regular breath would include 5 arm pumps on the inhalation and 5 arm pumps during the exhalation. There is also an option to make the breath more percussive inhaling for 5 “sniffs” and exhaling for 5 “candle flickers.” The sniff should have a quality smelling something pleasant (not sniffing a nasal spray) and the blowing out the mouth should be like blowing a candle to watch it flicker, but not blow it out entirely. During the inhalation the ribcage should open and expand into the back with each sniff (as in the “Marble” exercise) and the belly should scoop and deepen during the exhalation (as in the “Elevator” exercise). This percussive breathing can contribute to the invigorating characteristic of the 100s preparing the body for further movement, but for some the saturation of too many details can cause confusion. Choose as needed.

ABDOMINALS

The posterior pelvic tilt or “flat back” position in the 100s occurs in an ordered sequence of abdominal muscle recruitment. If the pelvic tilt is taken in steps, instead of in one action, the low back can lengthen while the abdominals shorten in the front. In contrast, if the low back is pressed into the floor without first tractioning the lumbar vertebrae apart, it creates gripping tension and restricts the ability to scoop the navel toward the spine. My clients have expressed that this sequence gives them a deeper core connection.

Inhale

Step One: Inhale

Take a costal breath expanding the ribcage and using the marble image outlined above, while holding the abdominal wall flat.

Exhale

Step Two: Pelvic Floor with Transversus Abdominis

Engage the pelvic floor at the same time as the transversus abdominis pulling the pubic bone toward the throat (sinking the soufflé as in the “Elevator” exercise). If your client has no experience with engaging the pelvic floor, the direction to stop gas and urination without squeezing the gluts can be helpful. This step happens on the beginning of the exhalation and should feel fairly relaxed. The pelvis will begin to shift into the posterior tilt, but only slightly.

Step Three: Lengthen the Spine and Clamp the Obliques

Direct the head and the tailbone to pull apart from each other to traction the lumbar vertebrae while the obliques bilaterally contract. This action takes place during the middle of the exhalation and should have a strong squeezing or cinching feel to shorten and contract the ribs toward the hipbones while lengthening the low back. The pelvis now moves into a full posterior pelvic tilt.

Step Four: Imprint

Once the above is achieved the low back should have full contact with the floor and an imprint of the lumbar spine is explored. This step occurs at the end of the exhalation and a firm connection with the floor can be felt.

Without releasing the pelvic tilt, begin the process over again until as deep a scoop as possible is achieved (see “Elevator” exercise above).

POWERING THE ARMS

All Pilates exercises include initiation from the core prior to powering the limbs. The pumping arms in the 100s must start from the connection into the back, not the hands going up and down. Firing the lower trapezius, posterior rotator cuff and triceps will intensify the striking action of the arm pump. The arms should not feel like they are slapping, but rather they should be pressing isometrically against imagined thick space such as pressing into peanut butter in a rapid motion.

Exercise 1—Depression of Scapula

Have your client lie supine vertically along a foam roller (or on the floor if you don’t have one). Raise the right hand in the air toward the ceiling and be sure your client feels the scapula either hugging the roller or on the floor and the humerus bone is weighted in the glenohumeral joint.  Elevate the scapula and squeeze the shoulder toward the ear staying connected with either the roller or floor. Lower the scapula to a neutral position relaxing the upper trapezius and then further depress the scapula with the intention of activating the lower trapezius. You may need to put your finger on the target so your client feels the inferior angle of the scapula pressing into you. Once your client feels the lower trapezius activate, have her hold the position and isometrically engage it further to increase awareness. Repeat on the left side and then do both at the same time. 

Exercise 2—Posterior Rotator Cuff

Have your client bend her elbows in front of her body to ninety degrees palms up as if holding a large tray. Stand behind your client and place the fingers of your left hand below the inferior angle of the right scapula and your right hand on her right shoulder with the thumb pressing into the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles.   Ask your client to externally rotate the right shoulder while holding the connection at the posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius. The elbow has a slightly forward scooping feeling, and the ribs should not release. Repeat this exercise on the other side. After completing both sides ask your client to sit with her arms by her sides and hands on the thighs with the palms up. See if she can widen at the clavicles while pleasantly activating the posterior rotator cuff muscles without letting the ribs protrude. Another option is to have your client hold a scarf or piece of fabric around the mid-back doing the exact same exercise above so that the angle of the arm becomes clearer and provides a little resistance at the elbow.

Exercise 3—Triceps in Upside Down 100s

Performing the 100s in a prone position causes the triceps to go against gravity and activate more intensely. The depression of the scapula and firing of the posterior rotator cuff can also be felt more acutely in this position. Instead of pumping the arms toward the floor, your client will now be pumping the arms to the ceiling doing the exact same 100s exercise while lying prone and scooping the belly off the floor instead of imprinting into the floor. If your client does not experience neck problems, she can activate the back extensors to lift her head an inch or two off the floor keeping the gaze down to maintain the neck alignment. When the exercise is flipped back to the normal supine position, the client is able to feel a better core connection with an increase in isometric effort.

Be sure to modify the 100s to accommodate your client’s needs.

Neck Issues

The entire 100s exercise can be done keeping the head on the floor. 

Low Back Pain

One or both feet can keep contact with the floor.

Hip Flexor Discomfort

Keep the feet on the floor or bend the knees in the air keeping them close to the chest.

Rounded Shoulders

The palms can be flipped to face the ceiling on the pump to work more external rotation of the shoulder.

Difficulty Getting to the Floor

 The 100s can be performed standing alternating legs after fifty pumps or performed seated.

Advanced Challenges

If you want to challenge your client, try the 100s while lying vertical on a half or full foam roller. Do the first half of the exercise with one leg in the air and then exchange legs for the second half. A BOSU can also be used to challenge your client’s skills performed in a supine position with the low back on the arc of the dome. 

The Hundred is a Pilates basic, but can be a coordination nightmare for some new students. Make it easier for your clients to integrate the components by breaking it down into simpler more digestible parts. As with any good building project, start with a solid foundation. Practice breath, abdominal acuity and scapular awareness to build a “power house” that is all about the core.

Centering on Rotator Discs

Rotator discs are a great tool to improve dancers’ pirouette form and are also useful for non-dancers to experience postural alignment along a center axis. Although proper alignment prevents injuries and allows our bodies to move most efficiently, it can be challenging to maintain this interlocking jigsaw-like relationship when put in motion. A spinning motion along a central axis using rotator discs can proprioceptively illustrate an understanding of alignment better than words ever could. Your client will either maintain balance and have a conscious experience of a “center” line through the body like that of the lead of a pencil, or she will lose balance and have a warping disjointed experience demonstrating that posture was not maintained.

Rotator discs come in different sizes and are basically two circular plates with ball bearings in the center. You will want to choose a size that is large enough for your client to stand on with both feet side by side—12” is generally good choice. In preparation for this exercise, be sure your client has a clear understanding of proper alignment in a static position and how to engage her core muscles. (See article “The Use of Imagery to Help Your Client Find Lift Through the Core.”) Do not put any person into this exercise who has difficulty balancing on one leg, as the exercise would be too advanced. Make sure to spot your client in case she loses her balance, and allow plenty of floor space around the disc free from any obstacles.

Start your client with one foot on the floor and the other foot placed on the disc. An outside or en dehors turn has the right foot on the disc and requires a counterclockwise turn with the left foot pushing off the floor and then stepping onto the disc. For an inside or en dedans turn to the right, the right foot starts on the disc with the left foot pushing off the floor and turns clockwise. Use the back foot to push off the floor providing momentum for the turn and step quickly onto the disc with both feet.

Applying too much force will throw your client off-balance or increase the revolutions to possibly make your client dizzy. It is best to start with minimal force until your client gets used to how much pressure to apply against the floor. Have your client continue to turn until the disc slows and comes to a stop. Be sure to practice both sides and change directions every few turns. If your client is a dancer, have her practice “spotting” in the turn.

Pru Turn 2The placement of the arms should be considered in the turn. You can have your client hold her arms by her sides or in front of her as if she is holding a ball. If you have a ball that is the size of a beach ball it can be useful to actually hold the ball at the chest. Note that your client might feel more secure having her arms free when first attempting this exercise in case she loses her balance.

If your client is a dancer, the arm placement can be more complicated with the preparatory position in ballet 3rd position moving to 1st position in the turn. Dancers can sometimes lose the volume of 1st position when turning, so holding the ball can give your client a sense of width between the elbows. Make sure that your client anchors her scapulae as well so that the arms are connected to the back with strength.

inside or en dedans turn

inside or en dedans turn to the left

The ball should be placed in the “following” arm, not the lead arm. The arm that follows into the turn is more significant since it provides the “snapping in” effect providing momentum. If this arm is not lively and connected into the back the turn will lose energy and stability. Practicing this movement first with the ball patterns the arm to move toward the midline of the body with volume and proper timing.

Rather than just standing on the rotator disc with both feet flat, dancers can progress to having the working leg in forced arch, coupé and then passé. As the level of difficulty increases, be careful to decrease the torque exerted against the floor or the turn will be difficult to maintain. Parallel and turned out positions are both suitable for practice, but parallel may be preferable for the general public or contemporary dancers.

forced arch foot placement

forced arch foot placement

Rotator discs can effectively teach the concept of center. Your client must stabilize her core (the center of gravity) in addition to holding postural alignment (center axis). When using a rotator disc, the central axis of the body is like the pole in tetherball and the turning action represents the ball going around the pole. It is essential to have the body aligned or the turn will wobble like a tetherball would around a bent pole. Your client receives immediate feedback as to her success and can adjust accordingly. The experience of turning on the rotator disc becomes her instructor and teaches the concept of center better than your explanation ever could.

Help for Sciatic Pain

If your client complains of pain shooting down the back of her leg accompanied by tingling, or numbness, she may be experiencing symptoms of sciatica. Sciatica involves a compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. The pain can occur for a variety of reasons, including a herniated disc pressing on the nerve roots coming out of the spinal cord into the lumbar region, or a tight piriformis muscle pressing into the sciatic nerve that feeds down into the leg. Although the symptoms may go away over time, there are exercises and stretches available to help alleviate discomfort.

 Pilates exercises that strengthen the core and stabilize the pelvis in neutral placement can decrease the downward pressure on the intervertebral discs. Think about the intervertebral discs like fluffy marshmallows. You can squish them and watch the sides protrude or you can pull your fingers apart to return them to their original shape. Being able to sit tall with muscular support for the low back in a neutral pelvis position gives you better odds at decompressing the irritated nerves if the discs bulge.

 Positions requiring spinal flexion can sometimes increase symptoms. Emphasize core strength in neutral pelvis placement found in sitting, standing, side lying, quadruped, or neutral pelvis supine positions such as footwork on the Reformer. Prolonged standing or sitting can also increase symptoms, so try not to stay in one position too long. Be sure that your client understands how to activate the pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and lumbar multifidi. Most people have never consciously tried to contract these muscles, and need to first find them in order to activate them for pelvic stabilization.

 If your client is not used to sitting up tall, activating postural muscles can cause fatigue. When her back gets tired, make sure she reaches over to grab her ankles and takes a few deep breaths to relieve any tension created in the back to prevent muscle spasms. (See post The Use of Imagery to Help Your Client Find Lift Through the Core.) Sitting in a chair with good back support can also help.

 If sciatica symptoms are present when getting out of the car, you can suggest trying a towel “tootsie roll.” Fold a small bath towel in half lengthwise and roll it up as you would a yoga mat into a tootsie roll shape. Place the towel support at the crease of the car seat to prevent the pelvis from shifting out of neutral into a posterior tilt. This roll can also be placed on a chair for additional support. Be sure that your client understands that the towel tootsie roll is used ONLY at the base of the sacrum (where the crease of the seat and backrest meet) and NOT to be placed at the lumbar spine. The towel’s purpose is to give the pelvis a feeling of rocket boosters at the base of the pelvis shifting the weight slightly forward on the ischial tuberosities, not to force more curve in the low back.

 Tightness in the piriformis muscle can also cause sciatic pain since the pathway from the origin and insertion of the muscle crosses over the sciatic nerve. Improving flexibility through regular stretching may also help relieve sciatic symptoms. The pretzel stretch is useful for stretching the piriformis and can be performed with modifications. 

Directions for the Pretzel Stretch

Lie on your back with bent knees with both feet on the floor. Place your right ankle over the left knee and clasp the back of the left thigh with both hands and pull the left thigh toward the chest. Keeping the left thigh toward the chest, inhale and push the left thigh away from the chest while simultaneously pulling the clasped hands behind the thigh toward you. The leg doesn’t go anywhere, but muscle tension is created. Exhale releasing this muscle tension and pull the left leg closer to the chest. As you do the above, it is very important to keep the sitbones (ischial tuberosities) reaching toward the floor and try to maintain the lumbar curve found in neutral pelvis. This “sitting” toward the floor feeling creates opposition in the stretch providing a better pull. You can also rock the stretch slightly from side to side. Hold the stretch for around one minute and then repeat it to the opposite side. Sitting in a chair can modify this exercise for those unable to stretch on the floor with the emphasis placed on sending the tailbone back and lifting the chest up and forward.

Although some clients will need to see a doctor for their sciatic symptoms, the improved core strength and flexibility provided by Pilates exercises may decrease sciatic discomfort. As we are not stationary beings, understanding how to stabilize the core as we move through space pursuing our daily activities can help prevent aggravation. With the proper knowledge and consistently applied tools, your client can self-correct if she slips into old habits. Although exercise alone may not alleviate sciatic symptoms, the pain experienced by sciatica is often a great motivator for even the most committed couch potato to give it a try.

The Use of Imagery to Help Your Client Find Lift Through the Core

Many clients struggle with accessing the muscles necessary for core engagement and postural alignment. The use of imagery or metaphors can help your client find the proper form. Instead of taking a client through the specific steps of muscular activation, try suggesting that your client concentrate on images, such as a diamond, marble or golf ball, for example. You can easily refer to these chosen images later and your meaning will be understood without excessive verbiage.

To begin, have the client sit on a chair in a neutral pelvis position with weight slightly forward on the ischial tuberosities (sitbones) and the weight solidly on the feet. Ask your client to find the feeling of being a chair with its weight distributed equally between the sit bones and the feet as a chair would have four points of equal contact against the floor. Then suggest that your client imagine that an arrow has been shot sideways (coronal plane) through the pelvis and another one from front to back (sagittal plane) about 2-3 inches below the navel (umbillicus). Where those arrows intersect in the center, ask your client to visualize a diamond as if it were cradled and held up between prongs like in a ring. Keep the diamond lifted and suspended from all sides.

Then have the client lift the chest away from the pelvis and notice the space where her ribs meet at the bottom of her breastbone (sternum) at the xiphoid process. Ask her to visualize a marble has been inserted here and to give it a squeeze, pulling it up off the diamond below. Finally, suggest that your client continue to lengthen up the spine to where the bottom of the ears connect to the neck lifting her head as if it were a golf ball suspended on a tee. Tell her to breathe expansively through the chest and continue to lift her diamond, marble, and golf ball away from each other. Ask your client to release any excess tension so that she could hold the lifted position for an extended period of time. Remain in this position several (costal) breath cycles and then have her reach toward the floor to relax the back.

Finding lift through the core can be a challenge for many clients, but using imagery can help your client “see” what should happen and find the proper form.