Category Archives: Matwork and Studio Pilates Exercises

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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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.