Breathing on Footwork – Pilates Reformer Exercises

by | Jul 24, 2013 | Pilates | 0 comments

How Your Breathing Pattern Can Help or Hinder Healthy Movement Habits

Questions About Breathing on Pilates Footwork – from Angie:

“I chanced upon your blog when researching on Pilates on the web. The articles are a great read!

I’ve been going for group reformer classes for about a year now but have recently switched to another studio for private lessons. At the group classes, I’ve been taught to exhale when extending the legs and inhale on the carriage return.  My new instructor, however, teaches the opposite.  So I’ve gotten a bit confused, and I have to “re-educate” my mind as I’ve signed up for a 10-session package.

Based on the information I’ve gathered so far it seems like exhale when moving arms/legs away from the body is more common. What is your take on this? Or it doesn’t really matter? Thanks!

Hey Angie, this is a really great question and one that I encourage you to also ask both your private and group class teachers to see what their responses are on this question.  I’m going to share with you what I do and why so you not only have an answer, but hopefully will be able to see the reasoning as to WHY I choose the breathing patterns I teach for breathing on footwork on the Reformer.

Breathing and Exercise

Breathing is such an important part of doing Pilates.  Good posterior-lateral breathing patterns support the body, improve posture, and help facilitate healthy movement habits.  Every movement we do during a Pilates workout does have a specific breathing pattern that will be most helpful for the movement to be executed well, and for the body to “ride the breath” for smooth, graceful motion.

Footwork on the Pilates Reformer is one of the very first exercises that everybody learns, and it’s one that you’ll do in every workout for the rest of your Pilates life!  There are a million things to think about and focus on for good footwork, and good breathing habits are key!  When we’re lying flat on our back, the back of the ribcage is against the mat and it can feel more difficult to get the breath into the back of the body for posterior-lateral breathing.  We want to breathe into the free-space which is the front of the body.  If you breathe into the front, typically, the abs will pooch out, and the front of the ribs and chest rise, pulling the upper thoracic spine out of alignment and arching the back.  Since we know the back needs to stay close to the mat – usually this is where the hips end up tucked, so in effect the natural curves of the spine have been reversed!  (Flexion of the spine in the lumbar, and extension in the thoracic.)  This is NOT ideal for healthy movement as it not only hinders your breathing habits, but adds stress to the spine, and limits hip mechanics.

Good Breathing Habits

Ideally, breathing increases the natural curves of the spine.  I’m going to repeat this as it’s very important for every exercise we do:

“Healthy Breathing Habits Increase the Natural Curves of the Spine”

Good breathing helps reinforce the natural curves of the spine, as well as provides compression and decompression. With every breath the spine should get longer on the inhale, and slightly shorter on the exhale.  What we’re striving to do with Pilates is maintain muscle support on the exhale so we don’t totally deflate the body and lose our tall posture.  By learning how to use the breath to facilitate good placement of the spine with it’s natural curves all in the right spots we are safe and ready to move in any direction.  Whether we need to bend forward, backwards, sideways, or twist the body has enough joint space to move freely, AND the awareness of where good posture is to get back to “center” from any position we might bend ourselves into.

Breathing on Footwork on the Pilates Reformer…

Your question is “Am I supposed to inhale to press out and exhale to return?  Or exhale to press out and inhale to return?  Or does it really matter?”

What’s my opinion…  Yes, the breathing pattern matters!  Breathing always matters!  But specifically WHEN you’re taking your inhale or exhale, and what the body is doing at that particular moment in my opinion hinges on your level of experience, how well you can use your posterio-lateral Pilates breathing techniques, and how well you are able to correctly support the body position for correct movement.

So whether you inhale to press out and exhale to return, or exhale to press out and inhale to return, or another option…inhale and exhale to press out, inhale and exhale to return, will depend on your ability to maintain a good body position, holding the spine in a good position to maintain the natural curves, keeping the pelvis still, supporting with your low abs, and hinging from the hips to straighten and bend the knees, hinging from the ankles to lift and lower the heels.

The breathing pattern I choose for Pilates Footwork on the Reformer depends on a few different variables. 

  • The level of experience of my client.
  • Their ability to maintain a good upper thoracic curve.
  • Their ability to breath into the back ribs.
  • Their ability to find and use the low abs, and stabilize the pelvis
  • Their ability to independently use their legs.
  • Their ability to take in a long, deep, breath.
  • The speed in which they are executing the exercise.

The optimal breathing pattern, from my perspective is to Inhale to press out and Exhale to return.  This has you lengthening the spine (hips, legs, and whole body) AND spring all at the same time.  And the exhale allows you to lift the abs up to help support and maintain “tall” while you resist the return.

However, it’s always easier to support the body on an exhale.  So if a client is not strong enough to maintain a good body position and support the low back and pelvis and spine position, exhaling to press out will help cue more low ab support, as well as softening the front of the ribcage to find the natural upper thoracic curve (that ideally should be there on an inhale – but it’s just not there yet…)

If someone is moving really slowly, or needs more support in BOTH directions, pressing out and returning, I will encourage them to cue take 2 full breaths for 1 repetition.  Inhale and exhale to press out, inhale and exhale to return.  This way they get to use the exhale to support the body as they extend AND as they bend, until they get stronger, and feel comfortable to move at a faster pace and can hold everything together.

Suggested Breathing Patterns for Pilates Footwork

Beginner Breathing for Footwork: 2 Full Breaths for 1 Repetition.

  • Inhale AND Exhale to Press Out.  Inhale AND Exhale to Return.

Basic Breathing for Footwork: 1 Full Breath for 1 Repetition.

  • Exhale to Press Out.  Inhale to Return.

Intermediate/Advanced Breathing for Footwork: 1 Full Breath for 1 Repetition.

  • Inhale to Press Out.  Exhale to Return.

It is very possible to be a “Beginner” Pilates student and to be doing the “Intermediate/Advanced” breathing pattern for footwork.  Footwork is not an “Advanced” exercise.  But it does take a good amount of body awareness, and muscle activation to move briskly, breath correctly, and maintain the right support.

Ideally, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re on an inhale or exhale; the body should be able to execute the same movement well, with the right body alignment and support.  A well-experienced Pilates student should be able to “play” with the breathing patterns and not have it affect the execution of the exercises.  But if you’re a newer student, or still fine-tuning your alignment, and searching for the right support, the breath pattern you’re using can help or hinder your progress.

I hope this helps give you some insights into Breathing on footwork on Pilates Reformer exercises.  It’s not right or wrong either way, but if you’re not sure what’s best for you – be sure to consult with your Pilates teacher and ask how they want you breathing on your Pilates Footwork (and every exercise you do!)  If I think about other exercises that extend the arms and/or legs away from the body – I generally follow the same rules for breathing that I’ve outlined for Footwork.  But it may be exercise -dependent on what the best breath pattern is for you.

Your breath pattern can make a BIG difference in how easy or challenging exercises are to do well, with the right support.  Be sure your breathing pattern is helping not hindering the development of your healthy movement habits.  Learn to breathe well to be well.

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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