Discover helpful tips and strategies for getting the most from your Pilates exercises to improve your ability to bend and articulate every segment of the back smoothly and easily.
I’ve been on a rant the last couple of weeks with my Pilates clients with the goal of helping them to improve their 100’s curl, as well as getting better articulation through the upper back on exercises like the Roll Up, Teaser, and Neck Pull – Three challenging exercises for most beginner Pilates clients..
If you observe participants executing any of the above Pilates exercises, you’ll either notice smooth, sequential articulation of the spine – in which case the exercises are easy! Or the head leads, then the next place the body bends is almost at the waist! When this happens, the upper body is moving as a “chunk.” Instead of the back muscles releasing and breastbone softening to help the front of the body bend forward more effectively.
When the whole upper body is held stiff, it completely restricts smooth movement, and makes it difficult to properly engage the abdominals for effective core support.
Here are my Ah-Ha revelations, a couple of preparatory exercises , and helpful tips that I’ve found useful to help my Pilates clients free up their upper body and improve their ability to bend forward with ease for all of their Pilates Exercises.
1. Rib Expansion & Contraction (rise and fall)
When inhaling the entire ribcage fills with air, and the ribs separate. On exhaling, the ribs should come closer together, so there is pliability through the entire chest.
Strive on the exhale to see and feel the highest ribs (right below the collar bones and under the armpits) begin softening or actively come closer together. Lots of people expand under the armpits, but don’t release these muscle on the exhale.
This will help lengthen the spine and help the upper back drop closer to the mat placing the back in a better position to articulate well while peeling off the mat to curl up during exercise.
2. Breastbone Slide Exercise
Stand facing the wall and place both hands on the wall in a “push-up” position. Keep the arms straight and lower abdominals lifted. Inhale to stand tall and on the exhale pull the shoulders down while sliding the breastbone down the front of your shirt to flex the upper spine. The bottom tips of the shoulder blades should spread wide to make room for the breastbone to move backwards between the blades.
Inhale to return to center – standing tall. Exhale to pull the shoulder blades down and slide the breastbone up and forward reaching it towards the wall in front of you. Keep the elbows straight and feel the upper back bones move towards the breastbone as it slides up and forward. The upper back moves into extension.
Inhale to return to center . Continue alternating between the breastbone sliding downward and the upper back moving into flexion, and the breastbone sliding up and forward as the spine moves into extension.
3. Standing Roll Down on the Wall
Stand with your back against the wall, and either together or hip-width apart as far out to the front as needed to get the entire back from your tailbone to the head firmly pressed to the wall.
Maintain lower abdominal support throughout the exercise to keep the lower back firmly against the wall. Arms and shoulders remain hanging and relaxed throughout the exercise.
Inhale to stand tall, exhale and nod the chin to the chest. Inhale and exhale to continue forward bending. Watch the breastbone slide down the front of the shirt, and move backwards towards the wall between the shoulder blades. Continue breathing and forward bending to the bottom of the breastbone. Lower abs stay lifted.
Take as many breaths as needed to roll down the wall peeling one segment of the back off the wall at a time to the bottom of the shoulder blades. Take as many breaths as needed to roll back up to a tall standing position one segment at a time. Lower back and lower abs stay firmly against the wall.
Tip for Maximum Movement on this Exercise:
The collar bones should rotate like a rotisserie. Then each rib from the top to the bottom of the breastbone should rotate and move backwards under the collarbones to effectively deepen the upper back flexion. Strive to put the front ribs that are attached to the breastbone, and the breastbone on the wall behind you, then peel the back off the wall to bend forward. If you have a partner or spotter, they can lightly place their hands on the front ribs to help find this movement. The breastbone slides down and back while the ribs rotate and move back and up to bend forward.
I use these three exercises to help improve awareness of rib, breastbone, and upper back movement. Then take this body awareness and new movement habits back to all of the Pilates exercises that require a forward bend. Hand support behind the head will help when beginning to transfer these concepts to curling the head and upper body off the mat. The Roll Down Bar and Push Through Bar on the Cadillac are also helpful to improve forward bending and reinforce these new muscle habits.
Every Pilates exercise that requires a C-Curve, needs this whole-spine flexibility to achieve optimal body alignment and muscle use for maximum benefits from every forward bending exercise. These tips and fundamental exercises are great to incorporate into Pilates workouts, and also make great “homework” exercises!
Have Fun & Happy Forward Bending!