Mastering Movement of the Spine: Rotation

by | Apr 11, 2006 | Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 7 comments

The benefit of Pilates is efficient movement. Movement is health, health is life. The spine is the vertical support for our structure. It protects the nerves that cue our bodies for movement. Breath pumps nourishing fluids from the brain to the body and assists in lengthening the spine for freedom of movement. We start our Pilates training by learning how to flex the spine, then extend, rotate and side bend. Using the Pilates system for a full-body workout should include exercises that move the spine in all planes of movement. The perception that Pilates training is core work primarily focused abdominal strength with lots of spine flexion is a little misleading. There is movement of the spine in all directions in a well-rounded Pilates workout with many opportunities to practice twisting and rotation of the spine.

The Benefits of Rotation: Passive vs. Active

Consider the importance rotation plays in stretching and strengthening the torso to increase both movement and health of the spine. Rotation of the spine can be passive, or active. Passive means, the weight of the body along with gravity, initiate twisting movement. Active means, the muscles contract to physically move each segment into a rotated position. Both active and passive exercises are important for the health of the spine. For me, understanding the next concept was a true revelation: Rotation facilitates improvements in flexion and extension. It is proper rotation of the spine that stretches and strengthens all the muscles through the torso resulting benefits include; more mobility for all exercises in all planes of movement, as well as greater awareness to find the deeper spinal muscles for support and stabilization during other exercises. Proper posture, breathing, and shoulder placement are key in aiding the body’s ability to rotate freely.

Practicing Rotation with Pilates

There are many exercises that require active and passive rotation in the Pilates repertoire.

Make the most of your twisting, and notice the improvements in your strength, flexibility. See what a little extra focus on your rotation will do to help you achieve a better Hundred, Swan, more articulate Roll Up, improved stability for Side Legs……every exercise can improve!

You can practice rotation during Matwork with the One Leg Circle, Criss-Cross, Corkscrew, Saw, Seated Twist, and Twist I & II. On the Reformer improve your rotation with the Stomach Massage Twist, Short Box Twist, Corkscrew and Snake/Twist. There are also wonderful opportunities to practice rotation on the Trap Table, Spine Corrector, and Chair. Ask your Pilates teacher if it’s safe & appropriate to challenge your body with a little extra focus on rotation of the spine. This way you’ll be sure to begin with the best rotational exercises for you, and will have the watchful eye of your Pilates professional assisting you with proper movement as you start learning more efficient twisting techniques.

Try the two preparatory twisting exercises listed here – then do a Roll Up or Swan, and feel the ease of more mobility. You’ll get the most out of your Pilates workouts with a controlled, articulate spine that can move sequentially from the head to the tailbone, or the tail to the head, in all directions – forward, sideways, backwards, and twisting. Let your rotational exercises assist you in improving whole-body movement and health of the spine. Twist & Shout– Hooray for a Healthy & Happy Back!

Passive Rotation: The Knee Drop

To practice passive rotation, begin with the Knee Drop.

  • This is easiest to do with the feet supported. (Place feet on the foot bar during a Reformer workout, on a box or barrel for assistance during Matwork, or feet on the floor.)
  • In a hook lying position with feet hip width apart, allow both thighs to lean to the right. The weight of the legs will rotate the pelvis, low spine, and sequentially each vertebra from the lower back through the mid-back.
  • Inhale and exhale while twisting.
  • To return to center, inhale to spread the shoulder blades apart and begin from the upper spine to sequentially un-rotate, turning the spine back to center.
  • Actively use the abdominals to pull each segment back to neutral – upper spine, ribs, waist, hips, then legs.
  • While the abdominals are working, assist replacing the spine center with the small segmental muscles of the back to “un-rotate”.
  • If twisting (knees drop to the right) the left side of the abdominals, and right side of the back will do the work to sequentially un-rotate the spine and return to center, from the head, through the ribcage, to the hips, knees and feet.
  • The spine should elongate while returning to center.
  • For more of a challenge, begin with the knees to the chest at a ninety degree angle. Be careful, the farther you rotate, the more difficult to return to center.
  • Beginners may need many breaths to rotate and many more breaths while returning to center.
  • Work towards inhale – knees drop, exhale – twist. Inhale – upper spine and ribs return to the mat first, exhale – waist, hips, and legs return center.

Active Rotation: The Seated Twist

To practice active rotation, begin with a Seated Twist.

  • Sit in a chair, on the edge of the Reformer or Trap Table. If seated on the floor, a book or box will help achieve a better pelvis position to easily maintain the normal curves of the spine.
  • Place the feet hip width apart, toes facing straight ahead.
  • To put the shoulder blades in the most helpful position, cross the arms at the chest and lightly place the fingertips on the collarbones. Slightly lift the elbows until you feel the shoulders drop and the upper body is in position.
  • Inhale to lift the ribs off the hips and elongate the spine.
  • Exhale and allow the navel to turn towards the corner while you begin rotation at L5 (the lowest segment of the lower back).
  • Continue breathing while sequentially turning each segment from the lower spine through the middle and upper back, to the neck, then head.
  • If rotating to the right, the left side of the back engages to push the left side of the vertebra forward turning the body, while the right internal and external oblique muscles assist the rotation by pulling the right side of the vertebra backwards.
  • Visualize the spine turning like an old-fashioned barbershop pole with the stripes rotating around the pole from the bottom to the top.
  • To return to center, start again from the bottom of the spine.
  • Feel the each segment of the spine turn to face forward.
  • Notice both sides of the ribcage move. One half of the ribcage moves forward in space, the other side moves backwards.
  • Feel the shoulder blades maintain their normal placement – they simply ride on the ribcage. While twisting to the right the left shoulder blade travels forward in space – riding on the left side of the ribcage, the right shoulder blade lags forward – allowing the right side of the ribcage to turn inside of the shoulder blade.
  • If the shoulder blades retract – movement is being initiated from the shoulders instead of lower in the spine and this will restrict or stop further rotation.
The Seated Twist -(Correct) The Seated Twist -(Correct) The Seated Twist -(Misalignment)

Happy Twisting!

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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