Pumping in the Pilates Method: Don’t be a Victim of Choreography!

Jay Grimes Quote

Welcome to this week's blog post.

Thanks so much for becoming a subscriber and for joining me on the Pilates Path.

I'm about to teach a new workshop. The Pilates nerd-o-meter may climb to new heights with this topic.

More information about where and how to book at the end of this post.

All of your Pilates exercises are full-body exercises.

It's what makes Pilates Pilates, right?

There are no arm exercises or leg exercises, your goal is balanced musculature: everything working as a team toward the larger goal of body control.

Controlling the movements of the exercises (the choreography) takes you one step closer to everything working together like a well-honed machine.

And it's not just pumping exercises, right? Pumping is one of our most basic moves, but soon you'll be asked to do more challenging movements as well.

Common choreographic elements in Pilates exercises:

  • Pumping: Hundred, Footwork, Frog, Push Down on the Wunda Chair, Pumping on the High Chair
  • Beats: Beats, Coordination, Boomerang, Seal
  • Scissors: Scissors, High Scissors, Tree, Control Balance
  • Circles: Leg Circles, Arm Circles, Roll Over, Corkscrew, Bicycle, Helicopter

Think of the choreography elements on a continuum.

As you learn your Pilates exercises you start with basic iterations (pumping and beats) and proceed to more complicated movements (circles and bicycles) with greater proficiency.

You'll use your Pilates choreography to:

  • connect your extremities into the center
  • strengthen your oppositional forces, your 2-way stretch
  • challenge yourself with progressively more complex movement patterns
  • create length, enhance and decompress the trunk of the body – your center

The movements in any given exercise will always serve the same goal when you use your 2-way stretch.

Use the choreography of the extremities to increase the strength and suppleness in your center.

My favorite “rule” in the Pilates method (and I use the word ‘rule' loosely) is that the part of the body that is lying/sitting there doing nothing is doing all the work.

The Pumping on the High Chair is a perfect example:

Strategies for a Tight Low Back: Getting to the Bottom of It

You'll control the spring as it opens and closes to connect the lower body into the center.

Your lift is tangible as you sit tall against the supportive yet unforgiving wooden back of the chair.

You'll sustain your lift throughout the movements of the exercise.

In your first Pilates lessons, the movements are simple without many changes of position. You'll hone your skills here and in other “simple” pumping exercises like our old favorite…the Hundred.

100 on the Reformer

The position of lying down is both a help and a challenge but you've got that moving carriage underneath you to assist you with elongating your back on the mat.

Summon your (Oppositional) Forces!

I like to define the oppositional forces as simply as possible for now, to help reframe the choreography into a useful tool to wrangle your 2-way stretch.

1. Lifting up!

Illustration of the lift in the Pilates method

Everything that sits on top of the Short Box must LIFT!

Your signature move in the Pilates method has you defying gravity. What luck! You can work on it in every exercise. Extra points if the exercise isn't neat and tidy like our Pumping on the High Chair example.

Think of all your exercises done upside down or lying on your stomach.

2. Standing Down.

Superficial Back Line from Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers

Standing down enlivens the long line of the entire back of the body.

From Anatomy Trains by Thomas W. Myers: “The overall postural function of the Superficial Back Line (SBL) is to support the body in full extension, to prevent the tendency to curl over in flexion.”

“…the overall movement function of the SBL is to create extension and hyperextension.”

Yes, extension. You are literally standing yourself up in every exercise.

In the Pumping on the High Chair example, you've got the supportive pedal to stand on.

But remember all those OTHER exercises in which you are asked to stand in the air.

Teaser, anyone?

Teaser on the Mat

Does this sound like your jam?

I hope so.

I'm pretty stoked by this topic.

Join me on Saturday May 15, 2021 via The Pilates Firm, Las Vegas for my newest virtual workshop.

The workshop will meet 10am – 12pm PDT.

Register today.

PLUS! Juliet (the owner of the Pilates Firm) has extended an early discount of $10. (valid through Sunday April 11 at midnight) to you, my dear readers. Thanks, Juliet.

Questions? 

Hit me up in the comments below 🙂

Almost Returned to Life: Control Balance

Control Balance

Today is perhaps my most favorite March MATness day.

Control Balance is the exercise that started it ALL!

Let me explain.

Way back in the aughts I took my first Pilates Mat classes. Thanks, Excel Pilates DC.

My first Mat classes were the perfect introduction to the Pilates Method. I learned so much.

You probably know that one thing I learned was I could not do the Roll Up.

It seemed so simple.

Just. Roll. Up.

Right?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the studio, I saw an instructor doing an amazing somersault on and off the Reformer.

So cool!

It looked way more exciting than my Roll Up.

That day the Pilates Method and I struck a bargain: I agreed to work on my Roll Up and progress my proficiency until I was ready to learn this fantastic new mystery exercise: the Control Balance.

And yes, it took a while.

But I do love that thing.

It's Ripe for a Pilates Project, this one…

Control Balance on the Reformer

Looking at the Control Balance you can already see so many exercises within it.

Here's a small sample:

  • Roll like a Ball
  • Jackknife
  • Tree on the Short Box
  • Tendon Stretch One Leg
  • The Hundred
  • Monkey

You get the idea.

There's a lot of the Pilates method packed into this cumulative exercise.

Then you've got to manage the somersault part with control using your stomach.

Control Balance on the Reformer

(Funny how your stomach likes to leave you the moment you step onto the floor and off the Reformer)

You've got a whole method to help out any weak links in your Control Balance.

This brings me back to Roll Like a Ball

Where is my point of balance and how do I control it?

Roll Like a Ball

Roll Like a Ball is one of the very first exercises you learn.

Think of it as a speedy overhead exercise: here you'll spend a moment in the spot where later, in Control Balance, you'll spend an eternity. And the JackKnife and the Overhead.

What makes the ball roll smoothly?

A loaded question.

One answer is that your oppositional forces are in balance with each other: too much lift and you'll never rollover. Too much lower body going overhead and you'll land on your neck.

No bueno.

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: Transitions on the Mat 9

In the above photo, if I got more lift out the top of my head.

Lift? But I am upside down…

Just like sitting on top of the Short Box: the lift of my entire trunk would lower my point of balance away from my neck and onto the spot in the middle back that doesn't like to bend.

Just like a very sloooooooooow Roll Like a Ball. If I lift too much I'll end up on my back doing the Scissors.

There's another one in there. Scissors. Single Straight Leg Stretch, if you will.

In this way, over time, the control and point of balance can be sorted out.

More Control Balance 

Celebrate today with a smile on your face.

Further reading:

Why can’t I do overhead exercises? How can I work on this?

On my YouTube channel:

The Struggle is REAL: Control Balance on the Mat

Pilatesology:

5 Exercises for a Better Control Balance

Not on Pilatesology? Use my code Andrea30 and extend your free trial for 30 days. Woo hoo!

What did you learn today this month?

Romana Kryzanowska would tell us:

If you learn one new thing every day

you will be a genius.

March MATness brilliantly encourages you to celebrate your Pilates Mat exercises as a celebration of yourself.

What did you notice as you visited your exercises this month? I'd love to know.

What's one thing you learned from March MATness 2021?

Tell me all about it in a comment below.

5 Hot Tips to Ignite your Hip Twist and Swimming Exercises

The Hip Twist on the MatHey there –

It's been a rough couple of days on the Mat, my friend!

At the time of this writing, March MATness lands us on everyone's fave, the Hip Twist or Hip Circles.

Tomorrow brings another doozy, Swimming.

You're in luck!

I've got some hot tips on these nasty little exercises. Make them favorites-in-training!

The Hip Twist is a perfect way to meet people.

Way back in 2011 I met one of my favorite Pilates peeps and #marchMATness founder, Benjamin Degenhardt at a Pilates event hosted by another Pilates bestie, the Pilates Nerd Queen herself!

Little did I know this meeting would teach me about green screens and get my Hip Twist ready for its closeup.

Yup, that's me doing my best Benjamin-doing-Hip-Twist impression – needs work I know.

1. Consider the Hip Twist as an elaborate Teaser 2.

The best way to pull yourself off the ceiling about the Hip Twist is to take your mind to a happy(er) place.

The Teaser 2, which you've completed just moments before it's time to Hip-Circle-it-up has many of the same elements as the dreaded Hip Twist.

Keep the lift in the trunk of your body and change your lower-lift to a modest circle at first.

Remember all the lift in the body that's required to move the carriage for Frog+Circles on the Reformer? Well, now is when you need it.

Oh, Gravity! (shakes fist at the heavens)

2. How are those hands back there helping me??

Use your hands on the Mat behind you for the Hip Twist to your best advantage. You're spot on to look for the assistance this position can give you.

Oh Stomach Massage Series, where are you now? Keeping your lift when the hands hit the Mat can be problematic.

Try this: Reach back and don't touch.

Now you'll discover what should hold you up and how your arms placement can assist you.

3. Don't let your body get dragged away by a pair of circling legs.

You've all seen this exercise done with huge circles at the expense of everything else.

Try out my rule of balancing out your forces: the part of the body that's just (in this case) sitting there doing nothing, should be doing all the work.

Use your circles to challenge how lifted and above-it-all (and Joe-Pilates-arrogant) your body can be.

How did I adjust my bad attitude toward Swimming?

Swimming on the Mat

Why, by making a T-Shirt of course!

Nothing motivates my Swimming more than being in a Mat class. Every teacher will make me swim for much longer than I ever do myself LOL

So at home I have Jaws for my inspo.

I created this image for March MATness 2017 when I simply hated this exercise.

Now in 2021, it's not great, but I don't really hate it. I view it as a project to work on.

Yup, add it to the list, right?

And remember, it's gonna be a great workout. Do the nasty exercises and then move on. We have other exercises.

4. The premise of the Pilates method is THE best Swimming hack I've found.

Whoa, don't get all crazy and whip out the premise of the method right here in the middle of the Mat!

Yes.

Joe Pilates literally has your back on this one. At the beginning of many a Pilates workout, you begin lying down.

The Mat especially gives luxurious support to all of the back of you.

Use the previous exercises (Teaser and the Hip Twist) well.

These 2 exercises lie you down on the Mat, “ironing” out the backline of you along the Mat over and over again.

Not to mention you've done it earlier in the workout: Hundred, Roll Up, Roll Over, One Leg Circle, etc…

Take a moment to use the Mat behind you.

Use your muscles, your opposing forces to elongate the back of you.

This is the challenge of Swimming, right? To keep the back long in an extended position. Not easy to do.

Once you feel you've memorized the feeling of elongating your back against the template of the Mat, turn over onto your stomach and prepare for your Swimming.

Be the Mat…and then flip over.

Now without the Mat behind you, find the same elongation, as much as you can.

Start slowly, trying to duplicate and then maintain the length of the back of you as you start to swim.

See how you do.

5. Watch beautiful movers to better your own execution.

My acting school was holding auditions for the role of the Bawd in Shakespeare's Pericles. I was in the midst of reading and my teacher plucked the script from my hands:

“Whore isn't quite at your fingertips, Andrea.”

Yup, instead I was cast as Marina, Pericles' daughter who gets kidnapped by Pirates and sold to a brothel.

Much more my speed…

And it's no secret, Swimming is not in my wheelhouse either. It's okay.

I feel the same way about Swan Dive, actually – hmmm… coincidence?

It's helpful to find another body to watch – a body that understands and coordinates well in the exercise. That often helps my body to get the idea of what I'm after.

Meet Christina, my Swimming inspiration:

This video shows a Swimming that is streamlined like a jet. I do not feel like a jet when I do this exercise.

So I watch, I do my exercises and I try again.

Oh, reeeeeeeeaaachhhhh… yes that feels better.

Try these hot tips and share your success in a comment below.

The Pilates Method and the Evolution of the Neck Pull

Neck Pull on the Mat

In 2001, I was invited to a special meeting at my Pilates studio, Excel Pilates.

I'd been a client of the studio for about a year and they were ready to launch their Teacher Training program. I had no idea what all this had to do with me, but any excuse to hang around the Pilates studio doing whatever, I considered to be time well spent. Surely I could get better at my Pilates exercises by simply socializing with other Pilates people…

To my surprise, the handful of clients present that day were considered to be potential Pilates Teacher material.

Wait, what?

I loved Pilates but I couldn't imagine what it would take to be able to teach the stuff.

My next thought stopped me cold:

“How can I be a Pilates teacher? I can't even do the Neck Pull…”

Joseph Pilates Giveth, and Joseph Pilates Taketh Away

Oh, Neck Pull

She's been taunting me for a while now… so if you're out there in a Pilates Mat class, no strap for your feet in sight, watching your legs flail up to the ceiling every time you start your Neck Pull, please know I feel you.

I celebrate you.

Take courage in your Roll Up, time, and diligent practice, and all will be well.

But I know that's hard to imagine when your feet fly high up to the sky.

Beware the Ides of March

And that's just one of my Neck Pull horror stories from my first years of teaching.

Don't worry I've saved the other story for later in this post.

But first, let's love on some Neck Pull:

These things take time…

Clearly I'm not one to leave any evidence of my Neck Pull practice…

Neck Pull on the Mat

Looks like I was really into it in 2012.

And then no sign of another Neck Pull photo until the Mat Poster in 2017.

Neck Pull on the Mat

But I don't have to tell you there was a f**kton of Neck Pull going on in 2020 – what else was there to do?

Even the photo below evokes the white solitary void that was 2020.

Neck Pull on the MatWell guess what, Neck Pull? It's 2021 and I am over your shit.

Why can't you be like your other mercurial friends the Roll Up and the Teaser? I know you're all the same but you feel so different (throws tantrum).

That's it.

I'm literally taking a stand.

Using the Lower Body in the Roll Up, the Teaser and the Neck Pull

The strength of standing. The power of the lower body. The Pilates exercises are a full body workout.

Yeah, yeah… What does it all mean?

Often it means there's more going on in any given exercise than you might imagine.

I'm a big fan of the strength of standing. You can use your lower body – your lower body reach if you speak 2-way stretch – to pretend you are standing on your feet.

You've got plenty of exercises to figure out how to stand on your feet. Sometimes you will be literally standing on them and other times you'll use your imagination.

Tiny Tangent: That foot thing I did in February? It's really good at teaching you to stand on your feet.

Imagination is what you'll use in 3 exercises: the Roll Up, the Neck Pull, and the Teaser.

The Roll Up

The Roll up on the Mat

In the first two exercises, The Roll Up and the Neck Pull, the lower body is “stationary.” I'm using the quotes because the part of the body that is often lying there “doing nothing” is the part that must do the most in the exercise.

So it's not really stationary, it is ALIVE!

The Neck Pull

Neck Pull on the Mat

Now we all know that the lower body comes alive in the Teaser – those legs have to get up in the air, right?

But that inner mobilizing of the standing body may prove more elusive.

The Teaser

Consider the following photos:

Teaser on the Mat with 2way stretchTeaser on the Mat with 2way stretchTeaser on the Mat with 2way stretch

Rolling up to the teaser is the epitome of the 2 way stretch.

I've been thinking about the exercises that roll us up as (1) standing on your feet plus (2) a lift of the upper body.

Standing includes the whole long line of your back standing down to your feet.

Lift encompasses everything that sits on top of the Short Box.

These are your oppositional forces.

How cavalier of me to suggest that all of this nerding out will fix your Neck Pull.

Persevere.

These forces may better your proficiency in the Roll Up and the Teaser. Or in any of their springed counterparts: Rolling Back on the Cadillac, Push Down on the Wunda Chair, The Elephant, Teaser on the Long Box, etc…

Coincidence that Neck Pull doesn't exist as an exercise on the apparatus?

No spring for you!

I've found that applying this plan to the execution of the Neck Pull has a hard time replacing my habit of how I currently do the exercise: a heave and a prayer and then time to think about what I've done rolling down to the Mat.

Give it a try and see what you think.

It's especially helpful for the Teaser on the Long Box (thanks for the springs, Joe Pilates!).

Neck Pull Horror Story #2

After completing my initial teacher training I was assigned to teach an Intermediate level Mat class at Excel Pilates. Gulp. This class of course included the dreaded Neck Pull.

What if I have to demonstrate?

This situation was unavoidable.

OMG someone may have a question.

Would I have an answer?

At the time I also had a client, perhaps 20 years my senior, who did the Neck Pull very well. She had issues with other exercises, of course, as we all do. But I would watch her do her 5-6 Neck Pulls and think “I got nothin'…look at her, DOING the exercise.”

As it turned out, an actual friend of mine was in my Mat class and struggling with the Neck Pull.

“I'm not getting it. Can I see you do it?”

Thanks, friend…

…and the sweating begins before the exercise.

That day I learned the degree to which the mind can impose its will upon the body. Who's in control here, anyway?

It was the first successful Neck Pull I had ever done.

Yes.

I know how to suck it up and get the job done.

No way was I going to choke while my class of 15 people all watched me.

#neverletthemseeyousweat

Got a Neck Pull horror story? Need a friendly shoulder to cry on? 

Spill it all in a comment below…

Breaking News: Doing your Pilates Mat Workout is Good for You!

Open Leg Rocker on the Mat

How ridiculous, right?

Yet every March since 2011 I've made the same “shocking” discovery.

Hey, these exercises are really good for me…

I've got boundless energy, my body feels great and it took me about 30 minutes to do them. Now I'm off to live my life with zest and pleasure!

When will I learn?

Maybe you've been feeling good about your Pilates Mat exercises too.

Thanks for joining me here on the Pilates Path.

Spine Stretch Forward into Open Leg Rocker

At the time of this writing, it's March 8 – my mother's 94th birthday, International Women's Day and, here in MarchMATness-land, The Spine Stretch Day.

Tomorrow on the 9th you'll hit one of my favorite Pilates Mat exercises – perhaps my VERY favorite. Apologies in advance… but I can't get enough of the Rocker with Open Legs (Open Leg Rocker to her friends).

And since I'm currently immersed in the world of Pilates transitions and why we should care, I'd love to visit these 2 exercises as a team – a dynamic duo on the Mat.

Spine Stretch

The Spine Stretch clearly has two juicy moments.

See if you can spot everyone's favorite…

Spine Stretch on the Mat

Most of you relate to this reachy, feel-good moment and all the time you can take to get out there… but what about the start and the finish?

You know, that easy part where you just sit up tall… LOL

Spine Stretch on the Mat

This tall position is the money note.

Cultivate the lift that keeps right on giving into your next exercise, the Rocker with Open Legs.

You'll try and preserve all the lift of the trunk of your body to then take it airborne!

Play a fun game with yourself and try to arrive in your Rocker with Open Legs with as much lift in your balance position as you had sitting safely on your bottom in the Spine Stretch.

Make these two exercises feel as identical to each other as possible. It's a trip 🙂

For those about to rock…

  • The Power of Incremental Change: Open Leg Rocker Edition – It's hard to feel like you're making progress in challenging exercises. This post takes a look at my journey over 11 years of the Open Leg Rocker. Full disclosure, I've never hated this exercise, but that doesn't mean I did it well. I promise a post on the Side Kicks Kneeling, but you may have to wait 11 more years…

The Benefits of a Daily Pilates Mat Workout

What are the Benefits of a Daily Pilates Mat Workout?

It can be a challenge to commit to a daily Pilates Mat workout. I feel you. Especially as a Pilates teacher, you may think you've done your exercises for the day only to remember that you only made someone else do them.

Yeah, it doesn't work that way…

The most challenging moment is arriving at the Mat to begin.

Once I lie down and begin my exercises I remember: Oh yeah, I love Pilates. Why don't I do this every day?

The Value of the 5 Basic Pilates Exercises

The Value of 5 Basic Pilates Mat Exercises  – Start your daily Mat exercises with just 5 gems. You'll complete them in less than 5 minutes. You'll feel fantastic and virtuous all day long! This post maps out 2 more exercises to increase your workout habit when you're ready.

Thanks for the New Exercises to Love/Hate

Corkscrew on the Mat

In the Pilates System, you'll repeat all of your exercises over and over again. The exercises work together to replace inefficient movements with sustainable new habits. As your body changes it's nice to have old familiar exercises to test your new skills.

It's a magical process where an old favorite becomes a new challenge, and sometimes – sometimes – a horrible exercise transforms into deliciousness.

Don't get too excited.

The Neck Pull still insists on being a hot mess. It refuses to go the way of the Roll Up and Teaser and play nice… It's still the ‘oh shit' exercise. Bunched up and ready to go!

You'll be the first to know when I love this one. #mm2028??

The Side Bend, however… is suddenly (19 years later) really nice. Yup, never thought I'd be this person.

Jay Grimes calls the Side Bend ‘a treat.'

I don't know if I'd go that far, but I'm definitely in the building…

And I almost like the Push Up Series on One Leg as much as I like the Tendon Stretch on the Reformer. Well, it's not that exciting, but I don't fall over anymore.

Enjoy your workout. You know you want to.

Got a favorite exercise in your Mat workout?

I'd love to know. Especially if it's a nasty one 🙂

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