Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

PMA Recap

A big thank you, dear readers, for all your warm hugs, kind words, and fun times at this year's annual meeting of the Pilates Method Alliance. It was lovely to meet you and I'm so glad you came up to say hello.

I had a fantastic time sharing On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercisesthe LIVE! Edition with you.

Long live the reach of the Lower Body.

Double Leg Pull and prosper, my pretties!


I had the perkiest, most hard-working, 7:30am-rocking Mat class students a gal could receive. I hope I helped you kick your own ass.

Let's do it all again in Phoenix #PMA2016.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Approaching any new series of exercises in your Pilates workout is a challenge. Whenever we step out of our comfort zone our old habits often resurface to help us out.

How not-so-helpful…

You may do certain series of exercises for years just to be able to work effectively and from the right place. These things take time.

I first did the Headstands on the Reformer over a decade ago. Let's say 2003.

Mostly I did the 2 exercises in this series (Headstands 1 and Headstands 2) because I could. I was not hurting myself and I was up to the challenge. I may have been bad, but at least I was moving and sweating.

Yay for me.

However, over the last year I have begun to understand the components that go into a successful Headstand series.

Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

Use your Head


Step 1: It's not really about your head.

I repeat, your head and neck are not doing the exercise. They are strong and getting stronger, but your bottom should do more work than your neck.

Isn't that one of the Pilates principles?

It should be.

Your bottom must work more than your neck.

I like the sound of that.

Bottoms up!

As with any worthwhile Pilates Project, there is nothing magical or mysterious here.

The Headstand series builds upon foundational exercises we have all been doing for years.

Sadly, no amount of fairy dust will help you.

Instead I suggest the Elephant (that old chestnut?), the Up Stretch (amazingly helpful!), Tendon Stretch (from Footwork and a glorious help from an unassuming place) and Snake/Twist (no comment).

If you have yet to experience the thrill of the Headstands, focus first on the foundational exercises for a while before incorporating them into their new incarnation as Headstand 1 and/or Headstand 2.

Given our list of helper exercises, please realize that if you don't consider Snake/Twist to be helpful for anything right now, you should wait on the Headstands.

Jus' Sayin.'

If you currently work on the Headstands, consider these 4 helper exercises in a new way and become even more proficient.


Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

Elephant and more importantly Up Stretch work in tandem for Headstand 1.

Use the entire lower body: the scoop of your ribs, all the way to your bottom and into the feet.

I like to look at my feet so I can will my lower body to push the footbar away.

Nerd Tip du Jour:

Rarely do we have a good vantage point in an exercise to examine/exert our willpower and determination on our own bodies. Another example of this is Frog/Circles and I cannot think of another so…

Seize the day!

However, there's a bit of a wrinkle.

The lower body must initiate the exercise.

Unlike the Long Stretch Series, where your feet are on the moving carriage (helpful), for Headstand 1 your feet are on the stationary footbar (mostly not-so-helpful).

Just to make it all the easier to push out with your head.  Nooooooooooo!

Once you've moved the carriage out, push into the footbar again and use the scoop of Elephant to bring the carriage home again.

More than likely we learn the Elephant in the very first lesson. So useful….and so challenging to do correctly (and on your head).

Tendon Stretch (of Footwork fame)

Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

This may be my new favorite exercise.

Use the Tendon Stretch to find the long line of the back of the body. For Headstands 2, this skill is essential.

  • Anchor the back of the ribs into the mat.
  • Imagine you are one long reaching line from nape of neck to the back of the ribs, to the tailbone, to the heels.

Work well in the Tendon Stretch and you'll be ahead of the game (groan…) for Headstands 2. You'll look for essentially the same feeling as you lower your heels in both exercises.

No big deal, right?

Joe Pilates has just upped the ante by putting us on our heads in a quasi-backbend.

Gotta love that guy.

Up Stretch

Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

Coupled with the Elephant, you can really mine your Up Stretch for the strength in the lower body and buttocks to propel your Headstand 1.

Over the last year, thanks to the super-human and unwavering eye of Karen Frischmann, my Up Stretch has gotten much better.

I used to rather enjoy the Long Stretch Series. It is now my hardest series to do correctly.

Karen has opened up a whole new set of goals for my body in this entire series.

And this tough-love work on my Up Stretch has paid huge dividends. A strong Up Stretch is a beautiful thing and my Headstands and Snake/Twist are the better for it.

The length in the back the Up Stretch promotes will serve you well. Enjoy!


Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer


Far be it for me to suggest the Snake/Twist could be helpful in working on other exercises, but hey, at least you're not on your head.

So how to find help here?

  • You've got the same initiation and support from the lower body.
  • You're pushing from the same non-moving footbar as you have in Headstands 1.

Presumably if you are considering working on the Headstands, you have been doing Snake/Twist for a while.

Your Snake/Twist may not be stellar, but with practice, more Up Stretch and heady, swirling dreams of Headstands, it shall steadily improve.

Take note of these skills that surface again and again. Dare I say it?

Pilates Projects: Headstands on the Reformer

Exercises like the Headstands put your hard-won skills to the test. They require dedicated, devoted practice of the Pilates method to even reach the point of incorporating them into your workout.

I wish you good luck on your Pilates journey.

Thoughts on the Headstands?

Share them in a comment below.

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

For Sally

The Tendon Stretch on the Reformer and its MANY variations is a hot topic for Pilates practitioners and teachers. It's an exercise for which I constantly revise my plan of action.

Elusive some days and a glimmer of hope in the next lesson…it's a roller coaster of a ride.

Oh I can get it done and muscle through it of course.

But I've come to understand that the Tendon Stretch is not an upper body exercise. Hmmm…


Just because you've got that footbar in your hot little hands does not make it an arm exercise.

Repeat the previous sentence 3 more times.

Every Day a Little Tendon Stretch

As a super challenging exercise, the Tendon Stretch is a work-in-progress for me. I am happy to share tips and tricks that have been successful in my workouts – and you may find other exercises that speak to you as well.

If you find an exercise to be helpful to find the lower body, the stomach and seat, by all means go for it. You cannot go wrong.


Remember your mantra:

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

The Reformer helper exercises are in order, so as you workout you'll get a few moments to contemplate the Tendon Stretch along the way. A little Pilates foreshadowing…

We'll begin with our old friend the Elephant.

1. The Elephant

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

Oh Elephant, is there anything you can't do? ❤ ❤

The Elephant gives us the basic shape and action of the Tendon Stretch. The position here is more manageable and open and also less precarious than the Tendon Stretch. Less upside down if you will.

Here you are looking for length in the back of the body which you'll need later on as well.

Use the points of contact you have with the Reformer to your best advantage:

  • Reach to the Footbar like you would reach forward in Mat exercises like the Roll Up and the Spine Stretch.
  • Plant your heels firmly into the carriage.

You'll explore these same connections when you get to the Tendon Stretch.

2. The Elephant with One Leg

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

Not to be confused with the exercises known as Arabesques, the Elephant with one leg maintains the same round shape we need in the Tendon Stretch.

This is very important for our purposes here.

Later on, after you're a champ at the Tendon Stretch, feel free to Arabesque all over the place.

This is perhaps the first time in the Reformer sequence that you will work a one-leg variation. Guess when the next one will be?

Remember your premise for using the apparatus in the first place. You get support and assistance whenever and wherever you are connected to the Reformer. Two legs on the carriage? No problem. Take a leg off and it now has to work on its own without much support on one side. This is often challenging.

And if you already know you have a weaker side, it can be VERY challenging.

Relax, if you didn't like a challenge you wouldn't be doing Pilates in the first place and now look you've made it all the way to the Tendon Stretch with one leg. BRA-VO!

3. Stomach Massage Series #1

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

I find the lifted curve of the 1st Stomach Massage exercise to mimic the same Tendon Stretch position you'll soon encounter in the very next exercise – so it's a great time to cram.

Thanks, order of the exercises!

Here you'll use the lift of your back and the feet reaching into the footbar to be able to then recreate these connections upside down (and on one leg) in the Tendon Stretch.

You can maintain the lift better in your Tendon Stretch with the Stomach Massage position in mind. Otherwise I find it easy to just drop over my legs – and although I think I have lift – it's really just gravity.

PS – It feels like Elephant. ?

4. Tree

Pilates Projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

Another crazy helpful exercise is the Tree. I like this one for refining all things one-sided. A great Tree goes a long way. If you can do the Tree well, you can do anything!

Look at the photo above of the Tree.

Now compare it to the photo of Tendon Stretch with one leg at the top of this post.

Joe Pilates' favorite pastime: If you can do it right side up, surely you can do it upside down.

The Tree is especially helpful for the Tendon Stretch with the leg to the back. Use your fabulous mind  to mimic the support of the strap on your foot here to gain support for the leg reaching back in the Tendon Stretch.

5. The 2×4 exercises

The Pilates 2×4 exercises can be a wonderful tool to work on connecting the lower extremities into the center. You can work your entire body soundly with these simple, effective and brutal exercises.

Pilates projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon StretchPilates projects: 5 Basics to Tackle the Tendon Stretch

Let's take it vertical.

You can do it plain and you can do it fancy.

Standing in the heels-together-and-toes-apart (V) position we have what is essentially the 4th Footwork exercise also – awkwardly, for my purposes – called the Tendon Stretch.

Lift, control and balance are necessary to ground the feet and ignite the center of the body.

Repetition is the Mother of all Learning


Time is another component to factor into these challenging exercises. The one-leg variations are an exercise in stamina as well. Steady practice over many years is often necessary.

I have been doing the Tendon Stretch as a regular part of my workout for over a decade.

For many years I am sure, it was quite bad. But you must begin somewhere. Now in my lessons I get really jazzed to get another morsel of clarity – a glimmer of “Oh, it's just like that other exercise!”

Revel in the amount of time you have to traipse along the Pilates Path.

Persevere in your Tendon Stretch on the Reformer and use these 5 exercises to aid you on your noble quest. Know that other exercises may be of a great help as well. Some other helpers that come to my mind include:

  • Pull Up on the Wunda Chair
  • Tendon Stretch on the Wunda Chair
  • Long Back Stretch on the Reformer
  • The Roll Up

…and the beat goes on. La di da di dee…la di da di dah…

Lift my leg, whaaah? 

Yes, a word about transitioning to the one-leg variations:

Here's a video tutorial to work on lifting one leg to the side. Start with the leg to the side variation before adding all the other ones. You should be quite solid and secure in the standard version with 2 legs first.

Share your progress in a comment below 🙂

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