Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

For Nan-Young

Recently on the blog we've examined the value of categorizing the exercises in the Pilates Method.

We took a look at the labels “basic”, “intermediate” and “advanced” and how they apply to the body in front of us.

The Shape of Things

In 2012 I completed The Work, the phenomenal program of study at Vintage Pilates‘ in Los Angeles.

Through my study at Vintage (and beyond!) we learn to look at the Pilates repertoire through the lens of Body Shapes.

In the Pilates method we have 5 archetypal shapes of the body (the back):

I find using the body shapes to be a wonderful teaching tool.

We can convey complex exercises to clients by reminding them of skills they've achieved in simpler exercises that share the same shape.

With this POV and the body in front of us, let's ask ourselves some questions based on the evidence of the exercises.

Here are our “basic” exercises:

Basic Reformer Exercises

  1. Footwork
  2. Hundred
  3. Frog/Leg Circles
  4. Stomach Massage Series
  5. Short Box Series
  6. Elephant
  7. Knee Stretches
  8. Running
  9. Pelvic Lift

Basic Mat Exercises

  1. Hundred
  2. Roll Up
  3. Single Leg Circles
  4. Roll Like a Ball
  5. Single Leg Pull
  6. Double Leg Pull
  7. Spine Stretch

1. What body shapes are most prevalent in the “basic” exercises?

I spy mostly the Round and Tall shapes, with a few moments of the Arched Back in our Stomach Massage Series and Knee Stretch Series.

The Short Box gives us one moment of Side Bend and we have a couple Twists in Stomach Massage Series and the Short Box.

2. Why is this?

Pilates begins in the very center of the body.

We'll concentrate on the scoop only for a while. Only when the center is strong can you build up other solid strong things on top of it.

We'll get to the fingertips but it's gonna take a while.

3. What does this say about the organization of the order of our Pilates method?

The order of the exercises is our teacher – make no mistake.

Moving through our “basic” Reformer exercises, our scoop in the Round and Tall positions will strengthen the center the most.

I think about the Round and Tall shapes as familiar, pedestrian movements. Yes, we must learn to find lift in our center, but these 2 shapes promote a deepening in the center.

We are required to pull in and up, but our body parts are not reaching away from center yet in these 2 basic shapes.

Later we begin to reach away from the center more deliberately with Arched, Side Bend and Twist positions.

Our Tall shape is also the foundation on which we'll build our Side Bend and Twist. If our Tall back is not strong and solid, it's only gonna fall apart when we try to Side Bend or Twist, both of which take us away from center.

The Order of the Universe

Joe Pilates trains our bodies over the full repertoire and also within each of his exercise series in the same manner.

Within each series we also find our theme of Round/Tall positions first – strengthening and solidifying the center – before adding Arched, Side Bend or Twist positions which reach away from the center.

Our series in the basics:

Footwork: only in the last of the 4 Footwork exercises, Tendon Stretch, do we reach away from the center. After we've built in the skill of Footwork over 30 repetitions.

Stomach Massage Series: Within this series we reach a bit more away from center as we move from Round to Hands Back, which takes us more upright in the upper body.

From Hands Back we move to the Reach, a position identical to the Teaser exercise.

Finally we'll move the farthest away from center when we add the Twist.

Short Box Series: The exercises in this series progress us systematically from Round to Tall, and later into Side Bend and Twist.

Eventually our Twist will progress to Around the World, perhaps the ultimate in reaching away from center with the upper body.

The Tree is our first exercise done one side at a time and reaching away from center, and over time it will take the position of our first High Bridge.

Knee Stretch Series: Our Round position must stay intact when we change to the lift of the Arched Back.

In these 2 first exercises our range is modest. Finally the Knees Off takes our solid scoop and reaches long and away from center and back again.

4. Why so much Round?

In our foundational exercises, we are quite scoop-heavy. The body is learning and building strength. Yes, there is a predominance of Round shapes and support from the apparatus in our Tall shape.

Read more info on these Round exercises and discover what they teach us about training the body.

But I want it all!

An example of how internal strength and the eventual reaching away from center work in tandem is found in one of the most iconic exercises in the Pilates method:

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

The Teaser requires a deep scoop in the center making this a Round exercise.

However, as you become more and more proficient your strength of center will support the upright lift of the chest and upper back to challenge the position further.

Body Shapes in the Pilates System: Basic to Advanced

But this lift away from the deep center in the Teaser will not happen on day one.

This is the challenge.

Ideally you want both a lift up in the upper body and a deep scoop of the lower body, but the strength of center must take precedence and be cultivated first.

Out in the Field

See what you think in your next workout.

Notice when you find yourself in a Round position and see where you go from there. You'll begin to notice larger sequences of exercises that start out pretty tame and soon blossom into an extravaganza of Body Shapes.

Here's a sneak peak into one of my favorite sections on the Reformer. It's a long one but such a lovely progression of skills and shapes.

In the middle of the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises we have:

Thanks so much for reading. Have a great workout.

If you'd like to see this final list of exercises in a post of its own or in a video tutorial, leave a comment below and let me know!

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in Your First Lesson

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

The Pilates Method is systematic and cumulative.

The skills you'll learn in your very first lesson will lay the foundation toward greater and refined proficiency. Collectively, these skills will serve you well as you progress to the more difficult exercises.

Early on in your Pilates lessons you will learn Footwork and Elephant in your order of the Reformer exercises.

In your order of the Mat exercises you will learn Roll Like a Ball.

Footwork, Elephant and Roll Like a Ball are on our list of “basic” exercises.

Remember: depending on who you are, the Footwork, the Elephant and Roll Like a Ball may be not so “basic.” Tight folks may roll like a brick for a while…the carriage may bang on the Elephant or it may not close at all.

Even these fundamental exercises provide years of challenge for most of us.

But what are we learning in these 3 exercises?

1. Footwork

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

We could discuss the purpose of the Footwork for years. There's a lot going on in these first 4 Reformer exercises.

For our purposes the Footwork serves to warm up the lower body.

Using the lower body as a whole is a skill we'll repeat in every other exercise.

Let's follow our Footwork skill through a Reformer workout.

Think of the integrated lower body movement in the following exercises…

The Hundred

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Frog and Circles

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Overhead

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Coordination

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Swan

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Teaser

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Stomach Massage Series

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

and so SO many more… it's no wonder we start off with the Footwork!

The lower body is learning how to move as a unit.

What about exercises in which the lower body is not the moving part of the body?

Guess what? The lower body must work fiercely in these exercises as well.

Rowing

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Short Box Series

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Chest Expansion

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

The lower body is working as a solid unit to allow freedom of movement elsewhere.

And it all begins with Footwork.

2. Elephant

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

The skill of closing the carriage in the Elephant will repeat over and over again throughout our workout.

Pretty much every time you are facing the carriage and closing it with your whole body you are using the skill of the Elephant.

Let's follow our Elephant skill through a Reformer workout.

Here's a just a few examples of where your mad Elephant skills will come in handy…

Up Stretch

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Up Stretch Combo

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Tendon Stretch

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Headstand 1

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Snake/Twist

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Russian Splits

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

And the beat goes on…

La-di-da-di-DEE…

La-di-da-di-DAH…

3. Roll Like a Ball

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Roll Like a Ball is the first place you will learn to lift your bottom off the mat without assistance.

It's more than likely you'll learn it in your first lesson.

This is a crucial skill you must collect to perform the difficult “advanced” exercises.

Let's follow the skill of lifting your bottom through a Pilates Mat workout. 

Here's just a few times you'll need to lift your popo.

Roll Over

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Open Leg Rocker

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

High Scissors/Bicycle

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Crab

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

Control Balance

The Pilates System: 3 Mad Skills to Start in your First Lesson

And so many MANY more…

You got skills, Baby!

Footwork, Elephant and Roll Like a Ball represent just 3 skills you'll encounter throughout your Pilates workout.

See what you think in your next workout.

Of course you'll find other skills that repeat and increase in difficulty as you proceed through your exercises as well.

It wouldn't be Pilates if you didn't!

Wanna experience the blog live and in person? Join me this fall!

Upcoming Fall Workshops

Saturday November 27 Studio B Pilates+Barre, Tyler TX

You'll love this jam-packed day of Pilates Continuing Education: I'll be offering private lessons, a Mat class plus 2 workshops: A Cadillac Refresher – the Unsung Heroes (3 PMA CECs) and Strategies and Exercises on the Wunda Chair (3 PMA CECs)Register today

Thursday-Saturday December 1-3 Excel Pilates, Washington, DC

Join me for my post popular posts Live! and in person: On the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises (4 PMA CECs) and On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises (2 PMA CECs). I'll be teaching my favorite Cadillac workshop: The Unsung Heroes and Progressions to Standing Arm Springs (3 PMA CECs) as well as a Mat class, private and semi-private lessons. Register today

Saturday December 17 LauraBPilates Studio, Raleigh, NC

In Raleigh we'll have a full day of Pilates Continuing Education: private lessons and my favorite Cadillac workshop: The Unsung Heroes and progressions to Standing Arm Springs (3 PMA CECs)Register today

Don’t Blame the Exercise: The Roll Up Edition

Don't Blame the Exercise: The Roll Up Edition

I continually aspire to contribute valuable and accurate Pilates content to the information superhighway.

For this reason – fasten your seat belts – this post may be a bit of a rant.

But it's a rant of LOVE ♥

The Gift that is the Pilates Method

The Pilates Exercises are wonderfully therapeutic, but Pilates is not Physical Therapy.

Pilates keeps you in tip-top physical condition, but forget everything you thought you knew about fitness.

Pilates is different.

The Pilates Method can be successfully applied to each and every individual.

And while Pilates is ultimately wonderful for the body, there may be exercises/positions that are not suitable for a particular individual right now or ever.

Although I never say never…

Sadly, what is necessarily altered for one person is often blanketed over an entire population.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

I've noticed various words used to describe movement and the position of the body.

Some words can be controversial in the Pilates industry as I mentioned in my recent post on the Short Box.

The Reach is a name of an exercise and no one seems to mind. Call it ‘Flat Back' and whoa mama you've jumped into a swirling maelstrom of dissension.

What's a gal to do?

The Fear of Flexion

For the record, ‘flexion' is not a Pilates word. Can you imagine Joe Pilates saying it?

However I do believe he said “Long the Back!”

Hmmm… our old friend Length again…

flex·ion

ˈflekSHən
noun
  1. the action of bending or the condition of being bent, especially the bending of a limb or joint.
    Origin
    early 17th century: from Latin flexio(n-), from flectere ‘to bend.’

I often hear the word ‘flexion' used to describe the effect of the body bending forward.

In Pilates, although we have many exercises that have a round shape, we are not simply allowing our bodies to bend forward willy nilly. There is no Pilates inherent in the pedestrian act of flexing the spine.

We are not teaching people – or even allowing them – to slump.

True, we do spend considerable time as humans reaching and bending forward.

Let's learn a few skills to do it properly.

The Lift that Keeps on Lifting

Remember we're defying gravity and to do this we must lift LIFT LIFT like there's no tomorrow.

That's why it works!

Pilates is decompressive to the spine and joints.

Which brings me to the much maligned Pilates Mat exercise: the Roll Up.

Poor Roll Up… I never liked you very much at the beginning, but now you're one of my besties! Sad for you to be saddled with society's slouchiness.

The Roll Up is not flexion – it is the lifting up of the entire trunk of the body and moving it forward.

The Roll Up is a movement governed by the informed mind, the alerted intelligence to create an action of lift and guide the body through this specific maneuver.

flexion = the gross movement of the body bending forward

lift = the mind and body working together

The Essence of the Roll Up

What's really going on here?

The Pilates exercises are exaggerated versions of our everyday movements.

In the Roll Up we learn the valuable skill of sitting up from a lying down position using our muscles.

#lookmanohands

We use this skill each and every morning when we sit up to get out of bed.

To learn this skill we must maximize the lift in the waistline which is the essence of the Roll Up.

Broken down to the smallest atom of movement, a very first baby version of the Roll Up could look like this:

Don't Blame the Exercise: The Roll Up Edition

Do you see the beginnings of the Half Roll Down?

Next you would want to keep your lift in there, defy gravity and control your descent to the Mat.

Don't Blame the Exercise: The Roll Up Edition

To get back up, the same lift will pick you up from the Mat. Trying to bend will only weigh you down…but Pilates within that bending position will pick you up!

Take from sinky-low-back little ol' me…nothing feels more delicious than the Roll Up.

It's our first shot at lengthening the back and the first big lifting stretch of our Pilates Mat workout.

What if we named it the Lift-your-head-up-lift-yourself up?

Got Roll Up probs?

Leave me a comment and let's chat it up!

Related posts:

Subscribe to receive a Special Bonus Blogpost
How to Fall in Love with the Exercises you Hate
We respect your privacy and never share your information.