Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

Hello dear readers! Gosh it's been a looooooong time.

If you're a new subscriber, Welcome! Thanks for exploring my archive of posts and signing on for the long haul. I hope to share even more of my experience of the Pilates Method in my own body as we finish out the year.

It's been a wild ride lately.

A big thank you to those who expressed concern at the lack of new posts in their inbox each week. Your sweet messages warmed my heart.

As for my disappearance, the short answer is I have been traveling and guest teaching since September.

How the Bicycle On the Small Barrel Fixed my Back

Cake-filled Vienna was lovely. Thanks to Andrea Seipel at Pilates Modling for a fantastic event!

I landed after at my usual haunt, Everybody Pilates in Portsmouth UK with the lovely Amy Kellow (where evidently I was all workity-workity and took no photos…boo…).

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

Seoul fused the ultra-modern with beautiful tradition. Thanks so so much to Nan Young  and your lovely teachers at The Control.

Oh and so delicious as well… too many food photos to show here but indulge me a bit…

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

And if Los Angeles and the French Riviera had a baby it would be Busan.

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

Where of course there was more food (and Pilates at Studio Define – Thank you Kyung Hye!).

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

The longer, more-involved and truthful answer for my absence is twofold:

  1. I indulged in a very satisfying closet/wardrobe renovation. Organizing and nesting pleases me greatly and I did nerd out HARD in this process.
  2. I discovered a little Pilates mystery going on in my body that I wasn't quite able to figure out. Honestly it was making me lose a bit of my Pilates mojo. I was cranky and Pilates wasn't helping.


Oh Small Barrel, are you my only friend?

Let's Recap

Lately I've been sharing my personal workout with you. I'm sure you all remember my Small Barrel Project – woo hoo – I had a big successful run on this 30-day challenge.

I couldn't get enough of it – I was invincible!!

Yeah! Bring on another one – how about a 30-day Wunda Chair Challenge!

Sadly, on the Chair I didn't fair as well. No matter how many times I mounted my Wunda I couldn't make the exercises feel as delicious as on the Small Barrel.

And as I like to say when confronted by a new Pilates mystery in my body:


Where's the juicy-feel-good-post-workout feeling I crave?

How/Why have I become so stiff? What gives?

Small Barrel 2.0

How the Bicycle On the Small Barrel Fixed my Back


I must return to the scene of the crime to make my body feel like a real person again.

2-3x per day I practiced all of my Small Barrel exercises hoping for a miracle.

If you've been reading for a while you know I am very reluctant to blame the Pilates exercises for any discrepancies in how my body feels.


It's not you, it's me.

Perhaps the Small Barrel had more to teach me.

The plan:

I began each workout with my #usualsuspects: Foot Corrector and Small Barrel. After a couple days I added just a bit of meat and potatoes exercises on either the Reformer or the Mat.

As much as it pains me not to do every exercise I do on the Reformer (cause if you skip them they don't get better) I must revisit the basics for a new(ish) reason:

I am cultivating a new skill and I want to visit it in as many straightforward uncomplicated exercises as I can – because they'll be easier to wrangle than all the snakes and backbends right now.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Please imagine me talking sternly to myself about this.

At first my Reformer workout looked like this:

  • Footwork
  • 100
  • Frogs and circles
  • Overhead (because I just can't stop myself)
  • Coordination
  • Stomach Massage Series
  • Short Box Series
  • Elephant 
  • Knee Stretch Series
  • Running 
  • Pelvic Lift

At first.

After about a month I added in Long Box 1: Pull Straps, T and the Backstroke.

Now a few months in I have added in nearly all my Reformer exercises – nothing super duper yet- no Backbends, no Headstands – but everything else is coming along nicely.

I may even figure out how to keep length in my back during extension exercises – holy cow that would be awesome!

Baby steps.

Repetitio est Mater Studiorum

Using the gift – GIFT I tell you! – of repetition I diligently work through my Small Barrel exercises. Slowly the more straightforward ones – Circles, Walks and Beats – help me to find length in my back.

Long the Back! Right? OMG what's that amazing sensation of ease in my hips and legs?? Excellent…

Each day doing my exercises hones my Long the Back! skills into the Scissors and – eventually and miraculously – into the Bicycle.

It's truly an amazing progression in this Small Barrel series. Each exercise building on the next, each subsequent exercise just that much more complex to challenge my new skill. Or at this point should I say “skill?”

Armed with my willpower and my Pilates Mantra I forge ahead!

I work to make each subsequent exercise feel exactly like the easier ones which precede it. 

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

And one day it comes to pass that I have an epiphany in the Bicycle

A word about the Bicycle

The Bicycle – done anywhere in the studio really – falls into the category of exercises I find to be problematic. Lots of flashy leg moves right in front of your eyes which distract you from your main goal of length in the back and connection in the center.

Choreography be damned! Who cares if I know what a Bicycle is supposed to look like? ONLY. CARE. ABOUT. THE. CENTER.

My discovery is, on the surface, so lackluster. However, this move is a crucial component of nearly every exercise.

With the Bicycle I learned I could bring my leg closer to my body by opening up my back. Not by overusing my hip and leg, but by a forlorn and neglected region of my powerhouse.

And you know what that means?

Bicycle on the Small Barrel and How it Fixed my Back

Back to the Elephant.


Time for some sad trombone

Cast your impatience aside for it does not serve you…

I now have a tiny window into just how much repetition it takes to create change.

A f*ck ton.

Every. Day.

The Elephant is our very first quintessential Pilates exercise meant to open the back of the body with every close of the carriage. So simple right?

Uhm, clearly chock full of Pilates goodness this one…

Have a basic exercise you return to time after time?

Share your Pilates strategy in a comment below.

And thanks for reading!

Stay tuned here for my workshop schedule for 2018…

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Hey there, Pilates friends!

First a big thank you for all your support for my most viewed post On the Order of the Reformer Exercises. To date it's been viewed over 23,000 times!

Only a handful of Reformer posters remain. Get them before they go bye-bye…

And now…a case for the Overhead…

In the early days of my Pilates life I learned a couple options with regard to this exercise.

How do you feel today? Do you want to do Overhead at the top of the workout?

Or would it feel better to do Short Spine instead?

And then Overhead would fit in *somewhere* later…there was a specific spot for it, but I never could remember…

So I usually chose to do the Overhead at the top. I figured if I could, then I should.

I already made it through the Hundred, how awful could it be?

Why is the Overhead so soon in the workout?

I hear this question frequently regarding Joe Pilates' prescribed order of exercises, which places the Overhead as the third exercise in the sequence:

  • Footwork: Toes, Arches, Heels, Tendon Stretch
  • The Hundred
  • Overhead

While the above order is correct, we know Pilates is not black and white, nor right or wrong.

Yes. It is a challenge to do Overhead at the top of the workout. Remember you also have the Roll Over as a challenging 3rd exercise in the order of the Mat exercises.

But what if I'm not able to do it then?

How do I thoroughly prepare for it so I am ready when it comes at me?

Why is it placed where it is in Joe's order?

I am a big fan of Joe's order of the exercises, but remember with the Pilates Method you always have options.

Option 1: What happened to Frog and Circles?

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Maybe the Overhead is not for you at this moment in your Pilates journey.

No prob. We've got an exercise for that.

I hear Pilates teachers and long-time practitioners speak fondly of their old friends Frog and Circles. As one “graduates” from the basic or fundamental exercises, poor Frog and Circles are often are cast aside never to be revisited.

Where did they go?

Why are they on occasion left out or forgotten as we progress to the full Reformer repertoire?

Well as far as I'm concerned Frog and Circles are here to stay. There are a couple great places for them to live in even your super-duper advanced Reformer workout!

One place they work well is where you learned them first: after the Hundred.

Just because you're a big bad Pilates aficionado doing the Overhead doesn't mean you'll shun Frog and Circles.

For some individuals they work beautifully well as an additional warm up to prepare for the Overhead.

So there's one option for the order of your Reformer exercises:

  • Footwork: Toes, Arches, Heels, Tendon Stretch
  • The Hundred
  • Frog and Circles
  • Overhead

Now you've got 2 additional exercises to get ready for the Overhead.

Option 2: The Order of the Universe

Joe Pilates has given us a roadmap to success for the Overhead.

Let's work the preceding exercises Footwork, the Hundred and Frog and Circles (if you choose to include them) to our best advantage.

These exercises have a common theme: Footwork, Hundred, Frog and Circles and the Overhead all work to warm up the lower body.

Remember the lower body is not just hips and legs. Our lower body hooks into the center all the way up in the upper stomach/middle back.

We'll need to work the Footwork, Hundred and Frog and Circles with this in mind.

The center needs to be sufficiently warmed up for success in the Overhead.


If you find it challenging to feel your center in the Footwork try using less springs. Often less springs will take the work out of the legs and concentrate it more in your center.

Another option is to work your Footwork on the High Chair or Wunda Chair.

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The OverheadThanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Changing the relationship to gravity will pinpoint and activate the entire lower body. Use the feedback you receive from the Chairs to better your Footwork on the Reformer.

The Hundred

Notice a familiar starting position for the Overhead

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

You'll begin your Hundred in the same way.

Surely this is not a coincidence…

In the Hundred too we are warming up (for a long while) the lower body. Use the straps to connect into your center deeply as you pump your arms.

Notice where you choose to reach your legs.

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Are they still connected into your center?

Or are they parked in an arbitrary spot just hanging off the pelvis like the photo below?

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

The objective of the Hundred is to find length in the back: truly warming up the body and readying the entire system for what's to come.

Use your leg position wisely. Your opposition of legs reaching out and stomach pulling in will aid you in lengthening the back and sufficiently warming up the body for the Overhead.

Frog and Circles

Frog and Circles offer another opportunity to stabilize the center and back. These exercises are not about your legs.

You are so much more than a pair of legs, yes?

Use your stomach well. Let the Frog and Circles challenge your center to be strong, solid and l-e-n-g-t-h-e-n-i-n-g.

Refining your Footwork and Hundred  – and perhaps including the Frog and Circles – will serve to transform your Overhead.

Option 3: The Truth about Short Spine Massage

The Reformer is well-named. It is reforming our movement.

Unlike the Mat, the Reformer gives us parameters which instruct the body. The parameters delineate the space and geometry within which we must accomplish the exercises.

Looking at the Overhead we find ourselves connected to the Reformer only through the handles.

Our lower body is free.

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

This is significant.

Now let's look at the Short Spine Massage – a common substitution for the Overhead at the top of the workout.

Thanks Order of the Pilates Exercises: The Overhead

Here we're connected to the straps on our feet and the carriage. These connections create a finite amount of space within which to complete this exercise.

With both ends of the body connected to the apparatus we are afforded a much deeper, juicy opening of the back.

However, it's hard to go super deep in this exercise so early in the workout.

Later in the workout it's able to work its magic.

To receive the fullest, yummiest benefit from the Short Spine Massage place it after the Short Box when you are in the middle of your Reformer workout and very warmed up.

But the straps are so helpful…

Another argument I hear in favor of placing the Short Spine Massage at the top of the workout is that the straps offer you assistance to complete the exercise.

But what if you're not ready to be hauled up there by the straps at the top of the workout?

Now you've got the Reformer pulling you into a place you might not be able to get to on your own. The Short Spine is actually more demanding early in the workout if you are not sufficiently warmed up and yet the exercise doesn't care and takes you there anyway, ready or not.

The Overhead, conversely, demands you to use your own power to get yourself up there.

It's either going to happen or it's not.

See what you think…

Use these tips to perfect all the exercises at the top of your Reformer workout. Find gems in these basic and familiar exercises and your Overhead will shine!

Questions about how to work deeper in these exercises?

Leave a comment below and I'm happy to help. 

Or Schedule a Skype lesson and let's work one-on-one.

The Value of 10 Fundamental Pilates Reformer Exercises

The Value of 10 Fundamental Pilates Reformer Exercises

On the mat we have the Basic 5.

Economical. Effective. An elegant sufficiency when you're short on time.

What about the Reformer?

Maybe I haven't got much time… but today I'd prefer the comfort of springs and straps instead of Mat exercises.

I propose 10 fundamental exercises on the Reformer:

Within this list there are actually more than 10 exercises.

Duly noted.

However, think of an exercise series as one continuous chain of movement. Let's allow our time constraint to present a prime opportunity to focus on flow of movement.

Places to go…people to see…

Keep up your pace and you should finish in about 15-20 minutes. Not too shabby.

Use these practice videos to perfect your Fundamental 10.

If the exercises are new to you use the more deliberately paced workout first. Then challenge yourself with the uptempo video.


Deliberate Pace:

Brisk Pace:

Using just the Fundamental 10 will prepare you for the larger Pilates Reformer repertoire to come. Even advanced Pilates exercises will rely on skills you'll learn with these fundamentals.

Remember our mantra?

The Value of 10 Fundamental Pilates Reformer Exercises

How many minutes does it take to feel awesome?

Perfect your fundamentals and report back!

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

for Joy

Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in the 12th century and has had a profound cultural influence.

“The aim of Zen is to achieve sudden enlightenment through meditation in a seated posture, usually under the guidance of a teacher and often using paradoxical statements to transcend rational thought.”

OMG that's Pilates!

As a new Pilates student, the Stomach Massage Series is among the first exercises you'll learn on the Reformer.

If you're in the habit of using the names of the exercises in teaching them to clients, you know what a potential disappointment this series is with its use of the word “massage.”

Most people at least get a chuckle at the name.


Oh you'll have to work for it.

The Stomach Massage Series is a wonderful opening and lifting of the back of the body. You'll use the 4 exercises of this series to prepare you for huge amounts of lifting to come on the Short Box.

You've really got it all here: opening and lengthening of the entire back of the body, a brisk tempo to give you a steady rhythm to build stamina. This one moves!


In each of the 4 exercises in this series the stomach must be fiercely involved with every move.

  • Stomach in: press the carriage out.
  • Stomach in: reach the heels away.
  • Stomach in and lift: lift the heels up.
  • Stomach in and  lift: bring the carriage home.

This concentration of abdominal action results in a deep massage of our internal organs.

Those organs don't know how good they've got it.

The Stomach Massage Series repeats the action that we also see on the Mat with the Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull. I have previously described these two Mat exercises as “wind-relieving” for the same massage they offer our abdomen.

You know I'm dying to write a post about the myriad benefits the Pilates workout offers our digestive system…don't get me started.

The Stomach Massage Series:

SMS#1: Round

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

All the springs give support to this tall lifted curve. If you are sway-backed like me, this a wonderful daily opportunity to open up the low back, to see how lifted up and un-sinky you can be!

Perhaps, also like me, you have learned that the goal of this exercise – of the whole series really – is to be able to sit very close to the front edge of the carriage.

This may indeed be the ultimate goal of the exercise.


On this particular day with yourself or the body in front of you, you may find more success in the exercise by sitting a bit further back.

Find a spot where you can really have access to the lift up and out of the low back.

The springs should not sink you backward when you push out – and it is a lot of spring in this first exercise, so pick an advantageous location.

Keep your lift and back solid as your lower body is moving. Your head should not bob in the breeze… 🙁

It is in this first exercise that you'll set the tempo for the entire series. So get moving and then make sure to keep up with yourself!

SMS#2 Hands Back

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

Stomach Massage Series #2 gives you a support to find even more lift in your back.

But those hands are not for leaning, make no mistake. You can use them to push down to get your back to lift higher, but not to prop yourself up.

Think that your arms are connected to your back (because they are), not just to your shoulder.

If you are in doubt, just lift your hands off the shoulder rests a fraction of an inch and see what happens. You'll find out in a hurry what should be holding you up.

Pants Off Dance Off

It may come to pass that during this lovely Stomach Massage Series #2, you start to slide back on the carriage and your pants start to…well, come off.

Through the years I have heard a few theories about why this happens in this series and, more importantly, I've learned how to keep my pants on.


One former co-worker suggested that it's really your undergarments that are to blame for the de-pants-ing. If one were to go commando and workout it would no longer be a problem.

Uhm…and if this theory is an epic fail, then your ass just hangs out?

This is not a solution in my book.

And I did NOT test this thesis.

Keep your pants on!

“So why do my pants come off?”

I have heard teachers answer this questions numerous times thusly:

“If you use your stomach, your pants will stay on.”

While I do believe this to be true, it's not quite the whole story.

To work this exercise well (and avoid wardrobe mishaps) use this recipe for maintaining a well-fitting pant:

  • Press your feet firmly into the footbar.
  • Press your heels fiercely against one another.
  • Find your upper stomach and your seat. Use them to push into the footbar and move the carriage.
  • If you can work primarily in the powerhouse (stomach and seat) and less in the legs, you'll have a great chance of keeping your pants on.
  • Give it a go!

SMS#3: Reach

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

Look Ma, no hands!

Now you'll find out how just how much support the Reformer afforded you. Here you must be just as lifted in your back without holding onto the carriage AT ALL.

The lower body retains its brisk and connected pace throughout the series and now it's all you've got.

See if you can keep your lift and fight against the carriage to stay up, up, UP as it closes. The carriage should never push you backward in this exercise.

Fight to stay upright.

SMS #4: Twist

Zen and the Art of the Stomach Massage Series

Ah look at that: a new element of twisting.

SMS#3 will get you totally dialed into the footbar. Keep the connection here and you'll be a twisting machine.

  • Keep your lower body straight on and centered and lift tall in your Twist.
  • Push into the footbar to help lift your back even taller.
  • Think of this as a multi-way stretch exercise with everything reaching out from the center: legs, top of head, fingertips stretching away from each other.
  • It can be your Star before the Star exercise!

The Order of the Universe

In the Order of the Reformer Exercises, the Stomach Massage Series fits neatly between the Long Stretch Series and the Tendon Stretch.

You'll see components here from the earlier part of your Reformer workout. The lower body movement echoes the Footwork series only now you also have the influence of the Rowing Series to lift you up into a seated position.

In the last part of the Stomach Massage Series you'll challenge yourself further with our first introduction of rotation: Twist.

Check out last week's post for more on pace and transitions in the Stomach Massage Series.

Thanks so much for reading!

Got some love for the Stomach Massage?

If you hate it with a passion leave your rant in a comment below 🙂

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