Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

The Thigh Stretch is a straightforward and elegant exercise.

We find it all over the Pilates studio on every apparatus.

I'm hopelessly in love with the Thigh Stretch on the Reformer, it's true.

You can also enjoy the Thigh Stretch on the Ladder Barrel, the Spine Corrector, Cadillac and Mat.

Everybody Thigh Stretch

Make no mistake about it, the straightforward exercises in Pilates – you know, the ones in which you have to hold yourself all together in a nice long straight line – are very challenging to do well.

It behooves us to get everything working to ensure an effective stretch and opening of the hips and thighs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone can just lean back and play thigh stretch for a bit.

But how to really get the job done?

You know the drill: low belly in and up, ribs in and working and the long downward reach of the tailbone to activate the under part of the seat. Awesome.

No biggie.

Who you callin' a “big chunk?”

Wait.

Let's think about the body.

Take a good look at the body.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

I do realize this dude is perfection, but I wanted to make it worth the look…

Back to business!

Unlike the eyelashes, the hips, thighs and buttocks play a significant part in connecting the lower body into the center.

Strong and potentially overdeveloped leg muscles can impact the low back, can impact the way the upper body sits on top of the waist, can impact the placement of your head on top of your body (where DOES that go anyway…).

With this in mind, perhaps it's not by accident that we find so many opportunities to find a Thigh Stretch exercise all around the Pilates studio.

Sage advice to me from Sandy Shimoda:

Never miss an opportunity to get a thigh stretch!

Yes, please.

I'm a leg man, myself…

The muscles of the legs can turn into the real workhorse of the body. The thighs, often the shoulders too, are big muscles that are right on the front of the body where we can see them. And use them.

A lot.

In my experience both as a teacher and a practitioner with a gymnastic background, the thighs and the low back can impact one another greatly.

Tight hips and thighs often come along with a tight low back.

I use the Thigh Stretch often as a touchstone exercise.

I can use the verticality here to help with other similarly shaped exercises like Shoulder Bridge on the Mat, Rolling Stomach Massage on the Cadillac, Chest Expansion anywhere, Swan, etc…

You get the picture.

The hips can often be difficult to parse out. How much seat to use to not get all clench-y and pushy with the hips? And old habits die hard…

Luckily we have the Thigh Stretch and our dear old friend:

Thigh Stretch

Thigh Stretch is a great teacher of length actually. It is a huge boon to your backbends for sure.

What is a backbend other than a big ol' thigh stretch?

You see what I mean.

Use length from your Thigh Stretch and you'll give your Backbend a strong support from the seat and lower body. What a nice treat for your back!

Thigh Stretch is a huge component of every Backbend in the Pilates Method.

Wanna better backbend? It's only a Spine Corrector away…

But for now, let's start simply.

Ladder Barrel

The most basic version of the Thigh Stretch is done simply standing at the Ladder Barrel.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

You've got to love the Pilates Method: how else would we know that stretching the thighs is a good stomach exercise?

The Ladder Barrel provides support for any individual, even the very tight-thighed ones. Adjust the placement of your foot/leg on the barrel to get the perfect stretch for your body.

It's really a lovely place for the Thigh Stretch.

Cadillac

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Thigh Stretch on the Cadillac is a wonderful precursor to the Reformer and Mat versions.

Here you've got help from the springs and a stable non-moving surface to get your act together.

All-in-all a lovely place to begin your Thigh Stretch journey.

Add in a little Chest Expansion here as well and you have the tools necessary to prepare you to work on these same 2 exercises on the Reformer.

Spine Corrector

Don't forget the Thigh Stretch inherent in the Spine Corrector exercises Leg Circles, Scissors, Bicycle, Shoulder Bridge. These exercises are a great place to find length over the hump of the corrector.

Even if you don't want to get so fancy so quickly, you can enjoy just a bit of inversion with a simple Thigh Stretch.

It's another great way to get at the lower body connection just like you did standing at the Ladder Barrel.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Most importantly, the Thigh Stretch exercise, as well as the more elaborate exercises done here, provide us with feedback from the Spine Corrector.

Often a template to inform the back position, the Spine Corrector gives us information about how successful we are in opening the hips, thighs and low back.

The ribs and low back must be fastened into the apparatus to ensure maximum stretch and opening of the front of the body.

‘Cause then you'll take it vertical!

Reformer

The Reformer version of Thigh Stretch is your preparation for the next exercise, (you guessed it) the Backbend.

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

However, the Reformer version of the Thigh Stretch begins just as simply as its Cadillac counterpart.

Keep the body as one solid piece of steel as you lift back into the exercise. No wiggling!

The moving carriage and strong springs (3!) up the challenge on the Reformer and dare you to lean back and just pull with your arms.

Don't be seduced! It is not a backbend yet!

Connect your low stomach to the straps in your hands: reach the straps out and lift the stomach in and up in opposition.

The spring will not move easily but be patient and keep your position strong.

Be Your Perfect Z

Imagine the length one must cultivate in the Thigh Stretch as the shape of the letter ‘Z'.

The fingertips and toes are reaching away in opposition (hey there's your 2-way stretch!) and the body must lift up ever taller.

Give it a try.

Dare I say 3-way stretch?

You may be surprised by how much your toes reaching away can make your bottom wake up and do something.

To quote the amazing Karen Frischmann:

This workout brought to you by the letter ‘Z'!

Mat

Now let's look at the ultimate version of the Thigh Stretch, sans any help at all, done on the Mat.

Yay!

See the ‘Z'?

Think like a Sculptor: The Pervasiveness of the Thigh Stretch

Jay Grimes used to encourage us to sit all the way back to our heels.

In the past he promised a free dinner to those of us who could go all the way back and return successfully.

We must be getting better as there has been no talk of a free meal as of late 🙁

You know how I feel about food and Pilates…

and given the incentive of free food…

Yes!

The goal is to keep your position solid and go back as much as possible.

Just remember that though this may be the goal, it may not be today's goal.

Patience, friends.

And many joyous Thigh Stretches to you!

Got an exercise that shows up again and again in your workouts?

Tell us all about it in a comment below.

Pilates Mat Exercise #25: Side Kick Series

Pilates Mat Exercise #25: Sick Kick SeriesThis one has been a long time coming.

Initially not even close to being a beloved exercise of mine, the Side Kick Series can deliver rich rewards with diligent practice. I'm very surprised to admit that I'm now a big fan.

Nope, I'm more of a stalker actually, obsessed with every moment I spend with this challenging series.

I began studying at Vintage Pilates in early 2011, and the Side Kick Series remains as one of the biggest revelations in my Pilates practice. Current students of The Work are all in agreement. Just like all the other exercises that precede it, the Side Kick Series is not really about your leg.

Let me say that again.

The Side Kick Series is not about your leg.

Amazingly simple, isn't it?

Just relax your leg and connect it to the center of your body, your stomach, your powerhouse.

What could be more straightforward?

*Sigh*

In my first year of studying the Mat exercises way back in 2000, I had dozens of excuses why I didn't have time to include the Side Kick Series in my homework between classes.

“Side Kick Series takes forever, I don't have time to do them.”

Yeah, right.

Lame-o excuse #57: “I don't have time.”

Clearly I did not understand how the Side Kick Series would benefit me (and my tight hips and thighs and weaker side…duh…). Yet I could respect the candidness of the Teaser: it either happened or it didn't and I used my stomach, so beautifully simple.

Or so I thought…but I digress, again distracted by the bright, shiny object that is the Teaser.

Side Kicks, right…

Side Kicks, however, remained shrouded in mystery, in a dark Pilates haze of one-sided-ness and reminiscent of exercises in other disciplines, yet not quite that either.

Those are the hardest exercises, I find. The ones that are so similar to something else it's misleading as they are often completely different. 

“No ‘Sexy on the Beach!'”

Thank you Romana for frowning upon lounge-y behavior, our heads casually propped up on our arm.

The Side Kick Series is another ‘first' on the Mat – really the first and only time in the Mat series where you will work one side at a time while lying on your side.

Gone is the luxury of lying on your back or your front. And you must multitask! Ach!

So how best to tackle the slippery Side Kick Series?

1. The Order of the Universe

Pilates Mat Exercise #25: Side Kick Series

I find several (if not ALL) of the exercises that precede the Side Kicks to be indispensable. And for me, the most important being the One Leg Circle.

Of course, the One Leg Circle is another exercise that can be at first misleading with that leg circling away up there. But don't be distracted by flashy moving parts. Stay grounded in your center and make this a stomach exercise.

What?

Yes, one side at a time, just like the Side Kick Series – except for the whole ‘lying-on-your-side-thing' you can learn to activate your standing leg. The leg on the Mat must be encouraged to do just as much work if not more than that spectacular circling leg that has so captivated you.

Lately I am also enamored of the Jackknife and the help it provides with connecting the lower body into the center. Perhaps I like the Jackknife as a help since you get to have both sides working together, always a plus.

Let's face it, you're coerced into using your stomach and seat to lift your hips up into the air and control your way down to the mat. Why abandon all that when you lie on your side? It just doesn't make sense 🙂

But give it a try. Find your control and connection in the Jackknife and then see if you can keep all that same stuff when you begin your Side Kicks. I bet it will at least give you a different look at lying on your side.

2. Vertically Speaking

Pilates Mat Exercise #25: Sick Kick SeriesFight off a severe case of ‘sexy on the beach' and take a look at this exercise standing up.

Yes, to perfect your Side Kicks, why not take that ‘standing' leg and literally stand on it?

Without the loungey lying down position, you can feel your stomach reach all the way to your foot standing on the floor.

  • Push into the floor and grow tall first.
  • Lift your belly button in and up as though it lifts all the way to the nape of your neck.
  • Don't get any shorter as you reach one leg forward. Reach fully into both legs.
  • Continue to reach as you move your leg a bit behind you.
  • If your trunk wants to wiggle forward and backward to counter your leg movement, resist!!

Please note: I am using this standing exercise simply as a teaching tool to find connection, not as an alternative or variation of the Side Kicks exercise.

3. Cadillac to the Rescue!

Pilates Mat Exercise #25: Sick Kick SeriesLet this exercise be your reward for wanting to perfect your Side Kick Series in the first place. Leave it to the Cadillac to save your a$$ every time…or at least find it.

Now you'll “stand in the spring” using all the information you gleaned from your previous standing experience.

Springs make life a little bit more lovely, don't they?

What's going on? Now the exercise is even more about my leg!

You've got that spring on but how is this helping?

Remember you've got several choices of springs at your disposal. At the very least you've got “leg” springs and “arm” springs.

Do what you have to do – if you have the heavier leg spring on and you just feel like you are fighting the spring and it's hard to feel work in your center, then by all means change it up and use a lighter spring.

Which spring??!

For now, I am using the lighter “arm” spring so I can especially connect to my center on my weaker more challenged side. I will gain more strength and coordination overall by working in this manner.

At some point it will be time to take what I've learned/strengthened with the lighter spring and challenge it further with the heavier spring. All the while working more efficiently from the muscles of my center.

The spring doesn't matter.

What has that spring done for me lately?

Helped you find your butt and your stomach? Relaxed your thigh, for the love of God?

Then that's the spring to keep. For now. Not forever…but perhaps for a little while.

The yummiest part about using the Side Leg Spring to better your Side Kick Series is the control you need to reach the leg from front to back – not just the arrival at the end points of your pendulum. The continual reach along the entire arc (your journey from where the leg reaches front until it arrives at the back plus your return trip) is what you seek.

Total control of the spring = total control of your muscles.

Control + ology, baby. Let's study up.

See how these 3 tips work for you. Share your success in a comment below.

Now go work out. You know you want to.

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The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)The Pilates Method is full of surprises. 14 years into the method as a practitioner and teacher, I still love the giddy surprise of a new exercise. One I've never seen before. Even better is a familiar exercise done in a new-to-me-way.

For example, a few years ago I learned that in addition to the Breast Stroke on the Reformer and its reverse, there also exists a combination, a combo, of the two.

My first thought – There's a combo? – was quickly followed by my next – Oh, of course there is…

It's not like we don't do that in other exercises right?

Swan on the Cadillac

Swan with Push Thru Bar on the Cadillac is a challenging exercise.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Very. Challenging.

My body left to its own devices just wants to hang out all over the place in an unsupported arch.

*sigh*

The version with the arms straight has been a great help in connecting my arms into my back and (!) using my stomach.

A fine idea, won't you agree?

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

But let me back up.

Private Lives

Watching Jay Grimes teach private lessons at conferences and intensives is always educational. And frequently full of surprises.

Surprise #1: Swan with Push Thru Bar with no spring!

OMG, whaaaaat?

Surprise #2: Swan with Push Thru Bar with no spring with one arm!

Lordy, Lordy.

Well I have to try that…

Later I mentioned to Jay that it was my first time to see the Swan with no spring and/or with one arm. I loved his answer:

“You should try it. It would be good for you.”

Okay, let's get out my loooong list of exercises that are good for me and add it to the list…

But man, that guy is always right.

I don't know what I don't know

I took Jay's advice and began to include Swan with Push Thru Bar, the 2-arm and 1-arm versions after my daily mat workout. This exercise proved to be truly magical. Without that enabling spring, the exercise essentially incapacitated my arms and shoulders.

I had to find the right muscles (the stomach, back and lower body) to even complete the exercise at all. With 2 arms. The one-arm version was even more fantastic and provided so much feedback as to what was (or was not) going on on each side.

Several months pass…

Did I mention that I like a challenge?

What I didn't know as I continued to practice Swan with the Push Thru bar each day was that it was also helping my Swan Dive.

Surprise #3!

Mind you – it's not really a surprise, per se, that the Swan on the Cadillac helped me with my Swan Dive on the Mat.

I hear you. I know the apparatus provides assistance to better your Mat exercises. Yes. It's the whole premise behind the full studio system of the Pilates Method. I completely agree.

But sometimes you don't know it's happening to you until it does.

Way back last year in my post on the Rocking exercise I intimated that the Swan Dive, technically a rocking exercise, deserved its own special post.

Well friends, it's time.

Let's Dive in

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Swan Dive is the ultimate version of the Swan exercise done on the Mat. Once you understand that the rocking action must be generated from the stomach, it still may take years to create a long line of the body without a break in the middle.

A long line! Yes, our old friend length to the rescue – AGAIN.

And there's no time to micromanage in the Swan Dive, one must simply prepare and go for it…grrr….

Robbed of the ability to examine one can only reflect afterwards. Good news and bad news. Bad news for me, good news for the Pilates Method and moving. Gotta suck it up, I get it.

My standby method to execute the Swan Dive?

Hurl myself at the mat with a will of iron.

A hurl and a fling, actually…in succession. Hurl, fling…hurl, fling…hurl, fling…am I diving yet?

Oh you have to start somewhere.

I can dive with a little help from my friends

I am a visual learner. More often than not I've got an image in my head of what I believe is happening during the exercise.

However, sometimes my mind gets the wrong idea.

Uh-oh.

Picked up from an old correction that's no longer valid, or even the name of the exercise – Swan Dive – my mind is not quite on the right track. As I worked to refine my signature Swan Hurl, I happened to see my lovely colleague and classmate Samantha have her lesson on the Mat.

Samantha is a different body type than I am – she has more flexibility in places that I have stiffness, so it was wonderful to see what rhythms and shapes are possible during the Swan Dive, that I had not happened upon, shall we say…

My tactic was to hurl and use force to complete the exercise, while Samantha had such a light and delicate approach to the exercise that made it look effortless. And cute. And bouncy. And for God's sake it looks like a rocking exercise.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Oh, that's what I'm trying to do…

I should also mention that I'm a really good mimic.

So for a while I just pretended I was Samantha.

No. More. Hurling.

Another way I found to get me out of the hurling habit was to use the Spine Corrector. If you've not tried the Swan Dive perched on the crest of the Spine Corrector, hang on to your powerhouse. Nothing will tell you more quickly if you have control of your own destiny than an impending face-plant on the Mat.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

As you find the length (where have I heard that before?) atop the Spine Corrector you will rid yourself of any forceful habits. It simply won't work here. The Spine Corrector Swan will give you a more long and reaching rhythm for the exercise that you can then carry to the Mat.

The Shape of All Things Pilates

In a series of posts on Pilatesology I mention that the Barrels can be used to find the shape of the upper back that you'll need for the Swan on the Mat.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

While this is true, and helpful, I found out exactly how much Swan with Push Thru Bar was providing the same assistance in a different way.

One day it occurred to me mid-Swan on the Mat that I could replicate the shape that the angle of the Push Thru Bar was teaching me. Suddenly it was not as mysterious a position. My body remembered. Surprise!

You gotta love Pilates. So versatile. A place for everything and everything in its place.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

This is my favorite spectator Swan Dive, Pilates bestie extraordinaire, Amy Kellow.

If you've not been to her Classical Pilates Convention, you don't know what kind of fantastic Pilates geek-fest you are missing. Plus lots of opportunity to perfect your Swan Dive!

Thanks so much Amy, Samantha and of course the cameo appearance of Karen Frischmann for your help with this post (and with my Swan Dive).

Dive in! Share your strategies and successes in a comment below.

Pilates Projects: 10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake

Welcome to the first post of my new blog series: Pilates Projects.

In the Pilates method, the mastery of a complex exercise can require strategy. What luck!

We've got a whole system of perfect tools for the job.

February 10, 2013 began the Chinese New Year. The Year of the Snake. Yes, I am late, but I've still got half of 2013 left to strengthen my Snake. I had best get busy.

Holy frijoles if we ever have a Year of the Twist. Yeesh.

Build your Snake well and the fireworks will come.

The Snake (also referred to as Snake/Twist to include the next exercise in the series) is a complex exercise originally done on the Reformer. It requires skill, great control and coordination of the body and mind. And by mind I mean the desire and will to do this exercise. One must want to do the Snake, it's not really gonna show up on its own…

10 exercises + 5 apparatus = 1 Awesome Snake on Reformer.

Often one or more components of an intricate exercise may create a roadblock to the exercise. For this reason I have chosen 10 exercises with which to closely examine, refine and breakdown this exercise into more manageable parts. The better you become at these 10 exercises the better and stronger your Snake will be. When one exercise gets better, everything gets better.

The Warmup

I suggest doing at least a 30 minute warm up if you plan to work just these exercises before applying them to the Snake. Another plan would be to complete a Reformer workout of a similar duration which may or may not include the Snake, then work the 10 exercises, perhaps comparing your first Snake to the one afterward. See how you do.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer1. Reformer: Up Stretch

Up Stretch is an exercise you most likely have been working for some time. It is straightforward in its symmetry and provides the same lower body action as the Snake. The stomach must reach all the way to the feet on the initiation of the Up Stretch and the lift at the end is exactly what you need to bring the in the carriage at the end of the Snake. The legs are on the moving part of the apparatus which feels more helpful to push into than the position of the feet on the stationary footbar in the Snake. This is a lower body exercise – and it can help you to find the lower body initiation in the Snake as well.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer2. Reformer: Up Stretch Combo

This challenging variation is exactly what you will be doing in your Snake with the exception of the one-sided-ness. You are getting the lift of the Arched Back shape in this combo and the scoop of the return. You also get some “help” here as you push into the moving part of the carriage to train the lower body for the Snake. In the Snake you must push into the stationary footbar and not be seduced into using your arms to push out the carriage. Best to work this one well first before even attempting the Snake.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer3. Reformer: Elephant

Oh Elephant, is there anything you can’t do? One of the first Reformer exercises you learn, the Elephant never ceases to be at once helpful and challenging. The Round shape of the Elephant is essential to perfect your control and return the carriage all the way home in the Snake.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer4. Cadillac: Arm Springs

The Snake requires back strength to control the upper body on a moving carriage. The shoulders can otherwise be in a precarious position as the body opens up in space above the carriage. Both Arm Springs (lying down on the Cadillac) and the next exercise can help to connect the arms and shoulders into the back.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer5. Cadillac: Back Connection with the Roll Back Bar

This exercise is essentially the first part of the Chest Expansion exercise. The roll back bar is attached to the standing arm spring hooks at the end of the Cadillac. With straight arms press the bar down and toward you. HOLD. Using just this first maneuver you have a terrific vantage point of the fingers, hands, wrists and elbows as you work the bar to connect the arms into the back. Place your hands just as you would place them on the footbar on the reformer: long wrists, all the fingers squeezing the bar evenly and thumbs on the same side as the fingers. Make sure the heels of the hands have contact with the bar. Let the squeezing of the fingers help you anchor your shoulders into the sides of your back. Reach the bar down toward the floor as much as you can – and remember it’s not how far you stand away from the bar that matters. Stand as close as you need to get the connection. As you push down on the bar use the feeling of the extended spring and your force pushing down to lift your stomach in and up in opposition. Take that help from the spring while you can get it.

Now for the part that’s like the Snake: as you return the bar stay connected to your back – the arms reach out to return the bar just as they reach when you start to move the carriage in the Snake. Here you can practice keeping the shoulders less active and get the reach and lift from your back. True this is not in extension like the snake, but well, enjoy it while you can.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer6. Spine Corrector: Swimming

Now you’re going to take the connection you found in the previous exercise and add the element of back extension. Use your oppositional reach of arm and leg to create a strong diagonal of strength through the front of the body. Reach your right arm away from your reaching left leg and vice versa. Lengthen your whole body along the back and stomach.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer7. Wunda Chair: Pull Up

Similar to the Elephant on the Reformer, the Pull Up will give you the necessary lift to return the carriage when performing the Snake. You can even use your bottom to push into the pedal as it comes up. In fact I highly recommend it.

 

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer8. Wunda Chair: Pull Up with 1 Leg

Here you can make your Pull Up skills more closely resemble those you’ll need for the one-sided Snake. Even with one foot hugging close behind the other one and off the pedal, squeeze the legs together and again find the bottom.

 

 10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer9. Wunda Chair: Side Pull Up

Building on the previous 2 Pull Up exercises you can now get more of the feeling of the Snake with your whole foot (Yay, the heel!) now able to push into the pedal. Try not to let the pedal push you up, control the pedal by pushing into it with the stomach, the bottom, the heel. Keep the free leg in the crossed-in-front-of-the-ankle position, again to approximate the position of the legs in the Snake. Each of these 3 Pull Up exercises illuminates the Snake in a slightly different way, so I like to use them all.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer10. Mat: Double Leg Pull

What more can I say? We only have one exercise. Can’t be Snake-worthy without a strong center, the two-way stretch out of it and the breath. Arm yourself with the Double Leg Pull as your mantra and move, move, move!

And now…To the Snake I Say!

 

Now you have practiced your scales and you are prepared and nimble for the Beethoven Sonata that is the Snake on the Reformer. The skills have been built into your body to be at the ready for this tricky maneuver. Now I have to quote Jay Grimes: “Take your time. Enjoy it up there!”

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer

Stay tuned!

Upcoming Pilates Projects include: Control Push Up Reverse, the Star and the Elephant. Plus accompanying videos via Pilatesology.

Leave a comment below to suggest your favorite fancy exercise to be featured in this series. 

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