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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  1. Andrea I love this blog. For a very long time I did not understand this series and neither did my clients. However in the last little while, I have been really paying attention to my feet and suddenly this series came alive for me. Then I was able to pass that onto my clients. They said they really never got it before but now! ….well it has taken on a whole new meaning. I have come to love this series for the lift you must get from it to help for what is to come. And it’s helped so much with the short box series, thanks for your thoughts….they are dead on.

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      I agree, the connection of the lower body and feet into the footbar is a huge element to find in these exercises – real game changer! Good for you – I’m so glad to hear that you now love this series – me too. It just comes alive and you can feel your whole body working together.

      Thanks also for your kind words on the post 🙂 And keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for posting this, Andrea. And dedicating it to me–sweet! I\\\’ll think of you every time I AM, and be a bit more uplifted, both figuratively and physically. The ending I learned differs slightly: after the twists, feet remain on the footbar, which is held closed by the work of the legs and seat. The arms are raised forward again and circle three times in each direction. Then, arms reach out to the sides, again circling, while staying tall and lifted and keeping the carriage firming closed. Finally, the arms reach to the ceiling and each foot comes off and to the floor. The practitioner then comes to standing, hopefully without any telltale sound of the carriage closing!

    • Joy,

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your perfect comment 🙂

      Yes, I too learned the ending to the Stomach Massage Series that you describe. I am so happy you included it here. I learned it more as an option/embellishment/advanced extra for those that need it, which is why I did not include it in the post. I use it all the time for myself and really love the challenge of it.

      I may have to update this post at some point to include it…as I feel it is very important and can be a lovely challenge and moment of squeezing the juice out! I am so glad you enjoyed the post – I thank you for the inspiration as well! Cheers to you!

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